Six months after the Orlando massacre, the survivors are still struggling

‘This is going to be with us ’til the day we die’

“I got shot in both of my legs, in my thighs,” Patience Carter remembers with a shiver.

She was hiding in the disabled cubicle of Pulse nightclub’s bathroom on June 12 when Omar Mateen – the killer spraying the club with a semiautomatic rifle – burst in.

He spotted Patience and a group of terrified clubbers with her. He saw one lying on the floor, said: “Hey you” – his last words – and fired.

“Pow, pow, and then pow,” recalls Patience, recounting the gunshots that killed three people next to her. “And the person behind me screamed.”

“I thought it was over, the end,” she says. But Mateen’s rifle jammed, and she was saved by the police, who knocked a hole through the wall to storm inside and kill him. She came to Pulse with two friends that night. Tiara survived. Akyra did not.

Patience has replayed this ordeal in her head over and over in the six months following the attack, the worst on American soil since 9/11. She and other survivors told The Tab how they are still coming to terms with their scars, their nightmares, and the guilt of leaving that club alive.

The s

The scene at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando

“Orlando,” as it is now known, took its toll on the 53 survivors. It left Patience with a lengthy hospital stay and a disfigured leg – “the worst pain I ever felt in my life.”

Now a junior at NYU, she walks with a limp. “It’s a constant reminder I was there,” she says. “Maybe if I was walking straighter, I’d have a better opportunity to not think about it every day so much, but it’s never going to leave me.”

For some, the trauma of Orlando didn’t immediately set in. Chris Hansen, whose first night out in the city was in Pulse, escaped but stayed nearby to treat the injured. He stopped the bleeding of one gravely wounded clubber – “it was bubbling over like lava” – and kept another awake who was about to pass out and succumb to her wounds. His efforts were noticed at the time by the news cameras on the scene, and were seen as nothing short of heroic.

His struggle came after. On a call, Chris runs through his painful story of the night. “We were trapped like rats in a cage with a madman running loose with lead and powder,” he says. And then he stops, breaking down, and sobs: “I’m sorry.”

I try to say there’s no need to apologize, but there’s not much comfort I can give from the end of the phone line. For a few strained seconds, there’s silence.

Are a lot of days like this?

“Yeah. Off and on. I can be happy in one moment, and cry myself to sleep in another. I cry more than ever. I did try to work for three and a half weeks, and I was let go because I couldn’t perform. My mind wasn’t all the way there.”

Chris is now keeping busy working with charities commemorating Orlando, but he’s still hounded by that night. Smells and sounds can bring him tumbling back to Pulse – the cologne he wore, the drinks he bought, the songs he heard: “J-Lo’s ‘I Ain’t Your Mama’ takes me back to that night. I used to listen to it all the time, but I haven’t since then.” For Patience, it was the whiff of 4th of July fireworks. “The same smell was in the air, and I was in the bathroom all over again.”

Photograph of Chris Hansen from CNN news

Chris Hansen on CNN the day after the massacre

Perhaps the cruelest reminder came in the twisted reactions that emerged online following the attack. True to the claim we now live in a post-factual era, cries of hoax! began to surface from the tinfoil-hatted fringes of the internet shortly after the massacre. Self-appointed truthers claimed Orlando was a false flag operation posed by crisis actors, of whom Chris was a key figure.

After he spoke to network news, conspiracy theorists pounced on his story, labeling him a fraud. They found similar-looking actors, neither of whom live in Florida to “prove” Chris Hansen was just his character’s name, and his TV interviews were no different to prior acting gigs. This was proof, they howled, that the mainstream media was broadcasting fictional news reports: the massacre was staged! As the counterfeit facts spread, the trolls cranked into gear, and zeroed in on Chris.

“It hurt,” he says between choking pauses. “I couldn’t believe it was real, I didn’t understand. I thought the public thought of me as a monster.”

Harder to pin down is what the loss of Pulse means to Orlando, particularly the LGBT crowd. The club’s promoter, a larger than life character called Orlando Torres (he wears an immaculate red pimp hat when we speak, and tells me his swag name is “Pimp Daddy Orlando”) says it was “a special place” for the gay community, a safe haven for going out. And now it’s gone.

“We only have three major gay clubs in Orlando,” he says. “But gay, straight, transgender, we welcomed everyone in Pulse. I go out now and – my friends who I lost that night – I don’t see them anymore…” he says, between heavy pauses. “I’m alive. We’re still figuring it out.”

DJ Ray agrees, calling Pulse a “home” for many in the LGBT scene. “It was one of those places where everyone came to forget about everything and have a good time,” he says. “Whenever I DJ now, I get in my vibe, and people start getting real hype – it just brings back memories of the patio from Pulse.”

Most painful, most poignant, is the guilt that comes with still being alive. Conspiracy theorists will move onto new targets, injuries adjusted to, but the guilt stills stands in front of their way to recovery.

“Immediately after, when I got to the hospital, I was more in shock,” says Patience. “The gravity of what happened didn’t really process.” Now she is plagued by questions: “How am I here right now? Why me? Why I am I here, and not the other 49 people? Why not the person who was shot and killed right behind me? I’m living with that guilt every day.”