ORLANDO — “Are you ready?” asked the woman in the white coat.
Angel Santiago nodded, then immediately regretted it. The nurse grabbed the back of his hospital bed and, with a jerk, wheeled it into an auditorium at Florida Hospital Orlando, front and center before a crowd of reporters from around the world.
Their cameras fired. Angel winced. Just the sound of shutters, he told himself.
It had been 60 hours since a nurse washed other people’s blood off his body. He felt nauseated sitting there in silence, blanket cocooning his long legs. The 32-year-old used car salesman was often too shy to close a deal. He kept much of his life private, didn’t tell acquaintances he was gay.
“All right,” he said, his gaze retreating to the floor. “Um, so, I arrived…”
“Give him the mic!” a reporter demanded.
Angel started again, and in a steady monotone, recounted what he had witnessed on June 12, during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“I arrived at, um, Pulse nightclub probably around 12:30…”
The words that tumbled out of his mouth for the next 8 minutes were an undigested list of facts. The shooting began at 2 a.m. He huddled in a handicapped stall in the men’s restroom with 15 to 20 people. The gunman shot through the thin privacy wall, injuring him, killing others.
He said the things he thought he should: He had prayed to God. He was grateful to be alive. The shooting had put his life “into perspective.”
In reality, nothing was clear. He had drifted, directionless, until this moment, quietly struggling with the burden of being gay in a conservative Puerto Rican family. The shame, the isolation, the depression — he had allowed it to carry him like a current, through college classes that never led to a degree, jobs that went nowhere, relationships that went nowhere.
Now, drifting was no longer an option.
To walk again on a shattered heel, he would need to fight for every step.
To exist in this new world, where his life was on complete display, he would have to own a part of himself that he shared only with close friends.
To feel worthy of survival, he would need to make something of his life.
Angel was relieved when a hospital employee cut short the news conference. Back in the hallway, away from the cameras, he started to cry.
Imagine you are Angel Santiago.
You grow up in Philadelphia, watching your kid brother Sam root for the Eagles and play hockey in the street; you race home from school to play Final Fantasy on the computer and watch the original Star Wars on VHS.
You are teased mercilessly, for being overweight, for your lilting speech, for the “gay” way your hips move when you walk. When you are 16, you tell your parents you are attracted to men. Your father is furious. Your mother tells you to pray. You wait a little longer to tell Sam; when you do, he storms out of the room.
You try teaching yourself to walk straighter, to keep your hands still when you speak, to like women. You’re unsuccessful at that, and everything else.
You drop out of community college, float from job to job, try two more times to go back to school. You walk away with no degree and $47,000 in debt.
There is a moment when you feel you might finally have it together, at 30. You have a mortgage counseling job you actually like, the first boyfriend you care about. Then, simultaneously, you lose both.
With some trepidation, you call Sam in Orlando and ask if you can live with him. He’s about to marry his high school sweetheart, but wants to make things right. He agrees.
You fall into a job at CarMax that makes you cringe at the thought of getting out of bed. You’re so bad at pressuring people to buy cars, your paycheck is just above minimum wage. Your own car is repossessed.
Now, imagine there is a place you can go to escape from all of this, a place that is dark and loud and lets you melt into it. A place full of the only people who know what it’s like to be you. That’s Latin Night at Pulse, where it doesn’t matter that you’re a terrible salsa dancer. You can walk however you want, talk however you want, hold hands with whomever you want.
You feel safe there.
Slow footsteps echoed on the restroom tile.
Angel crouched beneath the sink, using his forearms to shield his head and chest. He tried to make himself as tiny as one can be at 6-foot-2, as quiet as one can be when sharing a few square feet with more than a dozen terrified people.
Gunshots sounded in the distance. They were getting louder. The adrenaline surging through his veins had his heart pounding, his lungs expanding, his senses heightening. He could smell the gunpowder.
The bullets arrived.
One pierced his right leg just below his knee, singeing skin, destroying muscle. Another bore into his left foot, shattering his heel.
When it was over, Angel sat perfectly still in a tangle of hair and limbs. His jeans were soaked with blood. He could smell it, taste it. He felt no pain.
He became aware of those around him. His friend, Jeff Rodriguez, hit near his collarbone, was drifting from consciousness. Angel shook his friend’s forearm. “You have to stay awake.”
At least two people in the stall were dead. A young woman with dark eyes was crying. She didn’t want to die, she kept repeating, she didn’t want to die.
Angel felt his own body getting weak, like he could fall asleep. He reached for his phone, tried sliding his thumb across the numbers 9-1-1, but the screen was wet with blood. The call went through at 2:11 a.m., records show; the dispatcher could hear shots in the background. Angel spoke in a voice so soft, it was almost a whisper. He and his friend had been shot, he said. “Please hurry… There’s no place to hide.”
