Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. News

In Ybor City, hundreds mourn the victims of the Orlando massacre

YBOR CITY — Shortly after the opening prayer at Sunday evening's candlelight vigil to mourn those killed and wounded in the Orlando massacre, thunder rumbled overhead.

"God is going to cry on us here soon," said the man at the microphone, Carrie West, president of the GaYbor District Coalition.

He was one of several speakers to address the hundreds who gathered outside the Metro Wellness and Community Center on E Seventh Avenue about 18 hours after a gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, and left 50 dead and 53 wounded in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Despite the dark ominous clouds overheard, rain never fell. But on the ground, tears did.

"This is heartbreaking," Ryan Menke, 30, told the crowd, tears streaming down his face.

He was friends with Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34, who worked for gay travel company Al and Chuck Travel, and was among the first group of victims identified by Orlando authorities. Sotomayor lived in Sarasota and graduated from the University of South Florida.

Menke also feared the worst for another friend, Christopher Leinonen, known to friends as "Drew." His mother Christine Leinonen's anxious wait for news about her son on Sunday was told by media outlets all over the world.

In Ybor City, they did more than just mourn. The vigil's speakers also called for unity.

"Even though we're here under tragedy, God has brought us together," said Chad Edwards, pastor of Worship Unlimited Church in Seminole Heights. "And I believe that unity will bring us together, and that love always trumps hate."

"Faith is greater than fear, and we will always conquer hate," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, the first openly gay member of the county commission.

A representative from the Council on Islamic-American Relations also talked about unity while condemning the attack. The shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, is reported to have called 911 at some point before or during the attack and pledged support for the Islamic State.

"It is disgusting what has happened in Orlando," said Katherine Heffner, CAIR Florida's government affairs coordinator. "It is disgusting what is happening to try to separate our communities, instead of trying to unite us. But we will not be divided.

"We will not let hate and fear control us," she added.

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione said the Ybor Youth Clinic would offer free counseling to anyone who might need it, and that Tampa police officers were beefing up protection at the city's gay nightclubs and businesses.

And she had one demand for the people in attendance:

"Please stay safe," she said. "Please hug your loved ones tighter, please make sure you tell people how much you care about them."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @josh_solomon15.