He found a loving community at Pulse — then as a reporter came back to cover the carnage

Flashbacks floated through Josh Replogle’s mind as he drove through darkness toward the crime scene Sunday morning.

As a reporter and video journalist for the Associated Press, he has covered a lot of tragedy – deadly floods in Texas, more shootings than he can remember.

But this time it was personal: Replogle paid to put himself through college working at Pulse.

The two years Replogle spent selling shots of alcohol at the gay nightclub changed his life.

Replogle, who is straight, stumbled into the job upon the suggestion of his girlfriend – now wife – who knew a bouncer at Pulse and figured it would pay more than his gig at Chuck E. Cheese's. Replogle was studying broadcast journalism at the University of Central Florida and had an unpaid internship at a local TV station.

So, without giving it much thought, he emailed the manager and included a picture of himself. The manager asked him to come in for an interview.

“This was 30 pounds ago,” Replogle, now 29, said with a laugh.

He didn’t know what to expect from the job and felt a bit apprehensive. He grew up in rural North Carolina, where people often spoke of homosexuality and damnation in the same sentence, and while he never felt that way, he simply hadn’t had any experience with the gay community. He’d certainly never gone to a drag performance like the ones he ended up watching at Pulse.

On his first day, he remembers huge gusts of wind pushing against his body as he walked toward the club’s double doors. He paused for a moment and entered. People smiled and immediately introduced themselves. Before long, a group of male cheerleaders he recognized from campus showed up.

“Oh, wow, these are people I know,” he recalled thinking. “That realization was beautiful.”

He settled into a routine: Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 p.m. until last call at 2 a.m. The club’s energy was infectious.

Now, whenever he hears “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga on the radio, he nods his head, transported back to the club’s dance floor, where he meandered the crowds, hawking shots of tequila, vodka and rum.

He loved looking into the mesmerized crowd during drag shows. The way everyone stared intently, not wanting to miss a beat, reminded him of people glued to the screen during the Super Bowl.

“It was contagious, the feeling,” he said, adding that he sometimes threw a couple dollars from his tips as encouragement for the performers.

It didn’t take him long to warm to the attention from flirting patrons. He remembers thinking: “He’s eyeballing me, but so what?” 

More than anything, Pulse gave him a community – a community of people who genuinely wanted to know him.

“I felt loved,” he said, his voice cracking. “I felt acceptance, and I’d never really had that before.”

The job softened his heart, he said, and made him open, more loving.

“I truly believe if everyone could have the experience I did, the world would be such a different place,” he said. “You say the word Pulse and it’s like a flash of happy times. It’s a big chunk of who I am.”

Replogle’s cellphone rang around 3 a.m. Sunday. He’d returned 10 hours earlier from Louisville, where he covered Muhammad Ali’s funeral, and was looking forward to spending time with his four-week-old daughter.

“I’ve been gone half her life,” Replogle said, sighing.

But he could tell his boss’ voice sounded somber as he asked him to head to a crime scene in Orlando – the nightclub, he said, adding an extra article, was called the Pulse.

“What did you say?” Replogle asked.

His boss repeated the answer.

As Replogle rushed to pack his bag, his whole body felt stiff. He drove from his home in suburban Fort Lauderdale to Pulse – not needing GPS – and cried along the way. Before arriving, he sent a Facebook message to two friends he knew still worked at the club.

“Hey guys!” he wrote, “I saw there was a shooting at pulse!!”

A longtime Pulse bartender responded: “Yes. Please send prayers.”

When he pulled onto Orange Avenue, where Pulse is located, Replogle saw two men on the side of the road sobbing. He did a U-turn and asked if they were OK.

“No response,” he said. “Just wailing.”

One of the men had just learned that his brother – Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 – had died. Replogle had heard the death toll was 20. But around 9 a.m., after Replogle and other reporters had set up their cameras near the scene, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer walked slowly to the microphones.

“It is with great sadness,” he said, “that I share we have not 20, but 50 casualties."

Some reporters gasped, one woman yelped, “Oh, my God!” Tears fell from Replogle’s eyes and he turned his back to the news conference to regain composure.

He spent the next few days covering breaks in the FBI’s investigation into the accused shooter, Omar Mateen, and by Thursday, big, dark circles had formed under his eyes. But he wanted to keep covering the story, and he did. 

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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