5 years later: Pulse nightclub survivors reflect on anniversary of mass shooting

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Visitors pay tribute to the display outside the Pulse nightclub memorial Friday, June 11, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Saturday will mark the fifth anniversary of the mass shooting at the site. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — The 49 victims who were massacred at a gay nightclub shooting in Florida are being honored this week with a community run, a museum exhibit, a mass yoga session, a gay chorus performance and a street dance party. The tributes will culminate with a remembrance ceremony on Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.

Dozens of survivors of the shooting, family members of those who died and first responders were invited to a ceremony Saturday on the grounds of the Pulse nightclub, south of downtown Orlando. The site has been turned into an interim memorial lined with photos of the victims and rainbow-colored flowers and mementos.

Others were being invited to watch the ceremony via a livestream feed on gigantic screens in front of a performing arts center in downtown Orlando.

“Five years ago, 49 people, most of them Latinx, Black and LGBTQ, were killed in a terrible act of violence at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Fifty-three more were injured and countless others were forever changed by witnessing hate or losing a loved one,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay rights advocacy group.

“As we hear the stories of those who were slaughtered, we see small glimpses of 49 unrealized futures, knowing no words can capture the full scope of what their families lost, what our community has lost: beloved parents, beloved partners, beloved co-workers, beloved children or beloved friends.”

Gunman Omar Mateen killed the 49 victims at the nightclub during a three-hour standoff with law enforcement on June 12, 2016. He eventually was killed by SWAT team members. Mateen pledged fealty to the Islamic State in talks with hostage negotiators and 911 operators during the standoff.

At the time, the Pulse massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. However, another mass shooting the following year along the Las Vegas Strip became the deadliest when 58 people were killed.

“You don’t wish this on your worst enemy, what we had to endure,” said Pulse Nightclub survivor Amanda Grau.

Grau was shot four times at Pulse nightclub in June 2016. She spent weeks in the hospital and had multiple surgeries. Now she’s working as an EMT to honor the first responders who saved her life.

“What better way to pay it forward than to become an EMT myself,” said Grau. “I was given a second chance and I’m not gonna waste it. I just wanna spread love and do good in the world and just help anybody that I can.”

Norman Casiano Mojica was also shot that night. He described being still afraid what he experienced could happen again.

“I’m stuck in that loop of something is gonna happen. So it’s hard,” said Mojica.

Like Grau, he had friends among the 49 who died that night.

Mojica explained this year he’s prioritized his mental health, moved into his own apartment, and hopes to make his friends who lost their lives proud.

“For them to be able to see like that we, those of us that did survive, we deserved to survive, and we’re doing what we what we can with it…For them,” said Mojica.

Pulse owner Barbara Poma has established a nonprofit with the goal of opening a permanent memorial and museum in the nightclub’s neighborhood.

Congress passes legislation to make Pulse Nightclub a national memorial 

U.S. senators this week passed a bill designating the site of the former nightclub as a national memorial. The measure now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for approval.

Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was criticized for cutting funding that included money earmarked for mental health programming to support Pulse survivors, housing for LGBTQ youths and Orlando’s LGBTQ Community Center.

“Some of Central Florida’s most vulnerable citizens rely on The Center Orlando to provide lifesaving services, such as case management, navigation, and critical mental health counseling,” George Wallace, executive director of the LGBT+ Center Orlando, said last week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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