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A month after mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, survivors struggle to keep the dead alive

Samantha Stone, left, and Brock Cornelius visit the memorial in front of Pulse on Tuesday, a month after the shooting. Stone was working the front door June 11 and ran to Cornelius’ condo next door after the shooting began. See
Samantha Stone, left, and Brock Cornelius visit the memorial in front of Pulse on Tuesday, a month after the shooting. Stone was working the front door June 11 and ran to Cornelius’ condo next door after the shooting began. See
Published Jul. 17, 2016

ORLANDO — They stood on the second-floor balcony of his townhouse, staring over the chain-link fence, into the parking lot of what's left of Pulse nightclub.

One month to the day after the deadliest mass shooting in American history, cleaning crews scuttled in and out. Police still surrounded the broken building, their red and blue lights striping the streets.

From their perch, Brock Cornelius, 40, and his friend Samantha Stone, 36, watched the throngs stream to the makeshift memorial, cradling daisies, setting up candles, dropping to their knees to pray.

"More and more people, 24 hours a day, they just keep coming," Brock said Tuesday evening. "It's sort of beautiful. But it's just so sad. And I can't help but thinking …"

His voice trailed off. Samantha hung her head. They stood in silence, trying to decide if they wanted to join the mourners.

Brock was supposed to be at Pulse that night 49 people were killed. Samantha was checking IDs at the door when a body fell beside her.

She ran and took shelter in Brock's townhouse, and for hours, as some friends died and others endured the horror of being trapped with a terrorist, they bore witness to it all from a safe distance.

The machine gun blasts. The eerie silence. The explosion.

Through it all, they worried about who they had lost.

So many people were injured that night, so many more saw unspeakable things. Lovers lost their soul mates; mothers lost their sons. Everyone who knew someone inside that building bears some scar.

Brock can't concentrate on work. Samantha can't sleep at night.

They are both obsessed with what-ifs.

"It could have been me," Brock said. "It should have been me." He knew that club so well, knew about the patio door and exit by the alley. "I could have helped people get out," he told Samantha.

"You could be dead," she said.

"Why aren't I?" he asked.

Brock feels guilty he's still here, when so many people half his age are gone. He feels guilty for feeling guilty. So many people lost so much more.

All he can do now is find a way to help.

• • •

David "Brock" Cornelius was living in St. Petersburg 12 years ago, taking business classes at the University of South Florida, when he heard about a new nightclub in Orlando.

Though there were gay bars closer to home, he and his friends drove two hours each way to make Saturday pilgrimages to Pulse.

"There just wasn't anywhere else like it," Brock said. "Gay or straight, singles and couples, white, black, Latino, everyone accepted each other."

Three years ago, Brock moved to Orlando and bought a townhouse next to the club. On Mondays and Thursdays, he helped the manager lock up. Other nights, he went to other clubs. But he always came back to Pulse for last call.

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On Saturday, June 11, Brock's friend Daniel was visiting from Clearwater. Brock was designing a website for him. They worked until midnight, then decided to go out.

Daniel wanted to go to Pulse. But friends asked them to drive three miles to Parliament House. "Let's start there," Brock told Daniel. "Then we'll end up back here."

He had finished his second vodka-cranberry when his phone started ringing. Not recognizing the number, he ignored it and paid his tab. The phone rang again as he was walking out. And again in the parking lot. The fourth time, he answered.

The caller was breathing hard, panicked.

"It's Chevelle," said his friend, a Pulse dancer. "I need to get in your house. Right now!

"There's been a shooting."

Some drunk guy in a bar fight, Brock thought. He gave Chevelle the code to open his garage.

• • •

Samantha was training a new girl that Saturday night. So she got to Pulse early to count out the cash register. The new girl, Taylor, showed up around 8 p.m. and Samantha showed her how to check IDs, slap on a wrist band.

No backpacks, she said. Don't want anyone smuggling in alcohol.

By 2 a.m., the drag show was over. But hundreds of people still were dancing to the DJ, downing their last drinks. Samantha and the new girl were cutting wrist bands off customers when the music seemed to skip off track, then start popping. "Real loud, real fast," Samantha said. "It just wouldn't stop."

The new girl raced out the front door. Samantha still thought the soundtrack was misfiring. Until she heard screams. And a man fell through the beaded curtain landing face-down at her feet.

"Run, Samantha!" yelled the emcee.

She dashed into the street, leaving her purse and phone. On the curb, she found Taylor, cowering between parked cars. Ahead, she saw Chevelle, who had slid out the side door.

The three of them, plus some guy with Chevelle, ran up a steep flight of stairs and into Brock's townhouse. Samantha was sweating, panting, trying to remember who she had seen go into the club, and who had come out. That guy who fell couldn't be dead. He must have just stumbled. What was going on? Why were gunshots still firing? No one ever got violent at Pulse.

Samantha knew where Brock kept the vodka and poured everyone a drink.

By the time he got back with two friends, troopers had barricaded the whole block. "I need to get home," he begged them. "I live right there."

They turned on the TV, trying to figure out what was happening. Newsfeeds echoed the blasts from outside. Then, for what felt like forever, nothing. Brock texted his mom, to say he was alive, and, "I love you." When she called him back, he wept.

They fielded hundreds of texts: Yes, I'm fine. No, I haven't heard from him.

Another drag dancer, Milan, messaged Chevelle: Trapped in dressing room. Shooter still here.

Chevelle called 911, begging the operator to send more help. So many of our friends, she said, are still inside.

"What about Eddie?" Samantha kept asking. "Has anyone heard from Eddie?"

