A sea of Navy blue uniforms mixed with proud spouses holding hands and wiping tears as they revisited the “most horrific day in the city’s history” during the Orlando Police Department’s Pulse Recognition Ceremony.
The ceremony started with the department’s honor guard and a spectacular version of the “National Anthem” sung by Officer Gladys Justiniano, followed by a moment of silence for all 49 victims of the Pulse tragedy.
A video narrated by Master Sergeant Leith Harrell detailed the fearless and heroic efforts of OPD’s finest without naming the gunman who killed 49 and injured more than 100 people at Pulse nightclub June 12.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina told a crowd of more than 500 people that he would never forget the horrific day that changed Orlando.
“There were so many brave and courageous acts, not only by police officers but by citizens,” Mina said. “We could not have handled this incident without so many acts of kindness and appreciation from the community.”
The video highlighted every department at OPD and their role during the bloody massacre, including the first responding officers, the Emergency Communications professionals, who fielded 380 calls during the first three hours and the SWAT Team members, who ended the violence. Harrell also commended the Hazardous Materials Team, which had to help identify the dead, Public Information Officers who were inundated with media calls from across the country and the Stress Management Team that dealt with psychological issues after the incident.
The officers’ and OPD employees’ names flashed on the screen while the movie showed community vigils that drew thousands and volunteers that boosted weary officers who worked around the clock to help the wounded and link families with their loved ones.
“We cannot be a community defined by a single act of hate,” said Mayor Buddy Dyer on the video. “Rather a community that came together in our finest hour.”
A crowd of more than 200 Pulse patrons had just heard last-call for drinks when their lives changed forever.
“They were deciding between Uber or Lyft, IHOP or Denny’s when they heard a steady stream of gunfire,” said Harrell, who told the crowd it took 30 minutes for the first responders to search the nightclub where the bodies were lying “so tightly that the living could not be distinguished from the dead.”
While the shooter hid in a bathroom with hostages, the officers picked up the injured, carried them outside and loaded them into truck beds and patrol cars saving more than 20 people before emergency vehicles could arrive on the scene. Two dozen officers were exposed to blood and bodily fluids during the incident.
Uniforms were sodden with blood and the team ran out of gloves, he said.
SWAT team members opened a hole in the west wall of the club, evacuating 18 hostages and killing the gunman to end the brutal night at 5:30 a.m., less than four hours after the shooting spree started.
“Our SWAT team stood face-to-face and toe-to-toe with a killer,” said Mina. The audience gave them a standing ovation as many looked down, humbled by the attention.
The chief thanked the more than two dozen local agencies that responded to the tragedy and added, “we did not respond alone, we brought friends.”