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Pulse survivor Orlando Torres: 'We survived together, so we need to still stick together'

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The glittering disco ball sends rainbow shimmers through gyrating bodies on the packed dance floor before settling on the face of Orlando Torres.

Lounging on a white leather couch in a corner of the gay club Southern Nights, he takes a swig from a plastic cup under his penciled mustache. The 53-year-old promoter who goes by "Pimp Daddy Orlando" isn't wearing his usual crimson zoot suit and matching godfather hat, but people still recognize him and come to the corner for a kiss on the cheek.

Past glamorous drag queens and a man in a tutu twirling with his arms outstretched to pounding house music, Torres walks into a darker karaoke room where a couple is singing a passionate, off-key rendition of "Don't Stop Believin.'"

"Look," Torres says as he points toward the back of the room. "There's the bathrooms and there's another exit. Nothing is going to happen­­ – probably."

He pauses for a quick glance at the crowd.

"But ... you never know. You just never know."

This is a sliver of the new normal for Torres after last summer's bloodbath. A year ago on June 12, he was about three miles away from here on Orange Avenue at the gay nightclub Pulse on Latin Night when a deranged young man stormed in with a semi-automatic Sig Sauer MCX .223-caliber rifle and a handgun. At 2:02 a.m., the gunman fired a barrage of bullets into a crowd of hundreds of people who ran screaming for their lives. Torres and others scrambled to hide in the bathrooms, only to be trapped there by the shooter. He terrorized them for hours as he talked to hostage negotiators and eventually pledged his allegiance to the terrorist organization ISIS over the phone. After three agonizing hours, Orlando police used an armored vehicle to punch holes in the wall and began rescuing victims. The gunman started a deadly shootout with police that ended with his death. As dawn broke over Orlando that Sunday, not much was clear about why this had happened, but one thing was certain – 49 people were gone, taken by a gunman in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

And some souls would never be the same again. Torres was one of more than 68 survivors who escaped the massacre that night. One day at a time, he and other survivors have found the courage to reassemble the shattered pieces of their lives after an experience that irredeemably marked them, and work to create something new. In the months since, some survivors have left the hospital, gone to counseling, learned to use a wheelchair and gained some of their independence back. Others, like Torres, don't have bullet wounds but struggle with the scars of mental trauma.

Most of all, they want people to know they're still here.

Torres had a close connection with Pulse's Latin Night because he helped start it years ago to give his LGBTQ Latinx community a safe space to be themselves and dance to their own music. But God left him here for a reason, he says. "I felt like I was given a chance to stay here," he says. "I feel like I'm on a mission to be the voice of the 49 and voice of the other survivors who don't want to be on camera, don't want to talk ... I think I owe that to God and to the victims and the survivors." Torres, a native New Yorker, moved down to Florida in 1988 and lived a straight life until 2001, when he hooked up with his first boyfriend in drag at Southern Nights. He rose quickly as a promoter in the gay club scene. He launched several successful Latin nights at clubs around town before the one at Pulse took off.

On June 12, when the bullets started flying, he hid quietly in a single stall on a toilet with a friend, pressing his foot hard against the door so the gunman couldn't push the door in.

Then they heard his steps in the bathroom. Someone said, "His gun is jammed," and the shooter yelled, "I got it fixed and there's plenty of ammo." They didn't know what his agenda was until he got on the phone with hostage negotiators and told them he was wearing a bomb vest and had other shooters with him. Torres remembers he started shooting again, and at one point touched him with the gun while he played dead.

Hours passed until the other side of the bathroom wall sounded like a war zone as police tried to breach the wall.

"They were punching out holes in the wall and they busted the piping so water was gushing down my face. I felt like I was going to drown," he says.

During the fatal gunfight between the shooter and police, Torres put his phone next to his face in case a ricochet came his way. First responders pulled him out of a small hole in the bathroom wall, scraping his back, and put him on a pickup truck to Florida Hospital. He left later that day in scrubs, chunks of concrete still in his hair and his arm in a sling, for a plate of scrambled eggs with cheese and hash browns at Waffle House. After calling his friends to say he was OK, Torres went to mourn at vigils and churches.

Now wasn't the time to hide – his community needed him.

Since then, he's been a constant presence in the club scene and Pulse events, always trying to make sure others feel comfortable, even though he battles with PTSD.

"It's not easy to build the trust after what happened," he says. "I'm meeting friends that are bringing their friends who have been afraid to come out since Pulse."

Some people are surprised he still goes out to promote local gay clubs, but Torres wants people to know it's all right to keep dancing and living life after the terror of that night.

"We're not going to let the terrorists win," he says. "We're not going to show fear. We survived together, so we need to still stick together and support each other."

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