Candlelight vigils held across South Florida to honor Orlando shooting victims

MIAMI BEACH, FLA. (WSVN) - Local leaders joined hundreds of mourners across South Florida as they honored the victims of Sunday morning’s mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando.

The City of Miami Beach held a vigil at SoundScape Park, located at 500 17th St. in Miami Beach, Sunday night. Mourners held up their cellphones as they sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” in unison.

Police said at least 50 people were killed and 53 were hospitalized after Fort Pierce resident Omar Mateen stormed into Pulse nightclub and opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, at around 2 a.m. He was later shot and killed during a shootout with police officers.

Many attendees at the Miami Beach vigil said they had close ties to the Orlando area. “I did go to school in Orlando. I went to UCF [University of Central Florida], and Pulse was a nightclub that we frequented,” said Isis Miller. “It was our safe space.”

Hundreds gathered to pray and cry together. “There’s no telling when such a horrible act of terrorism or hate really can occur,” said Rembrandt Peralta.

Mourners tried to shed a small amount of light on one of the darkest days. “It allows us to unite and understand that we must stand together,” said Ariel Morel.

Miami Beach officials also encouraged the community to donate blood to help the victims of the shooting. A OneBlood bus was parked in front of SoundScape Park until 10 p.m.

In light of the mass shooting, the Miami Beach Police Department released a statement that read, “The Miami Beach Police Department is deeply saddened by the tragedy this morning in Orlando. Out of an abundance of caution, we will be increasing our patrols in and around locations frequented by our LGBT community. Our prayers and condolences go out to everyone affected by this tragedy.”

The SoundScape Park vigil was only one of several that took place on Sunday across South Florida. Hundreds gathered in Wilton Manors at the Pride Center at Equality Park, located at 2040 N. Dixie Highway, Sunday evening.

“People want an opportunity to cry together, to laugh together, to yell and scream together, to connect,” said Pride Center spokesperson Kristofer Fegenbush.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., spoke to mourners at the Wilton Manors event. “This tragedy is a reminder of the absolute necessity for us to remain vigilant,” she said, “that we can’t rest easy, that we have to continue to lock arms and lock hearts.”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida also performed for attendees. After sunset, organizers handed out candles after sunset for the vigil.

In addition, the Pride Center and the nonprofit organization SunServe offered free grief counseling.

“If there is anything that we take from this horrendous tragedy, it is that we must not let hate win,” said Wasserman Schultz. “We cannot let the terrorists win. We cannot let them infect how we live our daily lives.”

Three women sitting at a restaurant near the Wilton Manors vigil shared their feelings about the deadly shooting. “I’m very sorry for what happened. I am mortified,” said one of them. “Something’s gotta be done. Somebody’s gotta care on a big, big level.”

Another woman said that those affected by the shooting go well beyond the LGBT community. “The unfortunate part of all of this, truly, is it doesn’t matter where you are,” said another woman at the restaurant. “As people, we’re a target, and that’s the problem we have in this country. It’s not just us. It’s you, him behind the camera, people sitting at this table, people sitting around us. It’s all who are being targeted. We’ve got to fix this country. Something’s wrong.”

The third mourner said she finds it hard to believe that such an incident has happened in 2016. “I was afraid to come out in the ’70s, but that was the ’70s, not now,” she said. “This is not going to keep us from enjoying our lifestyle and what we stand for, all the LGBTQs. We’re not going to stop, but this has to stop. This is nonsense. It is absolutely nonsense.”

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel was also on hand to express his support for Florida’s LGBT community. “This was an attack against Broward County, the State of Florida and the United States of America,” he said.

 

Community activist Antonio Ellison told 7News they want to feel strength in numbers. “We’re very upset, but just educate yourself about us,” he said. “I don’t care what it is, just educate yourself. Please, I’m begging you. We don’t need no more of this.”

Sunday night, the Baitul Naseer mosque, located at 208 N.W. 7th Court, in Hallandale Beach, held a prayer vigil. About 80 public officials and faith leaders attended the event, which was part of the mosque’s Ramadan dinner.

In addition to condemning the attack, the local chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community indicated that Islam is a religion that preaches reverence for all human lives. “It is sad. It is horrific to see such acts of violence taking place in front of your eyes,” said Dr. Khalid Minhas. “It can happen anywhere. It can happen, as we are seeing, all over the country and all over the world. But at the same time, it also hurts us as Muslims, because our faith is being hijacked.”

Minhas said he is especially heartbroken that the shooting happened during the holy month of Ramadan. “This month is to enhance your spirituality and to enhance your relationship with your fellow mankind,” he said, “and this is contrary to the teachings of Islam, that somebody goes out and hurts the innocent people. This has no room in the teachings of Islam.”

The shooting at Pulse nightclub has been named the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. “This is about human rights. This is about safety for all of us,” said Fegenbush. “This is our culture at stake. This is our society at stake.”

A hotline has been activated for relatives who need information about loved ones who may have been at Pulse at the time of the shooting: 407-246-4357.

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