Samantha had met Eddie eight years ago on a trip to Vegas and had introduced him to Brock. They loved his quippy comebacks, the way he was so snippy with strangers, so protective of his friends. A handsome, 34-year-old travel agent with dark hair and blue eyes, Eddie lived in Sarasota and drove to Orlando most weekends. Earlier that evening, he and Samantha had shared their usual Fireball shots and she had called him a b----, which made him laugh. No one had seen Eddie leave.

Samantha kept borrowing people's phones, texting him. He didn't answer.

Three hours after it all began, an explosion rattled the windows and sent them to the floor.

They held each other as helicopters roared above and sirens screamed below.

• • •

The shots stopped before dawn. Brock and his friends ventured onto the balcony and peered down at the aftermath of an apocalypse. People running, pushing, demanding answers; police yelling; horns honking.

In the back of the nightclub, a gaping hole where the armored truck had blasted through. Concrete boulders filling the parking lot. Bullet scars on the black walls.

"At least a dozen dead," the TV news was saying. Brock checked his phone. More than a dozen of his friends still were missing.

Samantha and Chevelle walked to Pulse to get their purses. An officer ushered them into a van, which drove them to the police station for questioning.

There, they found Milan, who had escaped the dressing room. Then, they ran into the emcee. While they hugged and cried, they compared texts and Facebook posts, still searching, hoping.

Brock turned the TV on around noon, and learned another dozen people were dead. He dozed off, woke a couple of hours later. The count had climbed to 30.

The victims' names were starting to scroll across the screen. Brock knew a few. But when the photos started coming, he felt sick. He had drank with that guy, sat with another at the bar. For years, he had hung out with dozens of them.

Xavier, what a great salsa dancer. Brock had met him in 2009, knew his young son and his partner, Roy. The couple had just told Brock they were moving in together.

He saw Drew's mother on the screen, sobbing outside the hospital, begging for any news of her son. Brock had known the outgoing 32-year-old since they met in Daytona seven years ago, and was so glad when he moved to Orlando to go to graduate school at the University of Central Florida. Drew had introduced Brock to Juan, whom he planned to marry.

Then, he saw Eddie.

• • •

Nothing made sense. Nothing mattered.

Brock kept waking to dreams where he was surrounded by shooters. He couldn't go to funerals, couldn't stay in Orlando. He drove to a friend's house in St. Petersburg. The nightmares followed him.

Samantha kept hearing screams. When she finally fell asleep, she dreaded waking, knowing she had no work, nowhere to go. Someone asked her to perform in a benefit at another club, but when she got there, she couldn't go onstage. She hid in the dressing room, like Milan.

About a week after the murders, Samantha and 59 other Pulse employees gathered at the Orlando soccer stadium to meet grief counselors and get back their belongings. Publix, McDonald's, local businesses and churches had donated gift cards. Delta offered victims' relatives free flights to the funerals — and survivors trips to visit faraway families.

Samantha hadn't seen her older sister in a decade; no time, no money, different lifestyles. She had never met her sister's four daughters, ages 4 to 10. If she hadn't escaped Pulse that night, her nieces never would have known her.

She booked a trip to Boston. And finally became an aunt.

• • •

Brock couldn't concentrate on his work designing websites. He'd lost interest in renting his properties. Without college night Wednesdays or Latin Saturdays at Pulse, he had trouble remembering what day it was.

He kept going to other clubs, searching for remnants of his bar family. Every night, he walked his dog past the memorial and stared at the fading photos of his lost friends.

He was feeling deflated when it dawned on him. He was given time, the ultimate gift. What should he do with it?

There was no way to trade places with the victims, no way to bring them back. But he could help keep them alive.

He started with a blank screen, then added five words, in rainbow colors: City. Family. Love. Heart. Pulse. He designed a logo, a purple heart with a jagged beat, tearing it in half. He bought a domain:

He would construct an online memorial to the friends he lost, and all the strangers that could have been him.

He uploaded 49 photos and, searching Facebook and news stories, he and friends wrote a bio for each victim, linked to their social media accounts. He learned about Oscar and Amanda, Antonio and Rodolfo. When he read about Brenda, who sacrificed herself to save her son, he turned off his computer, in tears.

"People need to know their stories," Brock said. "They need to remember. This website will be there, free, forever, so anyone can write messages."

In the weeks after the Pulse shooting, after the vigils and funerals, other violence began to overshadow the Orlando killings: Cops in Baton Rouge and St. Paul killed black men. A former Army reservist in Dallas murdered five police officers.

But on Brock's website, 500 people posted memories of the people from Pulse — and 300,000 paged through their lives.

One victim's sister wrote to thank Brock. The mother of Xavier's young son messaged that she will show him all the kind words, once the boy is old enough to understand.

• • •

Samantha had gone to a vigil, to a friend's funeral, but she hadn't been able to go by the place she called home.

"I'm not sure I can," she told Brock. "I keep thinking …"

But it was something they both needed to do.

They left the balcony and ventured toward the stairs, heading down to the street, past the parking lot and to what was left of Pulse nightclub.

"Oh, hey!" Samantha cried. "I wasn't expecting all this."

Even in the sweltering heat, even with lightning firing between bands of bruised clouds, more than 100 people packed the sidewalk.

The shrine blanketed the entire block: rainbow flags, a mountain of flowers, posters of the victims, a canvas painting that said Keep Dancing.

Samantha saw the club owner in the crowd and waved. The owner still hadn't been inside the building, still didn't know what would happen to it. On Brock's website, she had vowed to rebuild Pulse. But some thought the spot should become a monument, that the club could reopen nearby.

"We just need a place to get the family back together," Brock said.

When they headed home, it was almost dark. People kept bending to light the rings of white candles, but the wicks were too wet.

Above the soggy shrine, the Pulse sign still burned bright.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


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