ORLANDO — On crutches, in wheelchairs, some with fresh bandages or hospital scrubs, the survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the families of the 49 killed arrived Thursday at the Amway Center, looking for answers about the millions of dollars raised to help them.
What if I only spent a day in the hospital but will need treatment for the rest of my life?
My partner died, but we're not legally married. Can I still qualify for payment?
What about families that have relatives in different states and countries?
So goes the process for the OneOrlando Fund Board, led by victim fund expert Kenneth Feinberg, as they decide the best way to distribute the $23 million raised from donors all over the world. The hearings Thursday were the only chance for survivors and victims to speak publicly about what they hoped to receive. The 14-member advisory board will make a final ruling in two weeks about how the money will be distributed.
"Money is a very poor substitute for loss, for death, for injury," Feinberg told the crowd of 200. "A check is hardly appropriate in light of the loss so many have suffered."
The meeting delved into the technicalities of how to file a claim, including what hospital and death records were needed. Feinberg also urged families to go to probate court for a judge to rule on who is the next of kin — and therefore who can accept the check.
Yolie Cintron of Kissimmee, who lost eight friends in the attack, said that the money couldn't come soon enough.
One young woman who was shot eight times only had $400 to her name and needed help even buying gauze for her wounds, Cintron said.
She recalled another who became suicidal and checked into a mental institution for treatment. She had spent more than three hours trapped in the restroom with the shooter, her partner dead next to her.
"They need help now," Cintron said. "Their scars aren't going away."
As of mid-July, 264 claims had been filed and $143,288 was distributed by the Attorney General's Crime Compensation Trust Fund for Pulse shooting victims and their families. Typically, however, those are paid out directly to the hospital or funeral home. It's the OneOrlando Fund that will issue payment in the form of a "substantial" check to victims' families and survivors, Feinberg said.
Patty Miller, the aunt of 34-year-old Eddie Sotomayor, who was killed the night of the shooting, said that she and her niece traveled from Sarasota to ensure they had all the right information about what to do next.
"Everything has a start and a strict end date," Miller said.
While many of the survivors and families of the victims live in Orlando, she and her niece have struggled to get services for themselves and Sotomayor's father, who lives in Alabama. They were one of the families who received money from the Attorney General's Crime Compensation Trust Fund to help with funeral expenses.
According to the current proposal, payouts from the OneOrlando Fund will be based on where people fall within four categories. The largest payments will go the next of kin for each of the 49 people who died.
The next group will be those who were admitted to a hospital, which is about 50 people. From there, the next payout will go to people who received outpatient care, like one woman who tore a muscle while escaping the club and will need orthopedic surgery. Finally, people who were physically present in the club at the time of the shooting will qualify for the final level of payment.
The National Crime Victim Bar Association has had contact with dozens of people who may qualify for the donations.
So far, the families of 45 of the 49 people who died in the June 12 shooting have registered. Another 56 people who were injured — both those hospitalized and others who received outpatient care — also registered. In total more than 400 people signed up on the contact list to receive updates on the fund, said director Jeffrey Dion.
At $23 million so far, the OneOrlando Fund is the largest victims fund ever raised after a mass shooting in the United States.
Anita Bush, the cousin of one of those killed in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in 2012, traveled to Orlando with a sobering message.
"When donations were collected from around the world it never made it to the victims of the families," she said. "We had to fight to try to get (funds) to people who were injured and in wheelchairs and with head injuries who survived."
Feinberg, who has overseen fund distribution after the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill, said every penny of the donations will go to the Orlando victims and their families. He said everyone who is helping on the project is doing it for free.
Still, he said all of it likely won't be close to enough.
"Twenty-three million dollars wouldn't go very far. Fifty million dollars wouldn't go very far. One-hundred million dollars wouldn't go very far," he said. "We have to be extremely careful in how this money is to be distributed. It is not that much in light of this tragedy."
Alli Knothe can be reached at [email protected] Follow @KnotheA.