The dispatcher promised police were on their way. The footsteps returned.
Rounds hit porcelain, plaster. The young woman slumped over onto Jeff. Then the gunman was gone again.
I watched her die, Angel thought. I literally watched her die.
He couldn’t wait any longer for help. He pushed the young woman’s body aside so he could crawl underneath the stall. Someone grabbed his shoulder and told him he would get killed. But Angel continued, alone.
He could not walk, so he dragged himself, past a lifeless body outside the stall, past another restroom filled with hostages, over spilled drinks and broken glass. He found himself in the shadow of the back bar where just an hour ago, he had been sipping a Jack and Diet, laughing with friends. It was quiet now. Overhead, videos played like silent movies.
If the shooter is here, he thought ...
“Hands up!” someone yelled.
He turned his head, saw the guns. But they were in the hands of police officers who knew the shooter was barricaded in a restroom, who had navigated their own steps among the bodies on the dance floor and felt hands grab their ankles, grasping for help.
A dark-skinned man came crawling out of the deep hallway, one officer wrote in a report. From what appeared to be the men’s bathroom, wrote another, yelling he was shot.
They demanded that Angel lift his shirt and prove he wasn’t dangerous, then instructed him to move to the exit. He tried pushing his body forward. Before he could make it, officers reached under his armpits and dragged him.
“There are people shot,” Angel said.
There were 102. Of those, 49 would die.
The first few days in the hospital, Angel was rarely alone. Sam, who had wept when he saw his brother after the shooting, visited every day with his wife. His mother flew to Orlando. Friends and colleagues came, too.
Some days were extraordinary. Four days after the shooting, Angel met President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Four days later, the gay Oscar-nominated actor Ellen Page visited him for her documentary series, Gaycation. Angel had sworn he wouldn’t do another interview, but he was a fan.
Nights were quieter. He was alone in a stiff bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling, when a night-shift nurse named Melissa Lovemore-Wright peeked in.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said. The pleasant response he gave everyone.
A few days later, she found Angel in the same despondent state.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said. “It’s my break.” She helped him into his wheelchair and took him to the gift shop, where he bought a newspaper and a turkey sandwich. He was grateful for the change of scenery, if only for a few minutes.
She stopped by every shift to chat. They discussed their families, his past relationships. It had become easier to talk about his sexuality; there was no use hiding it anymore. Now, even the president knew he was gay.
In his own words: Angel Santiago
One morning, as her shift was ending around 7 a.m., the nurse found him staring into space.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said. He began to tell her what he had witnessed.
Angel didn’t cry; he hardly showed emotion at all. He just walked her through the chronology, beginning to end, like he had done at the news conference. This time, with her by his bedside, it felt better.
That week, Angel half joked that he didn’t want to leave the hospital. The accommodations were pretty nice, he said, and the nurses were starting to feel like family.
“Can I just stay here?” he said. “Get a job?”
Lovemore-Wright paused. “Actually, you could.”
“As a janitor?”
“As a nurse.”
She had noticed the right qualities in him. He greeted everyone with a smile. He never grumbled when he had to wait for pain meds, or when a nurse couldn’t come right away. And he always asked about her day.
The thought of becoming a nurse made Angel laugh. He would enjoy working a hospital floor. He might even be good at it. But he could barely afford the rent as it was, so going back to school was out of the question.
Fifteen days after the shooting, Angel was transferred across town to an inpatient rehabilitation hospital. His right leg was healing nicely; the bullet had missed the bones of his knee. But his left heel had been reconstructed, and he hadn’t walked in weeks.
His surgeon was blunt: Some people with his same heel injury spend the rest of their lives in chronic pain. Angel loved to hike, explore new cities. He made his living walking around a car lot. He needed to be able to do those things again. The best course, his surgeon told him, was to get strong.
So each day, Angel wheeled himself down a long hallway to the therapy gym. He practiced lifting himself into and out of bed. He learned to climb stairs with only his arms. He built up his atrophied muscles with resistance bands. The exercises made his body ache. He wasn’t used to this. But little by little, he started to bear weight on his right side.
That’s how everything went after the shooting, starting with his belly crawl out of the restroom stall. Angel, a master of the passive, now had to muster any might he had to drag himself forward.
He had conditioned himself to contain a lot through the years, to tolerate. But he knew he needed to work out the thoughts in his head.
On a Sunday afternoon without therapy or visitors, 21 days after the shooting, he searched his belongings for a journal someone had given him. He cracked the spine, smelled the fresh paper. He began his first entry with two words: The Attack.
I looked at my phone and the time was 1:58. I was tired and knew I wanted to go home. Jeff and I were still chatting by the bar. Our conversation was interrupted by the loud sound of gunfire. There were several shots back to back, and it sounded like it was coming from the main entrance. Jeff, with his eyes wide open, looks at me and says, “They are shooting! Get down!”
