Orlando LGBT Community Stunned by Nightclub Shooting

iStock/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Four years ago on a Wednesday night, highlighted by "$3 Long Island Ice Tea" drink specials, Sondra Rae Valentino, a lesbian, met her fiance at the nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, the site of where at least 50 people were killed early Sunday morning in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

She described the atmosphere of the club on a normal night as warm and lively, the kind of place that the majority of the "large and supportive" LGBT community of central Florida frequented at different times of their lives. Sunday, she said, members of her community were experiencing a range of powerful emotions as people rushed to donate blood, support one another, and attempt to grapple with a horrific massacre that took place in a club that they loved.

"It scared us," Valentino told ABC News by phone about news of the massacre. "I'm afraid to go outside, because who knows what's going to happen?"

Connor Hachey, who identifies as gay, and works with Valentino as a host at Pride Radio Orlando, XL 106.7, a digital radio station focused on the LGBT community of central Florida, told ABC News that the LGBT community in his city was close-knit and vibrant, playing host to Gay Days Orlando, a popular festival that attracted visitors from across the country. He said that he had never experienced any intimidation in the city related to his identity, but had heard of rare occasions where other people did.

"I would say that everyone here just supports one another," Hachey said, while acknowledging that every LGBT community deals with some form of hate.

"What happened last night was just completely unexpected," Hachey said.

News of the massacre reached some people of the LGBT community in Orlando through Facebook, when the club's Facebook account posted a stark message with few details at a little after 2 a.m.

"Everyone get out of pulse and keep running," the post said.

Later in the night, people claiming to be survivors of the massacre posted accounts of what they saw, and people shared condolences in the thread.

A page on the club's website suggests that the nighclub's creation was a labor of love for Barbara Poma, who helped to co-found Pulse in 2004. She was introduced to the gay scene by her brother John, who later died after battling HIV, according to the website.

"Being raised in a strict Italian family, being gay was frowned upon. However, when John came out to his family and friends, the family dynamic transitioned from a culture of strict tradition to one of acceptance and love," Pulse's website says.

Pulse later was created in "an effort to keep her brother’s spirit alive."

Poma told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Sunday that she wasn't in town last night and was notified by one of the managers as to what was happening.

"We've never had any problems, we've never had any threats there. It's always been a place of acceptance and safety," Poma said. "Never, never in a million years could you ever see something so hateful happening in a place that has been nothing but a safe haven for the LGBT community in Orlando. It's not what we're about, ever."

June is Gay Pride month and events have been planned throughout the world in celebration of LGBT rights. Wednesday was "Latin night" at Pulse, which Valentino and Hachey said attracted a large crowd from central Florida's LGBT Hispanic community.

A police officer working at Pulse exchanged fire with Omar Mateen, identified by authorities as the perpetrator of the massacre, outside of the club at 2:02 a.m., officials said. Mateen then entered the club.

It turned into a hostage situation shortly thereafter, when Mateen took hostages inside. He was armed with an assault rifle, handgun and had "some kind of device on him," officials said. At approximately 5 a.m., the SWAT team made the decision to rescue the hostages, officials said.

Mateen was killed in a gunfight with those officers.

George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewed Christine Leinonen, the mother of Christopher Leinonen, a young man who went missing inside of the club at the time of the attack.

"Please, let's all try to get rid of the hatred and the violence," she said, sobbing.

Copyright © 2016, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

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Charlottesville mayor to issue statement on Robert E. Lee statue

Charlottesville mayor to issue statement on Robert E. Lee statueMark Wilson/Getty Images(CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.) -- Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer will issue a statement Friday afternoon after canceling a news conference at which he was expected to "make a major announcement" regarding the local statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and the legacy of the woman killed during a protest sparked by the city's plans to remove the statue.

His news conference had been scheduled for noon on Friday, but the mayor tweeted Friday morning that "we are canceling today’s press conference and instead issuing a statement in the afternoon."

FYI all: we are canceling today’s press conference and instead issuing a statement in the afternoon. Stay tuned.

— Mike Signer (@MikeSigner) August 18, 2017

FYI, the reason for the change is we decided a statement rather than a press event was the best medium for the ideas I want to convey today.

— Mike Signer (@MikeSigner) August 18, 2017

The statement comes six days after a Unite the Right rally sparked by Charlottesville's plan to remove the Lee statue from a local park turned deadly.

The rally was attended by neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members. They were met with hundreds of counterprotesters, which led to street brawls and violent clashes.

A driver plowed into counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring several others. The suspected driver is in custody, facing charges including second-degree murder.

Despite the "painful" event, "we’re not going to let them define us,” Signer told ABC News earlier this week of the agitators.

"They’re not going to tell our story," he said. "We’re going to tell our story. And outsiders -- their time has come and gone. This city is back on their feet, and we’re going to be better than ever despite this."

Signer compared his hopes for Charlottesville's recovery to the aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in June 2015 that killed nine people. The gunman in that attack said he wanted to start a race war, but the tragedy instead united the city.

"There’s a memorial right now in front of Charlottesville City Hall that’s flowers and a heart that talks about the love that we have here. Those are the images that are going to replace these horrific ones from this weekend. That’s the work that we have as a country," Signer said.

"That’s what happened in Charleston. There were those horrible images of those people bloodied and killed and weeping from the church. But they were replaced quickly, steadily, by the work that started to happen. By people who said, 'You’re not going to tell our story for us. We’re going to tell our story.'

"And that’s what’s happening in this community. That’s my work as the mayor here -- is not to allow these hateful people who just don’t get this country to define us," he said. "And they’re not going to define us."

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