Alive but still reeling one year after Florida nightclub shooting

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 09, 2017 6:05 AM

By Letitia Stein

ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Kaliesha Andino has spent the last year running from gunshots. At night, she flashes back to her hiding spot behind a bar in a Florida nightclub, where a bullet ripped through her arm during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The date her life shattered, June 12, 2016, is tattooed in Roman numerals on her other arm, along with images of clouds and an eye to memorialize a friend who was among the 49 people killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Like others who got out alive, Andino, 20, has spent the year since the attack navigating the line between victim and survivor. Her physical wounds have healed. But she searches for exits in crowded rooms and has not been working.

"I will never have closure," she said, adding: "I've got to live right now. I have to cope with the situation."

The death toll in the attack marked the worst in a spate of U.S. shooting rampages in recent years - from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to an office party in San Bernardino, California - that stoked debate about gun control and left communities grappling with deep emotional and physical wounds.

Counseling and medical needs have consumed many survivors working to establish a new normal after gunman Omar Mateen opened fire at Pulse during Latin music night. Some saw their trauma magnified when the tragedy at the gay club outed them as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

One survivor recently had a lodged bullet removed. Others have struggled at times to leave home after the rampage, which also left more than 50 people injured.

Mateen held hostages inside for three hours before he died in an exchange of gunfire with police.

"They are still so raw," said attorney Antonio Romanucci, who is suing Mateen's ex-employer and widow on behalf of dozens of victims, including Andino and relatives of some of the deceased. "They are still living it."

Approximately 300 people who were at the club or directly tied to the victims still receive support services from the Orlando United Assistance Center. That is down from the more than 800 helped in the immediate aftermath, said Michael Aponte, director for the resource hub, which involves government and community groups.


Rainbow-colored banners adorn the chain-link fence around Pulse. People from around the world have left mementos and scrawled notes, now fading in the sun. "Never stop dancing," reads an inscription on a parking lot barrier.

To honor the one-year mark on Monday, June 12, Pulse owner Barbara Poma plans to open the club gate so survivors and victims' relatives can gather inside at 2:02 a.m., when the first shots were fired.

"Everybody is still in very different places," Poma said. "I would not say there is anybody that is ready to move on."

At unexpected moments, 31-year-old Juan Jose Cufiño's thoughts return to the night that started as a celebration with friends two days before he was to return to his native Colombia.

He hears bullets pounding the floor and people screaming, he said in Spanish through a translator. He smells blood.

The first shot to hit him struck his right arm. Two more tore into his legs. Falling to his knees, Cufiño waited for a fatal blow. A fourth shot pierced his back.

When police arrived waving flashlights, the former physical education teacher mustered all his strength to signal that he was alive. He remembers an officer dragging him out by an arm.

Three months later, Cufiño awoke from a medically induced coma and learned he would never walk again.

After a year of surgeries and rehabilitation, Cufiño still needs help dressing. But he can lift himself out of his wheelchair and hopes one day to prove medical experts wrong.

"In this moment, I don't know what it is to be a survivor," he said in Spanish. "I think I am still a victim."

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)