When it came time to write about what he had seen in the stall, Angel put down the pen.
He wouldn’t write again for months.
During his 25-day hospital stay, Angel had envisioned his homecoming like this:
He would come and go as he pleased.
He would eat whatever he wanted whenever he was hungry.
He would Facetime his friends in the privacy of his room.
He would finally be able to sleep.
Reality hit him the moment Sam pushed his wheelchair to the door of their townhouse. To enter, Angel had to stand, wrap his arm around his brother and hop; the living room was a few inches above street level. Standing in the door frame, Angel peeked inside. It was an obstacle course, littered with toys, a playpen, a small swing. His brother and sister-in-law had brought home a new baby while he was away.
Angel craved the comfort of his bed. But to reach his second-floor bedroom, he would have to scoot up the stairs. He didn’t have the energy. He settled for the faux leather couch in the living room. Upstairs, the baby started to cry.
He spent days stuck on the couch, feeling lonely and helpless. He avoided watching TV, even the least provocative shows, worried something violent would appear on his screen. Little things were now hard, like climbing over the bathtub wall to take a shower. He tried fixing himself lunch one afternoon. Sam had made spaghetti and left it on the stove. He had just started using crutches, so he could maneuver from the living room to the kitchen. But once he got there, he had no way of getting a bowl down from the cabinet.
“Sam?” he called out.
His brother appeared, bleary-eyed from nights up with the baby. Sam reached for a bowl, filled it with pasta and set it down on an end table in the living room. “Can you bring me a glass of water, too?” Angel asked. “Sorry.”
Sam did everything he could, running errands, hoisting his brother up the stairs, preparing meals and delivering them to his bedroom. He was never sure in what state Angel would be — appreciative, forlorn. Once, Angel lashed out at him for forgetting the utensils. Sam held his tongue and trudged back to the kitchen. He knew Angel hated needing help.
And help, they all needed.
When both hospitals forgave Angel’s medical bills, he used much of $15,000 in GoFundMe donations to pay down old credit card and student loan debt. He didn’t qualify for disability pay from CarMax because he had not been employed for a year. With his sister-in-law, Ashley, on maternity leave, Sam’s paycheck from selling insurance was the only source of income for three adults and a baby, $2,300 a month. Monthly bills added up to more than $3,600. The electric company was going to turn off the lights.
Angel never thought his life would lead to this question at a social worker’s office: “Have you thought about applying for food stamps?” Juliette Wallens asked, skimming through photocopies of paychecks and bills on a desk at Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando.
Angel replied in a small voice. “We’ve already been approved.”
The social worker disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with a cart full of bread, cereal, fruits, vegetables and frozen meats.
“For you to take home,” she said.
Something nagged at her. Angel was the fourth Pulse survivor she had spoken with, and by far, the most composed.
“Are you getting counseling services?” she asked.
He shook his head no.
“I’m doing okay,” he said. “There are moments when I get anxiety, but I try not to let it overtake me. I try to push it away.”
He wasn’t okay. Angel had tried to reclaim what happened to him by tattooing the date on his forearm, along with a heart, splashed with the colors of the rainbow and the words “Love is Love” across an equality sign.
But he dreaded closing his eyes, surrendering to sleep, where nightmares brought him back to that restroom stall, waiting among the dead for the gunman to return.
Late one night, when Angel was lying awake, he went over to his computer and started scrolling through an online photo gallery of the 49 who died. His heart jumped when he saw her, the young woman from the stall. He recognized her dark eyes; now he knew her name.
He opened another window and searched for her on Google. He wanted to know something, anything about her life. She was younger than him, just starting out. But she had died, and he had lived.
And look at what his life had become. He couldn’t do his job as a subpar car salesman, much less think about getting a better one. He couldn’t even feed himself.
He closed the browser and took a sleeping pill.
Fifty-three days after the shooting, Angel, Sam, Ashley and the baby piled into a car and drove to the Amway Center downtown. They parked in a garage, loaded the baby into his stroller and made their way across the street. Angel, still on crutches, stopped twice to rest. He apologized each time. “Don’t be sorry,” Ashley said.
The board of the OneOrlando Fund, set up by the city’s mayor to handle donations for Pulse shooting victims and their families, was hosting a town hall meeting. Angel surveyed the crowd. He recognized some of the people from TV. Distraught parents who had lost their children. Men and women who had made it out alive.
He spotted his friend Jeff Rodriguez in a wheelchair. The two had gotten together a few times since that night, but didn’t dwell on their shared experience. Angel stood up and waved, drawing his friend over.
At the front of the crowd, a bespectacled man in a suit took the microphone.
Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney, had experience with this sort of thing, he told the audience. He had overseen similar funds for the victims of Sept. 11, the Boston Marathon bombing, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
The Orlando fund contained about $23 million.
