By Christopher Boyd
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) – The names of the 49 people killed at a Florida gay nightclub where a gunman turned a dance party into a massacre last year were read aloud on Monday at ceremonies marked by rainbow-hued memorials and guarded by supporters dressed as angels.
On the first anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, officials asked Americans to join in acts of “love and kindness” to honor victims of the three-hour June 12, 2016 rampage at the now-shuttered Pulse club, including survivors still reeling from emotional and physical wounds.
Vigils and rallies were planned across the United States in a show of solidarity with victims of the attack, which authorities called a hateful act against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
“People have asked me what has changed in my life. I tell them everything,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told several hundred people gathered for a midday ceremony outside the club. “We are all changed.”
Choking back sobs, Poma said she missed everything about Pulse, whose site will become a permanent memorial.
Forty-nine pale yellow wreaths emblazoned with the victims’ names adorned a wall at the nightclub on Monday, and many people at the ceremony wore T-shirts bearing messages such as “we will not let hate win.”
Two women, one with a rainbow flag in her hair, embraced as the names of the victims were read aloud.
“We just had to come here today,” said Joe Moy, 56, of Orlando, who has two gay children and attended the event with his wife. “It was a tremendous outpouring of love.”
Survivors and victims had gathered privately at Pulse at 2:02 a.m. ET (0602 GMT) to mark the exact moment that gunman Omar Mateen, 29, opened fire during the club’s popular Latin night. He shot patrons on the dance floor and sprayed bullets at others cowering in bathroom stalls.
Holding hostages during his standoff with police, Mateen claimed allegiance to a leader of the Islamic State militant group before he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with authorities.
His widow, Noor Salman, is charged in federal court with aiding and abetting Mateen’s attack and lying to authorities. She was not present for the shooting and has pleaded not guilty.
With the massacre, more LGBT people were killed in the United States in 2016 than any of the 20 years since such record-keeping began, according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)