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Nearly a week later, a shooting survivor's mind races with memories of her 'hero' cousin

Nearly a week later, a shooting survivor's mind races with memories of her 'hero' cousin
Tiara Parker, right, and Patience Carter, both wounded in the Pulse nightclub shooting, share a moment in the hospital. (Red Huber / Orlando Sentinel)

After nearly a week, Tiara Parker still repeats a mantra to herself as a reminder: "It's real, it's real, it's real."

A survivor of last Sunday's mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., 20-year-old Parker sees and hears things everywhere that remind her of the attack. Even back in her bedroom in Philadelphia.

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She notices a black rosary on her dresser and breaks down. It belonged to her cousin, Akyra Murray, 18 – one of 49 people killed in the attack by gunman Omar Mateen, Orlando officials said.

Nearby there's an award Murray won for graduating third in her high school class. And there are all the memories from less than two weeks ago, when the girls got ready together in that room before Murray's graduation.

Now, whenever she hears something crash to the floor, Parker said, her muscles get tense. It takes her back to the Pulse nightclub on her first full day of vacation in Orlando, with her cousin and her friend Patience Carter.

The girls researched clubs online Saturday afternoon and settled on Pulse – it sounded like the most fun. After arriving at the 18-and-over club, they danced and recorded cellphone videos. Parker said she was the cameraman, her cousin the star. The place stayed packed until closing time, Parker said, when her friend asked how they planned to get home.

Moments after Parker suggested they take an Uber, she heard a series of bangs. It must be the DJ playing a trick on us, she thought, expecting to see confetti fall from the ceiling. Then she realized it was gunshots. People scampered all around her, but she froze in place.

A few moments later, she saw her cousin and friend, who had both escaped the building but returned to look for her, sprinting toward her. They ran into a bathroom and hid in the big stall with several others. People tried to blockade the door, but the gunman shot his way in.

Parker remembers him screaming, "Damn!" after his gun jammed. Before long, he stared shooting again and bullets hit Parker, Murray and her friend. Her cousin, who was shot in the arm, pleaded with the shooter.

"Please! I'm already hit," Parker recalled Murray screaming. "Please stop. Please."

Parker pressed her head against her cousin's arm, trying to stop the blood. Every few minutes, one of the two tapped or lightly scratched the other's arm – a way to tell the other they were still alive.

She can still hear the gunman's voice in her head. He called the police, she said, to pledge allegiance to Islamic State. At one point, he hunched down toward her and stared into her eyes. She froze and tried not to blink.

"I guess he must've thought I died with my eyes open," Parker said. "He looked deranged, psychotic."

The gunman also told police he had enough bombs to light up a city block, Parker said. So when a tactical unit tore into the building just after 5 a.m., she thought it was a bomb being detonated.

"I thought my life was over," she said. "Mentally and physically I gave up."

After police killed the gunman and started grabbing people from the building, Parker tried to get her cousin's attention. She touched her neck and felt a pulse, but wasn't strong enough to pick her up. She pleaded with the police, referring to her cousin and friend as her sisters, thinking that'd give the officers more urgency.

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As officials loaded Parker into the bed of a pickup truck headed to the hospital, officials cut off her clothing in search of gunshot wounds.

"God, please, please, please," Parker remembers screaming. "Go get my sisters."

At the hospital, Parker said she kept asking about them, but nobody had answers.

After her medical examination, as she prepared for an interview with an FBI agent, Parker's mother's cellphone rang and she cried hysterically. Parker knew.

Now, memories of her cousin fill her thoughts. Most of all, she can't stop thinking about how Murray ran back into the club looking for her.

"I want people to know my little cousin died a hero," Parker said, her voice cracking. "She came back to save my life."

Follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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