Thousands gather at Lake Eola to remember Pulse victims

Final ceremony held outside nightclub Monday night

ORLANDO, Fla. – Approximately 10,000 people huddled around the rainbow-hued Lake Eola bandshell Monday night to remember the 49 lives lost and the dozens of others who were injured during the Pulse nightclub massacre exactly one year ago.

"Orlando Love: Remembering Our Angels"  was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. but rain pushed the start time back to 7:48 p.m. The event began with local actress Peg O'Keefe performing a monologue from “O-Town: Voices from Orlando. “

She took listeners to June 11, 2016, one day before the attack, and highlighted  groups and people who would become key players in the community involvement and support in the weeks that followed the mass shooting.

“By this time tomorrow, those institutions will be tested in a way their founders never dreamed. They will rise,” O'Keefe said.

The Center; The Venue; the Zebra Coalition; Orlando Regional Medical Center Dr. Joshua Corsa who wore blood-soaked shoes for months until every Pulse survivor was released from the hospital; Greg Zanis, who drove 1,200 from Illinois to Orlando to deliver 49 wooden crosses; and Ben Johansen, who handed out thousands of rainbow ribbons to people who wanted to show their solidarity after the tragedy, were a few of the entities named.

O'Keefe's monologue ended with a poignant statement that still rings true.

“Find the ones you love and hold them close. After tomorrow morning, O-Town will never be quite the same,” she said.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, invocation and an introduction, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer took the stage to further exemplify the love and kindness seen in the Central Florida community. 

[PICTURES: Central Florida remembers Pulse one year later]

He reminded attendees that the story of Pulse isn't about a deranged killer who opened fire at scores of innocent clubgoers, but a story about a community coming together to unite against evil.

“We owe it to the victims of Pulse and their families. It is our shared mission and it is my hope that when we look back at Pulse a year from now, five years from now, 10 years, that will be the legacy that we work on  together to create – a legacy of love that always wins over hate,” Dyer said.

Before ending his speech, Dyer reminded Orlandoans that it is their responsibility to make sure that the sense of togetherness doesn't fizzle out over time.

“This One Orlando ideal cannot be static. It can’t be frozen in time around this tragedy. It has to be a living, growing ideal. It has to be an ideal that we as a community live up to every single day,” Dyer said.

Dyer's message segued into a similar sentiment from Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who was next to speak at the event. 

She said that she hopes the actions of the Central Floridians in the past year have inspired others across the world to abandon their discriminatory ideologies and embrace the sense of inclusivity that has radiated in the region.

“Our hope comes from remembering that profound sense of solidarity and community that emerged from every corner of Central Florida,” Jacobs said.

That same hope has kept Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma fueled for the past 365 days.

“It’s been almost a year since we stood here in this exact spot. Even though my brain knows that it’s been a year, I can’t say that my heart does,” Poma said.

She appeared on stage surrounded by survivors and Pulse employees, some of whom have been involved with the gay nightclub since it opened 12 years ago,  who stood together with arms linked.

Poma reiterated her mission to construct a permanent memorial that will forever commemorate the lives lost and the city’s resilience. 

“My mission is to make sure that a memorial that honors all of our affected and reflects what Pulse and every gay bar means to the world is constructed,” Poma said. “I said it six months ago and I’ll say it again tonight: Where do we go from here? Forward. We go forward.”

When her remarks ended, the Pulse family that flanked her on stage performed a rendition of “Lean on Me,” featuring survivor Jose Navarro on cello.

The remainder of the two-hour commemoration was filled with musical tributes, including original arrangements written specifically in honor of the lives lost and families fractured by the tragedy. 

Toward the conclusion of the ceremony, the names of all 49 victims were recited one by one. An angel stood on stage for each victim as his or her picture was displayed and a bell was rung in memory.  

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