By Kevin Canessa Jr.
It was around 1 p.m. on Sunday, June 12, when I got a text from my mom.
“Do you believe what’s happening in Orlando?” she asked.
“No, what’s happening in Orlando?” I asked back.
I had been busy catching up on shows I missed during the week much of Sunday morning and early afternoon, and I hadn’t put the news on at all. It was probably the first Sunday in recent memory I didn’t have some sort of news on.
I usually watch “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation” and yes, even “Fox News Sunday.”
But not this Sunday.
I figured something happened at Disney. And though later on in the week there’d be another tragedy at Disney, where a 2-year-old was killed by a gator, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“The massacre,” mom texted. “There are 50 people dead. Fifty. Fifty.”
I immediately turned to the cable news networks and saw what I couldn’t believe at first. A man, apparently from Fort Pierce, Fla., opened up gunfire and killed 49 people at an LGBT-themed dance club in Orlando.
The murderer’s apartment — a mere two miles away from my old home in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
The terrorist’s parents — they still live around the corner from the old homestead — on Bayshore Boulevard, Port St. Lucie.
For nearly four years, I lived around the corner from this guy’s parents.
His father is clearly a delusional nutcase.
I’d later learn there’s a chance I even bumped into the murderer at least once, perhaps more, since he was a security guard at the PGA Village, a complex I often visited to see my surrogate family — the Levins — and two dear friends — the Cavanaughs.
Kevin Cavanaugh texted me later that Sunday afternoon to say the murderer had worked the front gate that very day — from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. He worked a full shift … just hours before he sprayed 49 innocent, mostly young, gay men and women. It was like he didn’t have a care in the world
I’m told there’s a good chance that when I came to visit at PGA Village, he probably took my license to check me in. I likely stared the guy right in the eyes. It sickens me, more than a week later, that he was right there — in plain sight — for all to see.
Knowing myself as I do, I was probably even extremely cordial to him.
Yet it’s not just the geographical connection that’s upsetting. It’s more about what happened that day. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t wrap my head around it.
At one point or another two weekends ago, a few hundred people decided they’d go from wherever it was they were — some from Orlando, others from Miami, still others from other states — to a place where for many years, the LGBT community and their friends could go to escape all else. It was a place they could go to simply be.
They wouldn’t be called derogatory names. They wouldn’t be stared at because they were holding the hand of or dancing with someone of the same gender.
No, not at Pulse.
At Pulse, they were free to just be. No labels. No judgment. Nope … none of that.
And yet in an instant, shortly after 2 a.m., Sunday, June 12, everything changed.
Once again, a fundamental Islamic terrorist — and make no mistake about it, he was a fundamental Islamic terrorist, despite his American citizenship — in the name of a religion and group determined to kill innocent people, did just that.
With a pistol and an automatic weapon, one capable of spraying 30 rounds a second, he extinguished lives of 49, many young, LGBT women and men in an instant.
And all they wanted to do that night?
And then go home.
For 49 people aged 18 to 50, they’d never make it home. Instead, many were piled up inside stalls in the club’s bathrooms. In one stall — it was a little bigger than the other stalls because it was wheelchair-accessible — there were reportedly 17 people piled on top of each other. Many were bleeding. Some were bleeding profusely. Those who were alive were petrified of what was next.
Six were alive.
Eleven were dead.
The killer kept coming back near that bathroom. Those fortunate enough to be alive would keep as quiet as humanly possible — for some, this was an enormous task. On occasion, he’d spray the bathroom with more bullets. Luckily, in this particular instance, there was no more loss of life beyond the 11 already massacred.
But for three solid hours, there they were, piled on top of each other like a bunch of scrap meat. For three hours, they waited for help.
The smell, one witness said, was intolerable and unforgettable.
“You could smell the blood — there was so much blood,” said club-goer and survivor Miguel Leiva, 29, of Miami, a straight man who went to the club with his girlfriend that night (she also survived). “It was just like, all my clothes was (sic) just full of blood. We were sitting down (in the stall) and it was just like a huge puddle of blood and after a while, when it started drying up, it smelled really bad.”
Leiva himself was shot in one foot and in one leg. A day after the shooting, somehow he was able to keep himself composed enough to describe what he saw to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in great, painstaking detail.
“I was there with my girlfriend,” Leiva said. “At one point we passed around some water. There was this guy, Chris, choking on his own blood. There were other people shot who needed water. So many people, you know, were there just to have a good time.”
Including Chris, who later died.
Then, for nearly 24 hours later, for those who didn’t make it home, their bodies were strewn about in a scene not even suitable for the toughest of the tough in law enforcement. For that day, they lay there, their cell phones going off constantly — with someone likely on the other end hoping beyond hopes that their loved ones were in hospital.
Perhaps they never made it to the club.
Maybe they got out and just weren’t answering their phones.
None of that happened though. The phones just kept on ringing. And it translated into the worst mass murder in our nation’s history.
There’s still so much confusion as to why the murderer did this. (I will not name him).
Was he really doing this to pledge allegiance to ISIS? Did his wife know he was going to do this? Was he gay and so disgusted with himself that he felt it necessary to kill members of the LGBT community because they were free to be who they were — while he wasn’t? (There are numerous reports he frequented Pulse quite often). Was he carrying out his disgusting father’s beliefs that gay people aren’t really people and thus deserve to be executed?
Hopefully, we’ll eventually find out why he did it. Despite the incredible sadness this has brought to Orlando and many other parts of the country, I hold out hope that perhaps now those who refuse to respect the LGBT community will start to see just how difficult it is to be gay in this country, despite all the progress made over the last six decades.
I hold out hope that the people who think being gay is a choice now get that it’s not a choice — who on earth would make such an absurd decision — to be the target of jokes, the target of hatefulness … the target of an enraged South Florida Islamic terrorist?
I had held out hope that many of the churches of West Hudson, Southeast Essex and South Bergen counties would lower their flags to half-staff to honor the dead, though many chose not to follow the orders of the president of the United States to do so. (Though in fairness, some did, including Queen of Peace Church, North Arlington — and for that they deserve great praise).
I hold out hope that never again will the LGBT community lose 49 of its members, friends and allies all in one night.
I hold out hope that never again will I be able to sadly claim that I lived in the same neighborhood as a terrorist’s parents — or the same county as said judge, jury and executioner himself.
I hold out hope that as a nation, we’ll learn from this awful tragedy.
That is, at least, until the next tragedy just like this one happens.
And this is America.
So it will.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.