'I just feel like I have to be here:' Pulse survivors attend remembrance events

Thousands gather to mark 1 year since mass shooting

By Nadeen Yanes - Reporter, Adrienne Cutway - Web Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. - Among the thousands of people attending events to mark one year since the mass shooting, were some of the survivors who escaped the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016.

For other survivors, it was too difficult to visit the site where their lives were nearly taken a year ago.

Those who did revisit the Orlando gay night club on Monday said they were touched by the outpouring of love and support.

"I'm a little off. I'm not going to lie, it's a little hard to be here. I've only been here a couple of times since it happened," survivor Jeff Xavier said Monday. "Every time we drive by, there is only a handful of people here. Ten people, 15 people, to see this many people and the street blocked off, it's pretty big to see all this support and outpouring of love." 

Xavier hid in the bathroom for three hours suffering from four gunshot wounds before first responders rescued him from the club. He said it's hard for him to believe it's been a year since that night.

"It definitely flew by; I definitely did not expect to be here a year later. I would expect to be in a bed or in a wheelchair. I did not think I was going to be standing up and here one year later. It didn't cross my mind. I didn't think it was possible, but here I am and I'm being as strong as I can," Xavier said.

[PICTURES: Pulse remembrance events]

As someone with a rare blood type who relied on donations from more than 40 people after the attack, he was particularly thankful on Monday to all the people who donated blood.

"To be here and meet some of the new donors that are taking part and doing what they got to do, what they felt for the community, I think that's amazing, because they are heroes. They are our heroes," Xavier said. "Without the blood, the doctors wouldn't have been able to do much for me."

Jose Ramirez was with a group of friends at Pulse when the DJ turned off the music and he heard a barrage of gunfire. The noise never stopped as Ramirez escaped through a fence that had been kicked in and ran to his car parked a street over.

"Like literally, he's emptying out a magazine, empty out a magazine, reloading on and on and on, and that sound will stay with me for the rest of my life," Ramirez said.

Twelve of his friends died in the attack. Since then, the memories of that night have made it difficult for him to attend large events or spend time in loud, noisy places. He said he's continuing to heal.

"I'm a lot better than what I was before," Ramirez said. "I will never feel safe again in a huge crowd and especially not here. At the end of the day, I'm different. When I go to a new place, the first thing I do is (think) where are my exits, what's my exit strategy, am I safe here?"

Orlando Police Officer Alison Clarke could hear gunshots over the radio when she and other first responders from across the region were called to the club. She and other officers set up a triage center for victims behind Einstein Bros. Bagels on South Orange Avenue.

"There was no hesitation. We just ran and helped the first people we could come in contact with. I can't believe it's only been a year; it seems like yesterday," Clarke said. "The community has demonstrated how strong our community is. Orlando is known as a transient destination, but I think in the aftermath of this, it's shown the world how close our community is; how diverse it is."

She said that night was difficult on her and other officers, but the support she has received in the past year reminds her of why she became a first responder in the first place.

"It's always been wonderful as a gay female to work for my department, and for my department to embrace this community as much as they have this past year, it's very surreal," Clarke said.

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