Advertisement
  1. News

The Pulse massacre, one year later: Remembering Martin

Michael Morales, 35, shows a tattoo he got in honor of his late boyfriend, Martin Benitez,  who was killed in last year's Pulse nightclub shooting. The tattoo reads: "If God takes my sight it's because he's allowed me to see all of the world's beauty."
Michael Morales, 35, shows a tattoo he got in honor of his late boyfriend, Martin Benitez, who was killed in last year's Pulse nightclub shooting. The tattoo reads: "If God takes my sight it's because he's allowed me to see all of the world's beauty."
Published Jun. 12, 2017

As the bullets flew inside Pulse nightclub that awful morning, as people screamed and fell and died, Martín Benítez turned to his partner of three years and told him he loved him.

"I'm going to die and I want you to know,'' Benítez told Michael Morales, who was hugging him on the floor of the Orlando nightclub as blood poured from their wounds.

Morales begged him not to talk. He whispered in his ear: "Shut up or they're going to kill us."

He was wrong.

The gunman who committed one of the worst mass killings on U.S. soil one year ago today did not kill Morales. He survived despite being shot four times in the legs. But Benítez, a 33-year-old Tampa student and the love of his life, died in his arms on that bloody floor. So did 48 others.

It hurts almost as much today as it did then, says Morales, 35, who now walks with a cane. But he will not forget, he says. Or give in.

INSIDE PULSE: Walk through a 3D model to see how chance and choice collided inside the Orlando nightclub.

Last week, after a year of emotional and physical recovery, Morales returned to his work as a nurse at Florida Hospital Tampa. On Monday, he expects to be in Orlando with family members and the Benítez family for an unusual ceremony -- the conversion of a killing zone into a museum.

Morales hopes to find the person who rescued him, give him a hug and say thank you.

But above all, he says, "I will tell my story.''

•••

Morales first met Benítez in Puerto Rico, where both men were born and lived most of their lives. It was September 2013 -- "Karaoke Night" at a local club, Morales remembers.

"I was talking about a person who was singing a very sad song and Martin, who was sitting in front of me, turned around and said, 'Let him sing what he wants!'"

The certainty with which Benítez spoke surprised Morales, who was immediately smitten.

"It was like love at first sight,'' he said. "Since that day, we never separated.''

RECOVERY: 49 died in a shooting at Pulse nightclub. He got out alive. To feel worthy of survival, he would need to make something of his life.

As the relationship strengthened, the two began planning a future. Morales was a nurse and Benítez was studying to be a pharmacy technician. They decided on the Tampa Bay area and in 2015, Morales left the island to look for work. Benítez eventually joined him and they settled into a Brandon apartment.

"Martín was so happy and so full of life,'' Morales said. "He had been in Florida for six months and was doing his first English and pharmacy courses.''

On June 11, 2016, the two decided to spend an afternoon in Orlando with a niece of Benítez who had traveled from Puerto Rico. The plan included a stop at "Pulse," a gay club where the theme that night was "Latin Night.''

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

"We had gone only twice before to that discotheque. Orlando was far away, and I personally have never liked that city. It is very overpopulated. There is a lot of commotion,'' Morales said.

They arrived at Pulse well into the evening. Morales was tired. Before long, he told Benítez he was ready to go.

"When I grabbed his hand to start walking there were some shots. And Martín says 'What is that?' ''

"Baby, those are shots,'' Morales told him. "RUN!' "

•••

Morales still doesn't know the last name of the man who shot him inside Pulse. He has never seen his photograph. He intends to keep it that way.

"I prefer that he remain anonymous because he was an individual who is not worth anything to me,'' Morales said. "I know that God already took care of him.''

Authorities still can't say with certainty why Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, walked into Pulse in the early hours of June 12 and began shooting. There is nothing to indicate he was targeting gay people. During the slaughter, he told hostage negotiators he had sworn allegiance to ISIS and was upset about what was happening in Syria and Iraq.

Mateen was finally killed in a shoot-out with local police. By then, Benítez was dead and Morales was fighting for his life in a hospital.

Morales remembers his partner's last few minutes. The couple were hugging and lying on the floor of the club. Both men had been shot. Morales was hit by four bullets -- three in his left leg and one in his right. The wounds to Benítez were mortal.

"I used my knowledge as a nurse and I managed my breathing," Morales remembers, his voice choked with emotion. "Martin was breathing hard. He went into shock and was dying. I did not feel him breathing any more and I understood that he had died. Martín had given his last breath at my side."

Morales was still embracing Benítez when rescuers found him.

•••

Today, after six surgeries, Morales has gained back the weight he lost during his long recovery. Every day he goes to the gym, does pool therapy and practices yoga. He said he is a man of few friends, but the few he has are very close. One of his sisters recently moved from the island and lives near him.

He now lives in Lutz. When he first moved there, he said he arranged everything the same as when he lived with Benitez.

That ended recently.

"I finally folded the clothes that Martín had hanging in the closet,'' Morales said.

On Monday, the city of Orlando and surrounding Orange County will mark the first anniversary of the shootings. There will be musical performances and a reading of the names of the 49 people who died. In collaboration with Pulse's owners, the nightclub will be turned into a "Museum of Remembrance.''

Morales said he remembers Benítez every day.

"Martín, my baby, he loved until his last breath. There is nothing more beautiful and strong that someone who tells you on his deathbed that you love.

"Love prevailed.''

Contact Myriam Silva-Warren at msilva@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3388. CENTRO Tampa is a sister publication of the Tampa Bay Times.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge