I just couldn’t wrap my head around the tragic unfolding of events in Orlando last weekend, so I got in my car and drove two hours to the place some call the happiest city in the world.
As I watched the neatly manicured lawns of the neighborhoods pass by my window, I thought of how small the city seems when you get away from Disney and the amusement park area. In the Sodo neighborhood, that spans several small city blocks near one of the outdoor malls, I was again surprised to see the size of the tight-knit, usually quiet walking community. The place where some stores are open 24 hours and neighbors check on neighbors, that was caught up in the worst mass shooting by a lone gunman in US History.
The bar at the center of the tragedy, Pulse Lounge, was at the end of a small road called West Esther Street, close to a fire station and a few blocks from a children’s hospital that became instrumental in caring for the injured and saving lives during and after the gunfire. Resident Donald Ato recalls having a pleasant short conversation on his birthday with one of the victims as the unwary patron left a car parked on the street across from his home and walked down to the club that fateful night. After the tragedy the car remained for days.
As FBI, local law enforcement, and other state investigators combed through the crime scene, removed bodies, and went through a complex but organized system of identification and family notification, a large entourage of media with their vans, huge transmission satellites, and tents blocked off roads outside of the police-taped area.
Less than five miles away, located next to another outdoor mall, was a second sidewalk tribute with heart balloons, notes, and candles marking the location of the other headline shooting tragedy to come out of Orlando last weekend: The Voice star and Adam Levine favorite, Christina Grimmie, was shot by another lone gunman as she eagerly greeted autograph seekers after a well-received concert in a little converted theater called The Plaza. This just one night before the mass shooting. I walked up to the door and saw a sign that read no concealed weapons are allowed on these premises. As I approached the makeshift memorial to yet another young life lost that weekend, Sophia Sullivan, age 9, and her grandmother, Susan, arrived to pay their respects. She placed balloons and read some of the messages, and then the two told me they had been at Christina’s concert. Sophia had wanted to stay for an autograph, but her grandmother said no, and they left moments before the fatal shooting.
Sophia told me she wanted to come so that she could make sure Christina’s loss wasn’t overlooked in the shadow of the Plush Lounge headlines.
As I spoke to more people, both those present at these tragedies and those who came in for the cleanup, I was left with two questions: Will love ever overcome hate? And in places where guns are not allowed, how will we protect ourselves? Long after the ringing of the victims’ unanswered cell phones has gone silent, I hope we will remember that life is finite and love is endless.
I hope we’ll also remember-and appreciate-that ongoing efforts to keep us safe are a full-time and dangerous job undertaken by many who tirelessly spend their whole lives in that endeavor, and that they do so in an environment often totally hidden from view.