News 6 reporter recalls covering Pulse: ‘49 people dead? It must have been a mistake'

'As a member of Orlando's LGBTQ community, I knew Pulse'

By Erik Sandoval - Reporter

News 6 reporter Erik Sandoval

ORLANDO, Fla. - Editor's note: Journalist Erik Sandoval was among the first reporters to arrive at the scene of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016. We asked if he could share some words. Read on to hear about his experience, firsthand.

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When my phone rang in the middle of the night -- well, technically, early in the morning on June 12, 2016 -- I knew it couldn't be good news.

My room was dark, illuminated only by the caller ID on my phone, which read my boss' name.
I suddenly panicked.

You see, I had worked Saturday, which is one of my normal days off. I had been covering a campaign rally for then-candidate Donald Trump in Tampa. In my woozy state, I worried that I had made an error in my reporting -- an error so bad that it warranted a phone call past 2 a.m.

Tragically, that wasn't the case.

"Hello?" I answered.

"Good morning," my boss said at the other end of the call. "You are the only person who answered his phone, and I didn't want to ask you to work another day, but I have another nightclub shooting."

The first nightclub shooting had happened two days prior. "The Voice" contestant Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by a fan at the Plaza Theatre on Friday night.

"I'm up, I'm up," I told my boss. "What do you need me to do? Where am I going?"

"Pulse on South Orange Avenue," she responded.

Pulse.

I knew Pulse.

As a member of Orlando's LGBTQ community, I knew Pulse.

As a person who drove Orange Avenue on a frequent basis, I knew Pulse, with its large sign right at the sidewalk.

Certainly, the shooting was a domestic situation, I thought. 

No. That thought was proven wrong as I drove south on Orange Avenue, greeted by a swarm of Orlando police cars outside Orlando Regional Medical Center and a barricade blocking anyone from driving any farther south.

I saw people hugging and crying as they walked away from the barricade, while a police helicopter with search lights zoomed around the area.

I also spotted bomb-sniffing dogs roaming outside the hospital.

I saw our News 6 live van, met my photographer and we got ready to go live from the scene with very few details.

Orlando police were relaying all of the information to the media through the department's Twitter account, and at the time of my first live shot, all we knew was that there was a shooting at Pulse, and that authorities were treating it as a mass casualty event.

As I showed our viewers what we were seeing outside the hospital, we heard a big explosion come from the direction of Pulse. There was no fire, and there was no smoke.

I immediately sent a tweet to Orlando police, asking what the explosion was.

The response: It was a concussion explosion, which we learned was often used to deaden the senses of people barricaded inside buildings.

That explosion woke up many people who lived nearby, and who happened to be sleeping through the sound of the helicopter hovering overhead.

As our anchor, Nadeen Yanes, recapped the situation for our TV viewers, I met a man standing next to me who was listening to the police scanner on his cellphone.

He told me that he was a retired firefighter, and he was relaying what was happening on the other side of the barricade, just out of view.

The man said the order had gone out for a large number of gurneys, and that paramedics and firefighters were still standing by. They weren't allowed close to the nightclub yet, he said.

As I was absorbing this information, a photographer from another television station came up to me and gave me a hug.

"Do you know anyone who may have been inside?" he asked.

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I hadn't even thought about that.

There was a good chance I might have known someone who went to Pulse that night.

The photographer started crying.

"I had some friends who went there last night, and I haven't heard from them," he said.

Then, my producer told me in my ear that they were coming back to me for a live shot.

As I was talking during that live shot, we all heard gunfire erupt from the direction of Pulse.

It wasn't one gunshot. It sounded like automatic gunfire.

It scared me.

It scared my photographer.

It scared all of us who had been waiting for this to come to some sort of peaceful resolution.

Minutes after we heard the gunfire, two police pickup trucks zoomed from the direction of the nightclub, driving up Orange Avenue, passing the barricade and us.

Each truck was carrying people who had evidently been shot. They were bloody, and officers were shielding the victims' identities with their own bodies.

Both trucks pulled across the street, from where we were located into the entrance of Orlando Regional Medical Center.

At that moment, we heard sirens coming from the direction of Pulse.

We could only assume at that time that the situation was over, and that any remaining victims would start making their way to the hospital.

It was then that my photographer and I decided to cross Orange Avenue, to situate ourselves closer to the entrance of the emergency room.

It was there that we saw a woman crying, and yelling for help.

"Where's my son?" she yelled. "I can't find my son. Can someone help me find my son?"

We went live on the air with her, with the hope that her son may be at a friend's house or in the hospital, see his mother, and call her.

The woman's name was Christine Leinonen, and we would later learn that her son, Christopher Dru Leinonen and his boyfriend, Juan Guerrero, were among those killed.

By that time of the morning, more reporters had answered my boss' phone calls, and more of my co-workers were starting to arrive and help cover the story.

This gave us a moment to breathe and absorb what we were actually seeing.

It gave us a moment to feel what was happening.

The photographer from the other station and I hugged and cried until, once again, we had to go live. Such is the nature of the business.

As the sun came up that Sunday morning, we learned there would be a news conference at the other end of Orange Avenue, south of Pulse Nightclub.

We were still waiting to hear what exactly happened.

We were all listening in our earpieces as we learned that 49 people had died, and 53 others were wounded and taken to area hospitals.

Forty-nine people dead? It must have been a mistake.

Reporters and photographers from all of the stations had gathered to listen to this news conference together, and together, we wept.

Why had they died? Why were they shot? What did this person, who stormed the building, want? These are questions we would spend the next year (and more) trying to answer.

What I can say is this: What happened at Pulse that night and that morning is something that has become part of me.

When I think about the shooting, I go right back to the moments of feeling vulnerable and attacked.

I get scared all over again.

I then focus on what happened immediately afterward: Orlando coming together in the biggest show of love and unity.

I am no longer scared.

As the anniversaries come and go, we are still healing from a very painful experience. But my hope is, we will continue to do it together.​

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