I was on a train back from London earlier this year when I answered a call from our Managing Director, Stuart, – he asked, “do you remember the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando?”.
I did remember. Vividly.
I think anyone in the LGBTQ+ community (even with all the passing privilege of a bi woman) remembers. In 2016 a man – who we will not memorialise by naming – walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando and started shooting. 5 hours later it was all over. 49 lives were lost, 53 more were wounded – and the attacker had been gunned down by police.
Now I was being asked to make an hour long documentary for Virgin Radio Pride UK to mark 5 years on from the tragedy. The pop up station is amplifying and celebrating LGBTQ+ voices throughout this summer.
It was a story I cared about deeply, but I approached it with huge trepidation. I knew it would mean contacting people who had lived through something beyond the realm of human endurance, asked by journalists again and again to relive the worst night of their lives. With the support of the factual documentary team at Audio Always, I set about finding a way we could use the show to celebrate Orlando’s LGBTQ+ community, hear about the incredible lives of those we lost and learn about recovery, and hope, from survivors.
We decided to focus the programme around key voices who will forever be linked to that night, let me introduce you to just a few of them –
Amanda Grau – A Survivor: No one who survived an attack like this one could continue without inconceivable trauma, so approaching a survivor to talk on the documentary was something we could only approach with great care.
Anybody who got through that night and finds a way to continue with their life is a hero, climbing Mount Everest every single day. I spoke to many survivors – hearing about their lives now – and from all those incredible accounts Amanda Grau’s stopped me in my tracks. Amanda was shot in the back, hip and leg. She hid in the club’s toilet with several others for more than three hours and looked into the eyes of the shooter.
Somehow, she survived all of that, and not only does she now have a gorgeous wife and two children but is training to be a paramedic. Steve Denyer, our presenter – a brilliant and experienced broadcaster – interviewed Amanda. Three months on I asked him how he felt about the recording, “Amanda is the bravest person I’ve ever interviewed. Her story is heartbreaking but her way of overcoming that tragedy is nothing short of amazing”.
Maria Wright – a mum: Jerry Wright was a 31 year old who worked for Disney, and adored it – despite severe dyslexia, he had set his sights on working there and persevered through University to achieve this goal. He loved Lion King, was a terrible dancer and could make his mum laugh even when she was at her most stressed. On the 10th of June he rang her at home in Miami to tell her he’d been promoted. Less than a week later he was dead.
Since she lost her son, Maria has worked tirelessly to end gun violence, fuelled by the rage that the shooter was allowed to walk into a Florida gun store and buy a semi-automatic rifle and two hand guns – despite having been on a terrorist watch list.
Maria told us about the drive to Orlando, seeing his car outside Pulse in the news footage, and waiting for his death to be confirmed, painting a vivid and viscerally painful picture of that time – but more than that she told us who Jerry was. Not just one of the 49 gunned down but a very real, very loved son – full of life and fun. As she said to me, she wouldn’t miss a single day with him even if it spared her the pain of losing him.
Dr Chadwick Smith: If you work in the A&E department – or ER as they call it in the States – you’re ready for drama, but it’s hard to imagine ever being prepared for what they saw in the early hours of 16th June.
Dr Chadwick Smith is a trauma surgeon, and a calm and measured man. When you speak to him he pauses frequently, taking time to weigh up his words. He’s had a long and successful career at the Orlando Medical Centre, which is just minutes away from Pulse nightclub.
It’s perhaps the calm and measured delivery that made his account of the night so shocking: from people minutes from death brought in the back of police cars, to being told there was an active shooter in the hospital as they battled to save lives.
He told me of crying as he drove home in the bright Florida sun, and the journey to overcome his trauma and return to the hospital. Talking to Dr Smith, and journalist Jorge Estevez, showed me how a tragedy spreads beyond its victims and their families – seeping out into the community.
Any guest on any radio show is putting their faith in the producer and the presenter; trusting you to hear their truth and give them the space to tell their story. It was an enormous and unforgettable privilege to talk to every guest for this programme, and I couldn’t be more honoured to have this chance to remember the 49 Orlando angels.
We remember –
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old
Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old
Amanda L. Alvear, 25 years old
Oscar A. Aracena Montero, 26 years old
Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, 33 years old
Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old
Angel Candelario-Padro, 28 years old
Juan Chavez Martinez, 25 years old
Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old
Cory James Connell, 21 years old
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old
Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández, 31 years old
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old
Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz, 22 years old
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old
Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old
Frank Hernandez, 27 years old
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old
Javier Jorge Reyes, 40 years old
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25 years old
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old
Brenda Marquez McCool, 49 years old
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25 years old
Kimberly Jean Morris, 37 years old
Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old
Luis Omar Ocasio Capo, 20 years old
Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez, 25 years old
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old
Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez, 27 years old
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado, 35 years old
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old
Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan, 24 years old
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old
Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24 years old
Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez, 37 years old
Luis Sergio Vielma, 22 years old
Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez, 50 years old
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old