‘Love over hate:’ Survivors share message of ongoing healing during Pulse remembrance

onePULSE CEO Barbara Poma, survivors, first responders honor 49 angels

ORLANDO, Fla. – A remembrance ceremony Saturday evening marked five years since the Pulse shooting with remarks from survivors of the tragedy and community leaders.

On June 12, 2016, a lone gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub just after 2 a.m., killing 49 people and injuring at least 50 others. The massacre happened on Latin night at the gay nightclub, and many of the victims were members of the LatinX, Black and LGBTQ communities.

To read about all 49 people taken on that day click here.

Because of the outpouring of support following the tragedy, every June 12 is now known as Orlando United Day and the week leading up to it is known as Remembrance Week.

The final event Saturday evening happened at the Pulse Interim Memorial, which is the site of the former nightclub, in the form of a remembrance ceremony.

The ceremony at the memorial was by invitation only for Pulse families, survivors, first responders and ceremony participants, but the full ceremony was broadcast online.

The event was played live at the Dr. Phillips Center’s Frontyard Festival. The front lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts became a temporary memorial after the shooting in 2016 where mourners laid flowers and left notes for the victims. Former President Barack Obama and then Vice President Joe Biden also visited DPAC, leaving a wreath of white roses.

At the Dr. Phillips Center Frontyard Festival, the Orlando Gay Chorus performed as supporters began arriving to watch the livestream.

A couple holds hands at the Dr. Phillips Center Frontyard Festival event in Orlando ahead of the Pulse 5-year Remembrance ceremony on June 12, 2021. (WKMG 2021)

The ceremony opened with prayers in English and Spanish and then Orlando singer/songwriter Jabari Clay sang “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.”

“I won’t let them break me down to dust. I know that there’s a place for us. For we are glorious,” Clay sang. “I am brave, I am bruised. I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.”

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings delivered remarks recalling how they learned of the events that morning.

Demings, who was the Orange County sheriff in 2016, described approaching the scene on South Orange Avenue that morning and encountering an Orlando Police sergeant and an Orange County deputy sheriff.

“When I looked, those two individuals in their eyes, I saw something that I had only seen in the eyes of law enforcement officers on some very rare occasions, I saw fear,” he said. “I saw pain. I saw blank stares.”

The mayors were followed by onePULSE Foundation CEO and Pulse Nightclub owner Barbara Poma who spoke about opening the club in honor of her late brother, who died from HIV complications during the AIDS epidemic.

[PHOTOS: Orlando marks 5 years since Pulse shooting with remembrance events]

“For some, Pulse was their family,” Poma said. “Pulse is the testament to the strong spirit and resilience of this Orlando community. And while this year, our five-year remembrance is considered a landmark year. We all know that time does not necessarily mean we have healed.”

The onePULSE Foundation established after the terror attack will open a museum and memorial with the goal of educating the public.

“Our goal is to make real change to defeat hate,” Poma said.

News 6 anchor Julie Broughton introduced shooting survivor Brandon Wolf, who has now become a nationally recognized gun safety and LGBTQ civil rights advocate, testifying in front of U.S. Congress about his experience. Wolf lost two friends, Christopher Andrew “Dru” Leinonen, 32, and Juan Guerrero, 22, in the shooting.

“Until that moment I thought heartbreak was just a cliche until my heart lay in 1,000 pieces at my feet having lost the anchor in my life,” Wolf said. “And I didn’t know how to survive anymore without my best friends.”

Wolf has devoted his life to fighting for a world Leinonen would be proud of but he says he can’t do it alone.

“You see a world that Dru would be proud of is one that values everyone. It’s a world that protects trans kids and doesn’t turn them into a political football. It’s a world where the beautiful Black trans women in our communities are celebrated while they live just not just memorialized when they die,” Wolf said. “A world that chooses peace over violence. It’s a world that chooses unity over division and love over hate. The world that Dru would be proud of is a world we can all be proud of.”

Orlando Police Deputy Chief James Young and shooting survivors Neema Bahrami also shared their memories before the ceremony concluded with family members of the victims taking turns reading the names of all the 49 fallen angels.

Re-watch the full News 6 special for the 5-year remembrance below:

People flocked to the Pulse site throughout the week, including on Saturday.

Sicilaly Santiago-Leon was there leaving a string of flowers in memory of her cousin, Luis “Danny” Wilson-Leon. She said the 37-year-old was more of a brother to her. She wanted to make sure the memorial looked presentable for him, “what he would like.”

Five years ago on this day, Santiago-Leon ran to the nightclub after hearing about the shooting, looking for her cousin. She waited all day to learn he was among the dead.

“Just driving here, it was hard because it does bring back it triggers certain memories when I did come here that day to look for him,” Santiago-Leon said.

She remembers her cousin making her family laugh and described him as a “selfless empathetic” person.

“I don’t want him to be forgotten because I don’t want this to happen again,” Santiago-Leon said.

Santiago-Leon was among the family members who read off the names of the victims at the conclusion of the ceremony Saturday.

Flags were flown at half staff Saturday in honor of the victims at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request, and President Joe Biden announced he would sign legislation passed by the Senate last week to make the shooting site a national memorial.

Earlier in the day, church bells rang 49 times in Orlando and at 600 places of worship around the world to honor the victims.

The “49 Bells” movement was started in 2016 the day after the shooting at First United Methodist in downtown Orlando. Five years later the tradition carried on as all 49 victims’ names were read following each bell toll.