Victims of Pulse nightclub massacre remembered 5 years later

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The 49 people killed in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida were honored in Orlando and around the world on Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the attack.

Speakers at an evening remembrance ceremony on the grounds of former Pulse nightclub said a rainbow appeared as survivors of the shooting, family members of those who died and first responders gathered. The site, south of downtown Orlando, was turned into an interim memorial lined with photos of the victims and rainbow-colored flowers and mementos.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who donated blood recently in honor of the people who were killed, said the dead must continue to be remembered with “real change.” He promised to help foster a community where everyone feels equally valued and protected.

Brandon Wolf recalled walking into Pulse on June 12, 2016, arm in arm with his best friend, Drew Leinonen. Six days later, he helped walk Leinonen’s casket down the aisle at his funeral.

Wolf admitted to the crowd that he felt like running away after the massacre but instead made a promise to his late friend: to “never stop fighting for a world he would be proud of.” Now the media relations manager for the LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Florida, Wolf said the anniversary of the shooting should remind people to recommit themselves to taking action.

“Bigotry and hatred are not asleep. They still move around us,” he said. “And if we are going to snuff them out, we must make the same defiant choice we made on this site five years ago today, and that is to embrace the power of community and reject the temptation to come apart at the seams of our differences.”

Members of the onePULSE Foundation, a nonprofit incorporated by the owners of the nightclub, said a memorial and museum is in the works. The group also offers educational programs and legacy scholarships.

President Joe Biden said Saturday that he will sign a bill naming the nightclub as a national memorial. He emphasized in a statement that the country must do more to reduce gun violence, such as banning assault weapons and closing loopholes in regulations that enable gun buyers to bypass background checks.

At Saturday evening’s memorial, family members read the victims’ names as a slideshow showed their photos.

City of Orlando officials say more than 600 places of worship worldwide tolled their bells 49 times to honor each victim who died in the Pulse Nightclub shooting. The First United Methodist Church of Orlando gathered loved ones and community members and read the victims’ names.

The deadliest attack on the LGBTQ community in U.S. history left 49 people dead and 53 people wounded as “Latin Night” was being celebrated at the club. Gunman Omar Mateen was killed after a three-hour standoff by SWAT team members. He had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Deputy Orlando Police Chief James P. Young, an openly gay man who reported to the scene the night of the shooting, said he’s seen friendships strengthen and the community unite over the past five years.

“If we use our shared experiences and our shared values, including those of strength and unity, love will always win,” Young said.