ORLANDO — The two sisters — the mother and the aunt of a man in his early 20s missing after the Orlando shooting — were led into a guest room on the second floor of a Hampton Inn hotel early Sunday evening.
They sat side by side on a beige couch while a hospital chaplain pulled up close in front of them on a small brown ottoman and gently broke the news.
“After confirming with the coroner’s office and the police department, I have information that your loved one is dead,” the chaplain said, and another chaplain interpreted her words into Spanish for the two Puerto Rican women, who spoke little English.
The Rev. Jorge Figueroa, who was in the room to offer spiritual support, said the aunt fainted. Paramedics on standby were called into the room and gave her oxygen.
“I got down on the floor with her and held her,” said Figueroa, 42, a native Spanish speaker who was born in Puerto Rico. “I looked her in the eye and spoke to her softly and calmly. I told her it was okay to cry.”
A small hotel across the street from the Orlando Regional Medical Center became a place where shattered families came together Sunday, amid donated pizza and cookies and the comfort of strangers, to begin coping with the unbearable.
“I can’t take back what happened, but I can be present — and that makes a huge difference,” said Figueroa, a pastor from a Seventh Day Adventist church in Altamonte Springs, Fla., who drove to Orlando on Sunday morning to volunteer with the families of the victims of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
The hotel lobby where families came for information was a scene of raw grief late Sunday. The air conditioning was not working well on a muggy day near 90 degrees, and many family members were fanning one another with paper plates or had towels draped over their heads or necks to stay cool.
People in Disney polo shirts handed out bottles of water, as did what appeared to be Christian and Muslim clerics. Employees of the hospital, numerous members of law enforcement and people with name tags identifying themselves as counselors filled the hallway and lobby area.
Sobbing family members, from the elderly to young children, quietly hugged and waited for news.
Mary Ann Rodriguez said her stepson, Jeffrey Rodriguez, 38, had been shot at Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning. She said that the family believed he was alive and being treated at the hospital, but that they hadn’t received a confirmation. Her husband sat next to her, sleeping. She said she had to give him medication because he was so upset.
Rodriguez said Jeffrey texted his brother in the early hours of the morning: “I’m bleeding so much and I don’t think I’m going to make it. Call mom and dad and tell them I love them.”
She said she thinks Jeffrey was shot three times.
She said he went to the club with a big group of friends. She added that he was among 15 people who hid in a restroom, and that a friend who is a physician’s assistant helped save his life by stanching his wounds.
“His name hasn’t been called,” she said. “We don’t know if it’s because he’s had surgery or because they can’t ID him. We’re just praying for the best.”
Just after 5 p.m., an official stood on a chair in the hotel lobby. He read off a list of names of shooting victims being treated at two hospitals. During the reading of the list, a woman in the crowd fainted and EMTs were called.
Rodriguez could not be reached later Sunday evening; it was unclear whether Jeffrey’s name had been called.
The official then said that if the families had not heard their loved one’s name called, they should expect the worst, Figueroa said.
“They told them that if they still didn’t know where their loved one was, they were probably dead,” Figueroa said, noting that as of Sunday evening, many victims’ bodies still had not been removed from the nightclub.
“If they didn’t call the name, they were still inside the club,” said Candice Cruz, an Orlando resident who brought donated water to the hotel and spent the day offering support to the families.
After the announcement, a woman sat on a chair next to a stack of pizza boxes, sobbing and screaming, as a clergy member knelt next to her and tried to comfort her. A man appeared to be passed out in a corner. A woman crumpled in her chair, crying, and had to be taken out in a wheelchair. Another woman had to be helped outside; she couldn’t make it and medics set up a chair for her near the exit. She vomited into a trash can.
An older man clutching a cane sat in a chair, tears streaming down his face. A woman offered him tissues and no words were exchanged. Therapy dogs were walked through the lobby. A man talked on his cellphone, tears streaming down his cheeks. Two sobbing women hugged, crying silently, both of them shaking.
A sobbing man in a Chicago Bulls hat was helped into the hotel, people supporting him under each arm. He was followed by a young woman who also could not walk under her own weight; two people supported her. As she walked down the hallway she wailed, “Why? Why? Why?”
Many of the families were Hispanic, and most seemed to speak more Spanish than English. An older woman sat in a chair and wailed, “Mi hijo, mi hijo, mi hijo, por favor,” Spanish for “My son, please.”
Figueroa said the scene was overwhelming.
“I have seen a lot of grief,” he said. “But what I had never been exposed to before was so many people grieving so openly at the same time. It looked like a war zone.”