It is quiet. Nothing but the soft sound of the wind as it rustles through the trees, wrapping itself around those gathered. Gently. Reverently. The names of the 49 victims are read.
“Stanley Almodovar, 23.” One by one the names ring out. And the tears multiply. “Akyra Murray, 18.” They were young. So young. “Amanda Alvear, 25.” The victims of America’s deadliest single gunman mass shooting had a lot in common. Most were young. Most were Latino. And most were gay.
Denver native Angel Gutierrez and his partner Kevin Williams are also young, Latino, and gay. They were inside the Pulse nightclub shooting and came to tell their story of survival at the Denver vigil to mark the one year anniversary.
“Something happened that kept us alive,” said Gutierrez. “We were literally one step ahead all night.” He told those gathered at Cheeseman Park that they were able to escape 15-20 minutes before the gunman walked into the club.
While the shooting took place in Orlando, the shrapnel is still felt around the world.
“What affects one affects us all,” said Jean Hodges, the national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), one of the groups that organized the vigil. She echoed sentiments shared at vigils across the country. “It has brought us into action we have not experienced before. We know we are not alone.”
“A tsunami of grief” is how Hodges described the shootings, the three-hour hostage standoff, and the year that followed.
“Kimberly Morris, 37.” A nightclub bouncer doing her job. “Eddie Justice, 30.” An accountant who texted from inside the club “mommy I love you.”
“Last year hate came armed and deadly on Latin night in Orlando. The year before, hate came to a church in South Carolina. Before that to a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs,” said Robin Horn, a volunteer with the group Moms Demand Action. “What did they all have in common?” she asked. “Someone had access to a firearm.”
The time to disarm, she said, is now.
“Franky Velazquez, 50.” A folk dancer and visual merchandiser. One in a group of people pushed against a wall by the shooter before he shot them all.
Here in Denver, Gutierrez later told me he didn’t feel comfortable talking about the night of the shooting.
“It’s just hard to go back and remember specific details,” he said. “My goal is for people to not live in fear [and to] express your love for everyone every minute.” This, he said, is why he focused his address on the positives to come out of the shooting.
When he and Williams decided to go to the Orlando club, they thought it would be their last celebration together. With Gutierrez working in Denver and Williams doing an internship at Disney World, the relationship seemed to be coming to an end. It wasn’t until the next morning that the two saw the news and realized how lucky they had been to escape.
“Luis Vielma, 22.” He was working on the Harry Potter ride at Universal studios while Williams interned at Disney. That he made it out alive is not something Williams takes for granted.
Two days later, Williams was on a plane to Denver.
“It brought us together, and a year later we’re still together,” said Gutierrez. The two now savor life, every second of it. Gutierrez works organizing fundraisers at Colorado schools. Williams has signed with Wilhelmina, one of the top modeling agencies in the world. They describe themselves as very family-oriented, loving the outdoors, and as avid hikers. Gutierrez doesn’t mince words. “Express your love for everyone, and yes, live life to the fullest,” he said.
“Enrique Rios, 25” had been studying to be a social worker. “Mercedez Flores, 26.” Also a college student, she had been studying literature. Her father told Orlando reporters he forgave the gunman. “I cannot take that hate in my life,” he said. “My life is more important than hate.”
In Denver there are messages of forgiveness. There are also calls to action following the largest attack on the LGBTQ community in U.S. history.
“It was a direct attack on LGBT people, most of whom were people of color,” reminds Daniel Ramos, the executive director of One Colorado.
“Sometimes I think we’re always targeted,” said Joe Edwards. He is a spectator who came to pay his respects to those lost. He said that for him, as a transgender man, there is a target on his back every time he attempts to use a public restroom. “I get questioned in the women’s room. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, so I have to look for non-gender bathrooms.”
This, he said, takes a toll and is a daily reminder that he is still not fully accepted.
“Last year we mourned. Today we remember. Tomorrow we honor them with action,” said Ramos.
“Jason Josaphat, 19.”His mother was on the phone with him when she said she heard the shots getting closer and closer. 102 people shot before the gunman was killed by police. So many dead when officers entered they had to ask, “If you’re alive, raise your hand.”
Now, one year later, dozens of people stand huddled together. Crying. Hugging. Holding hands. Candles are lit in honor of those killed. The great white marble columns of the neoclassical pavilion frame Denver’s skyline and the majestic Rocky Mountains behind. And the wind carries the names as they’re read.