“Do not believe for a minute that that money is adequate. It is not,” he told them, his thick Boston accent echoing through the arena. “When you look at the list of those who died, the number of those physically injured, the number of those who suffered mental injuries held as hostages in the nightclub, $23 million does not go far.”
His voice got louder.
“Fifty million wouldn’t go very far. One hundred million wouldn’t go very far.”
Feinberg went on to explain the proposed protocol for distributing the money. The largest checks, he said, would go to the families of the dead. Survivors who had been hospitalized would receive the next-largest checks, followed by those who had been treated in the emergency room. Those who had been held hostage by the gunman but were not physically injured would also be eligible for some compensation.
“What about people who were across the street?” Feinberg asked in a booming voice. “What about businesses that had to close their doors for weeks or more? Employees who lost wages? Why aren’t they eligible in the draft protocol?”
He answered his own question. “Not enough money.”
Final decisions about how much each claimant would receive would be made by the end of September. “It will be a meaningful amount of money,” he said, “in a financial sense.”
When he finished, a tall man named Bob Weiss took the microphone. His 19-year-old daughter, Veronika, had been killed in the mass shooting near the University of California Santa Barbara in 2014.
“Welcome to the club that no one wants to be a member of,” he said, holding back tears. “There’s some really good people here.”
Out in the audience, Sam draped his arm over Angel’s shoulder. He felt the weight of it all. His big brother, who had protected him when they were little, could have been one of the people who died that day.
Angel felt it, too. What if he had died that day? Would he have been proud of the way he had lived?
After the meeting, Angel’s family went for a late lunch at a Puerto Rican restaurant.
“It could be a lot of money,” Sam said, dipping a fried plantain into a cup of mayo-ketchup.
The baby started to fuss, and conversation drifted to another topic. But Angel’s mind lingered on what Sam just said. He was right; it could be a lot of money. Enough to put him on an entirely new path.
Angel found himself on the couch one Thursday night in August, 74 days after the shooting. He was scrolling through Facebook, his right thumb gliding up and down the screen like a tiny windshield wiper. Photos of other people’s parties and family gatherings populated his feed.
Another lonely night.
But something jogged Angel’s memory. A friend had invited him to join a group called QLatinx. He pulled up the Facebook page. Its members had come together after the Pulse shooting to create a space where Latino members of the LGBTQ community could support each other.
Their weekly meeting started in an hour. He could make it if he hurried.
If this were a movie, Angel would have arrived to deliver an eloquent speech, loaded with everything he had been trying to sort out in his head — the feelings of anger, fear, frustration, the guilt that the same act of terror that took that young woman’s life might be the catalyst to restart his own.
Instead, he stuffed his mouth with pizza so he wouldn’t have to say much.
Most of the 14 attending were gay men, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Colombian. Angel was the only Pulse survivor. The others knew but didn’t ask about it. Angel mainly listened as they talked, about the difficulty of coming out to Hispanic parents, about the community’s pain in the wake of the tragedy. It was like hearing his own life story. They made him feel comfortable, like he could return, and maybe one day, even open up.
After the meeting, a few of the guys invited Angel to go out. It was Latin Night at Parliament House, the largest gay club in Orlando.
Angel hesitated. He hadn’t been to an Orlando club since the shooting, let alone a gay club, let alone on Latin Night. He didn’t know if he would panic or cry, or whether he would even be able to walk through the doors. But he knew he couldn’t be afraid forever.
Angel left his crutches in the car. He felt a sense of relief when he had to pass a metal detector. Inside the club, his heart palpitated the way it did when he drank too much coffee. His eyes darted around the room, scanning the exits and people.
“Are you okay?” one of the guys asked, gripping Angel’s back.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s cool.”
He ordered a Jack and Diet at the bar, made his way to the dance floor. He stayed for one song, then another. He left after his foot started to throb.
The letter from the OneOrlando Fund arrived the first Saturday in October. He had expected to receive $80,000, maybe $100,000. But it was $300,000 that would be deposited into his bank account on Oct. 3.
Angel stood in the doorway holding the certified letter. It was enough to buy a car, to buy a house, to pay for groceries and electricity. He took a deep breath and exhaled. In the 111 days since the shooting, he had become used to things feeling surreal.
He climbed the stairs to his bedroom feeling a heavy burden. He had a responsibility — an obligation to himself and his family, and even those whose lives were cut short — to use the money wisely. This was his chance. He had no room to blow it.
Angel quit his job at CarMax. He thanked his bosses and coworkers for their support and the month’s rent the company had picked up, and described the vision he had created for this next phase of his life.
Then, on a cool October morning, Angel fired up his computer and submitted an online application to Valencia College’s nursing program.
Classes start in January.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Designed by Lyra Solochek and Lauren Flannery. Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory. Contact Loren Elliott at [email protected]. Follow @LelliottPhoto.