1 year later, Pulse nightclub survivor wants to change hearts, minds

Even though it was his night off as general manager at Pulse nightclub, Brian Reagan went to the club because it was the place to be in Orlando on Saturday night.

It was Latin night, the club’s most popular, which meant Pulse was packed and near its 299-person capacity.

Reagan laughed with friends and danced to the DJ’s Latin beats, but within a few hours, Reagan’s smiles turned to shock and fear as gunshots shattered the evening.

SHOOTING STARTS

At 2:02 a.m., Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, opened fire at Pulse nightclub, spraying interior with bullets.

When the gunshots finally stopped, 3 hours and 12 minutes later, the blood soaked dance floor was covered in dead bodies. They were mostly young, mostly Latino and mostly gay.

RELATED: Remembering the Pulse nightclub victims

Mateen was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Reagan and his friend Brandon Wolf were outside when the the shooting started and escaped when a police officer opened the patio fencing; however, two of their friends, Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen, who they had been laughing with moments earlier were killed inside the club.

In the end, 49 clubgoers were massacred — 13 of them holed up as hostages in bathrooms — and 58 others were injured. The number of injured people requiring medical care was so overwhelming that first responders used pickup trucks to transport them to hospitals.

RELATED: Pulse nightclub shooting details revealed in new Orlando police report

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub slaughter. It’s the deadliest incident of violence against LGBTQ people and the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in United States history.

PULSE MEMORIAL, MUSEUM

The former nightclub — a site residents and tourists visit every day to lay flowers, take photos and write messages outside its doors — will be reborn as a memorial and museum.

Barbara Poma, owner of Pulse nightclub and executive director and CEO of onePULSE Foundation, announced at a May press conference plans to create a permanent memorial honoring the victims and survivors as well as the first responders and healthcare professionals who treated them.

A fund will support the construction and maintenance of the memorial, community grants to care for the survivors and victims’ families, endowed scholarships for each of the 49 victims and a museum showcasing artifacts and stories from the event.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Reagan, 31, talks about sending the warning message to people inside the club, coping one year later and his goal of changing minds and hearts. Reagan and Milan D’Marco attended the Long Beach Pride Parade last month for a special tribute to the Pulse nightclub shooting victims.

Here are some excerpts.

On Pulse being more than just a club to the LGBTQ community

“From the outside looking in, people might think the community just goes there to drink and then go home,” Reagan said. “Pulse really was a place where you could bring your mom or dad.

“You would see parents in the front row cheering on their sons on in a drag show. It was a place of all inclusiveness. People came to have fun and get along. It was the kind of place that when you walked through the doors, you could be yourself. You had fun with your friends You laughed. You danced.”

On Pulse customers as family

“These weren’t just customers. They were like family,” Reagan said. “If we didn’t know anyone by name, we knew everyone by face.

“The people we didn’t know, we made sure we introduced ourselves to them and our friends. By the end of the night, you knew 15 or 20 people.”

On the night of June 10, 2016

“It started as a normal night. I wasn’t scheduled to work that night,” Reagan said. “That was the happening place, and all my friends were there, so I decided to go with my roommate, Carlos, who also worked there.

“We arrived shortly after midnight. We watched the drag performance, and then were out on the fenced in patio talking. My two friends (Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen) went back inside to the dance floor, and I stayed outside,” Regan said. “That’s when I heard the gunshots. My friends did not make it.”

On hearing the gunshots

“I head the first single gunshot, and looked at my friend (Brandon Wolf). We didn’t know if it was a speaker than had blown on the dance floor, but then the shots kept going,” Regan said. “We knew what was happening, but we didn’t know the extent.

“We froze out of shock,” he said. “We were trapped and didn’t know where the gunshots were coming from or where to go.”

On warning people inside the club to get out and run to safety

“We had a system inside the club via Facebook that was like a hotspot. If you were in the nightclub and on our WiFi, we could send you drink specials or messages,” Reagan said. “I was hiding behind the bar on the patio, and I posted, Everybody get out of Pulse and keep running.”

On the police helping them escape from the patio

“The police arrived in about 15 or 20 minutes and opened the fence on the patio. An officer told us to keep running to Florida Hospital, which was only a few blocks down the road,” Reagan said. “Some folks ran across the street to 7-Eleven and locked the door.

“I didn’t have any physical injuries, just a few bumps and scrapes from tripping over a curb,” he said.

On trying to find friends and loved ones after the shooting

“In the hours and days directly after, we were still getting word on who didn’t make it,” Reagan said. “For privacy reasons, they didn’t release the names of people who were injured. We were calling everybody we knew trying to find out.”

On how he coped immediately after the shooting

“The City of Orlando immediately responded with open arms. They setup an emergency response center with counselors,” Regan said. “The community really came together for us. They were amazing in trying to help us and assist us in any way they could.

“Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse, invited all of us to her home the day after so we could all be together. A lot of us don’t have family in Orlando,” he said. “She opened her doors for us to be together.”

On how he has coped in the months after the shooting

“Everything is at a different stage of coping and grieving. It’s getting hard again with the 1-year anniversary approaching. It brings back all that emotion,” Reagan said. “It’s a day-by-day thing. I have days where I don’t want to talk to anybody, and I have days where I want to talk with everyone.

“Counseling has helped,” he said. “Initially, I was a little hesitant to share with people I didn’t know. My way of coping has been to be around people I can trust and love.

“To lose people in the fashion that happened that night, it will take quite a long time to adjust from that.”

On wanting to change minds and hearts

“After this event happened, it opened so many people’s eyes. People who may not have ever thought about a gay nightclub or a gay person or or seen  the disadvantages  we have been struggling with,” Reagan said.

“Our goal now is to open more eyes, even if they do disagree with us. Even if they do hate us. I feel that the only way to bring someone around is to talk one-on-one so they can hear our stories and testaments about what has happened,” he said. “People can change, and people have changed. That’s my goal, to get people to have a different mindset. Even if they don’t change, you’ve given them something to think about.”

Brian Reagan, right, and Milan D’Marco, survivors from the Pulse nightclub shooting, attend the Long Beach Pride Parade last month for a special tribute to the 49 shooting victims. Photo: Q Voice News staff.

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About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBT community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBT students.