Shared grief, loss brings Orlando together

Posted at 6:46 PM, Jun 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-17 19:46:00-04

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — "Orlando Strong" banners hung from porches and bridges, hotel workers wore purple T-shirts with "Orlando United" on them and shock gave way to grief in this tourist city as more families buried their loved ones Friday.

Some longtime residents say they have been moved by how the nightclub massacre that left 49 club-goers dead has brought the city together.

"I thought this was a very cold city, and now I know it's a warm city," said Monica Roggiero, 49, before she walked into the funeral of her co-worker Anthony Luis Laureano Disla. "I thought because of the tourism that no one stayed here that long. It's amazed me how our community has gotten so close."

Pallbearers loaded Disla's body into a white hearse. A procession of dozens of cars accompanied the casket, and Disla was buried at a downtown Orlando cemetery under a blue tarp surrounded by flowers.

Mourners wore T-shirts with Disla's picture, and remembered him as an "amazing soul" who was the life of the party and who motivated anyone he was around.

"He was a breath of fresh air when he walked in the room," Roggiero said.

A few blocks away, more than 100 people filled another funeral home to remember Peter Ommy Gonzalez-Cruz and Gilberto Ramon Silva, best friends who died together at Pulse. They came with rainbow flags tied to their car antennas and several wore T-shirts with pictures of Gonzalez-Cruz, who went by the nickname "Ommy."

It was the third funeral Jose Torres attended this week. Gonzalez-Cruz and Silva were two of his six friends who died in the massacre. Torres plans to attend another funeral Saturday.

"All they wanted to do was dance and have a good time," said Torres, who lives in Orlando. "It's been an emotionally hard week. I watched the news and saw all the faces of my friends. I can't believe they are dead now."

Karla Cabrera grew up with Silva in Manati, Puerto Rico, and she followed him when he moved to Orlando.

"I admired his loyalty," she said. "He was super kind and someone I could always count on. He was the best friend I ever had. My circle of friends is not a circle anymore."

Investigators were still gathering evidence and analyzing cellphone location data to piece together gunman Omar Mateen's activities leading up to the shooting, which also wounded more than 50 people.

A shooting survivor told The Associated Press on Friday that when he saw a picture of Mateen on television the day after the shooting, he recognized him as the same man he saw having a drink at the bar earlier in the night.

His account could not immediately be verified. The FBI declined to comment and has not provided a timeline accounting for Mateen's movements that night.

Felipe Marrero told The AP his account in an interview from his hospital bed.

He said Mateen was drinking at the Pulse bar next to him the night of the shooting. He didn't remember an exact time but said it was early in the evening.

The 30-year-old Marrero was shot four times in the back and his left arm was badly damaged by bullets. He's at Orlando Regional Medical Center undergoing surgeries and physical therapy.

Marrero says he has given his account to investigators.

The killings have touched many who didn't have a personal connection to the victims, and imbued a stronger sense of community. Workers at downtown hotels wore bright purple shirts to work Friday with OrlandoUnited or the OrlandoStrong written on them. Electronic freeway traffic signs were also lit up with the slogans, as was the Orlando Magic's basketball arena.

David Mercer, 46, and his twin brother Darren were outside Disla's funeral sitting on their motorbikes. They didn't know him, but felt compelled to help the community in any way they could. They were part of a procession of dozens of motorcycles that are part of Bikers for Pulse, a group that formed through social media to escort the victim's families.

"This is terrible anywhere it happens," David Mercer said. "But it's worse when it's in your backyard."

Eva Pabon, 42, also didn't know Disla but attended the funeral to honor his memory as a fellow Puerto Rican and Orlando resident.

"I think this has shaken the community, but the love has been overwhelming," Pabon said. "I feel the love."