They went to a club called Pulse to celebrate and be with friends, and ended up dying in the worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11. These are some of the victims of Sunday's rampage.
They called him Top Hat Eddie.
Eddie Sotomayor was witty, sarcastic, loyal to a fault, and he loved his top hat. On Saturday night, he posted a video to Facebook of a friend who had stolen his signature accessory while partying at the nightclub, Pulse.
“He said, ‘He’s trying to steal my top hat!’ And I just lay in bed and I laughed because he was so happy and he was so funny,” said Ryan Macauley, 27, who was scrolling through his Facebook feed before turning in for the night.
The next morning, Macauley’s phone woke him up when breaking news alerts went off -- a mass shooting at Pulse. He jumped with shock and fell out of bed. He called Sotomayor a dozen times, but each call went to voicemail. No one else knew what had happened to him.
That same morning, Jeff Prystajko, director of marketing and communications at Come Out With Pride Orlando, and his husband woke up to “a huge amount of texts and phone calls” from friends across the country asking if they were OK. That’s when they saw the news that a gunman had entered the nightclub, one they had been to before, and opened fire on the crowd.
Over the course of the day, LGBT groups triaged the situation, sharing information and encouraging the public to donate blood. Ironically, gay men are barred by the Food & Drug Administration from donating blood unless they have not had sexual contact with another man in the last 12 months. As people waited hours in the Central Florida sun to donate blood and plasma, rumors circulated that the ban had been temporarily lifted.
“I had a friend who really wished he could donate today and couldn't,” Prystajko said. “On the positive side, pretty much every blood bank and donation point … was at capacity today.”
Throughout the day, more information came out, with the death toll rising from 20 to 49 people and another 53 injured. Finally, on Sunday evening, the city released the names of the dead.
The first was Edward Sotomayor, Jr. He was 34.
“In the back of my mind I just prayed that maybe his phone died, he didn’t have a phone charger with him, that he was sleeping,” Macauley said. “As soon as that page loaded and I saw his name first, I had to walk out of work because I was just so devastated.”
Key West, where Macauley now lives for work, hosted its annual pride festival over the weekend. Almost every float, car, and flag paid tribute to the tragedy in Orlando. Later, hundreds walked from the end of the parade route to the beach to release a wreath of white roses into the ocean.
“A lot of friends say, ‘If you need me, I’m there,’ but he practiced what he preached. The amount of love that he just spread is unfathomable and I can’t even seem to put words together because it’s truly remarkable,” Macauley said of Sotomayor. “Eddie was always the one who would remember the date that my mom died and would always go out of his way to make sure on that day we went out, we had drinks, we made it a happy day.”
One of those celebrations was at Pulse a few years ago.
The nightclub has been open for nearly 15 years and known throughout the community as a fun, safe place to let loose and dance.
“From the beginning, Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. I want to express my profound sadness and condolences to all who have lost loved ones. Please know that my grief and heart are with you,” owner Barbara Poma wrote on the club’s website.
On Saturday night, Omar Mateen, 29, drove up from Port St. Lucie to commit the crime -- he allegedly was angered by the sight of a gay couple kissing a few months earlier in Miami.
On Facebook, Pulse staff wrote an eerie post at 2:09 a.m., “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Across social media, people changed profile photos, shared condolences, and posted #IAmPulse. In honor of Sotomayor, friends changed their profile picture to a photo of a top hat.
Equality Florida launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for the shooting victims and their families -- in 24 hours, more than 37,000 people raised more than $1.4 million.
While small vigils popped up around the Orlando area Sunday night, Prystajko said area LGBT organizations are waiting to host a formal, large vigil at Lake Eola. Police requested that they host the vigil later, as they were still clearing the scene on Sunday and interviewing witnesses.
“It has been incredible and emotional seeing that kind of support flow in from organizations, friends, allies, and people we don’t know,” Prystajko said. “This was the support of the community and our allies coming together to help when we were in need.”