As he walked up to the Pulse nightclub, memories of last June clouded Ramses Tinoco’s head.
He still remembered hearing the gunshots. He remembered running for his life.
But the place that has haunted him for a year was different early Monday. Dozens of angels stood guard outside, their wings made of PVC pipes and flowing white fabric. People lit candles, hugged and talked about their memories at the club in Orlando before it became the place where 49 people were killed and at least another 68 injured.
Tinoco stood shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others as the names of each victim was called at 2:02 a.m. — the exact time the attack began one year ago, when 29-year-old Omar Mateen strode into the packed LGBTQ nightclub and unleashed the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The American-born son of Afghan immigrants pledged allegiance to Islamic State before he was killed by police.
On Monday, a few family members stepped forward to say the name of the person they lost.
“It’s totally different now. It’s like all the terrifying and awful memories I had have been replaced with tonight, with this unity and all this love,” Tinoco said. “We’re all still grieving, but this gave me some closure. I could smile and remember the 49.”
The ceremony, which began at 1:45 a.m., was open only to survivors, family members or loved ones of those killed in the attack. Hundreds more gathered outside the fence surrounding the building.
“It’s really hard to be here. I was running from this for such a long time,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Marie Cobbs, who lives in Germany.
Cobbs lost her nephew, Anthony Laureano Disla, in the shooting.
“I can’t help but feel angry,” she said. “I just keep asking why. Why did this happen? I was trained to protect our country and I couldn’t even protect my family. He was so young and had so much life left to live.”
Rainbow lights lit a makeshift stage outside the club as a string quartet played before the vigil. Forty-nine purple hearts lit up an outside wall of the club, each with a victim’s name.
During the ceremony, club owner Barbara Poma spoke softly into a microphone, but her voice soared beyond the mural-covered fence around the Pulse nightclub and out into the street where hundreds gathered.
“What you have endured in the past year seems like something only you can understand,” Poma said. “Except here tonight, you are surrounded by hundreds of others who are like you.”
Outside the fence, survivors gathered in front of a colorful mural — 36 feet long, 12 feet tall — that depicts those lost and those who survived.
“The emotion is too much for words,” he said. “I’ve come back here several times, but this was different. Seeing this mural with the faces of the 49, seeing all these people here to support and remember and honor their lives, it’s just so beautiful.”
Grief counselors walked throughout the crowd, giving hugs and tissues. People knelt to pet golden retrievers wearing therapy dog vests.
Ceda Diaz and her wife, Kaley Williams, drove down from Deltona, Fla., with 49 candles — blue, purple and white, all with a sweet scent.
Before the ceremony began, they arranged them in a heart outside the club and lit them, one by one.
“We just had to do it,” Diaz said. “It was only right.”
Standing outside the club gave Diaz chills, she said. They had been here before, more often immediately after the shooting.
By the time the ceremony ended, the candles had melted into the pavement, still outlining a heart.
Hayes and Lotan write for the Orlando Sentinel.