PULSE: Remembrance event stirs up memories of tragedy, loss

By Anthony Leone, Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Monday, June 12, 2017, 1:19 PM EDT
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Early Monday morning marked the one year anniversary of the Pulse attack that left 49 people dead and dozens wounded, and while leaders offered words of encouragement, the remembrance event at the gay nightclub brought back memories for those who lost family and friends.

"She always had your back," Jorion Range said of his friend Deonka "Zeus" Deidra Drayton.

Range said that he has always known her as "Zeus" and it was not until the remembrance event that he learned her real name.

However, that was not important for him. For Range, he just described Drayton as a presence in his life who was always there, not just for him, but for others. A person who could project a larger-than-life attitude.

"She was the biggest person in the room, but she was the most kind. She would make you feel at home," Range described his friend who was among those who died a year ago.

For Johann Santa, she said the remembrance event meant a lot to her as she recalled her uncle, Franky "Jimmy" Dejesus Velazquez, who she described as outgoing, easy and who did not judge others.

"He was so liked and people wanted him around," she said.

Santa did describe how hard it was for Velazquez, who was the oldest of the victims at age 50 years old, to be gay.

"Being born and raised in Puerto Rico, (his parents) thought it was a taboo" to be gay, she said.

On the night of the shooting, Santa said that her uncle "dressed to impress," which was something he did not normally do when he would go to the club.

"It was like he knew it was the end," she said, who added that losing her uncle has been "very emotional, but it gets better with time."

Seeing so many people coming to the event to hear Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and others speak and to remember those who suffered made an impression on Paul Bleichert.

For Bleichert, it was impressive that so many from different cities came to the event to remember and honor those who were affected by the terror attack.

"It's a show of strength," he reflected of those who gathered.

Bleichert mentioned Omar Mateen and what he thought was the shooter's mission on that night.

"The person who did this last year thought they could force us into the closet. But you can't do that. You can't do that in America. You can't take progress away," Bleichert said.

Like so many others who gathered at the nightclub, which has become a shrine of sorts for those who wanted to remember friends and loved ones, Bleichert spoke about his friend Christopher "Drew" Leinonen.

Leinonen was killed along with his partner of two and a half years Juan Ramon Guerrero. Bleichert said that the two made the "perfect couple" and were both huge Star Wars fans who loved to say the famous phrase "May the force be with you."

In honor of both Leinonen and Guerrero, the Dru Project was formed, which is an advocacy organization that is an outreach for people who are still in the closet, and it also provides scholarships. In fact, Bleichert said that just recently a $3,000 scholarship was given out.

The one-year remembrance event started at 1:45 a.m. with opening statements from Pulse owner Barbara Poma, a prayer, the reading of the names at the exact time the attack happened and speeches from Dyer and Orange County Teresa Jacobs.

Dyer, who described those who died as "49 beautiful lives," offered words of encouragement to those who came together for the early-morning ceremony.

"We can't begin to understand this tragedy. But the light triumphs over the darkness. Each one of you is extraordinary. I pray this gathering gives you peace," the city mayor's said.

For Jacobs, she said to the large crowd that they should feel blessed for knowing the victims.

"When we leave this world, we leave behind the people we touched," she said. "We will remember their lives … our 49 angels."