Fresno-area residents gathered Sunday to mourn the victims of the early morning mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 50 dead and 53 injured. Area law enforcement, meanwhile, said they are prepared should a similar tragedy unfold in the central San Joaquin Valley.
About 100 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno to express their outrage over the attack in Orlando and voice support for the LGBT community. Later Sunday, another vigil drew 400 to 500 people at the Fresno LGBT Community Center in the Tower District. At Fresno State, flags were lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Rev. Tim Kutzmark led an interfaith vigil that included representatives from the Muslim and Sikh communities.
“Death came at the most unlikely of times. When the thumping of the bass in the speakers drowned out shot after shot after shot,” Kutzmark said. “This was a hate crime.”
Beverly Fitzpatrick, a board member of the church, said they lit 52 candles.
“Fifty candles in memory of the people who lost their lives in the worst mass shooting in our country’s history,” Fitzpatrick said. “We light a 51st candle for all of those who have been injured.”
Fitzpatrick fought back tears as she talked of the last candle.
“We also light a final candle for the young man who was responsible for this act. He chose a path of violence, but on this night we remember that he is someone’s son, and he was once a young boy filled with innocence and possibilities.”
Seyed Ali Ghazuini, imam for the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, said a few words before rushing out to go get ready for the start of Ramadan.
“We would like to take this opportunity to condemn all form of hate crimes, violence and terrorist acts,” Ghazuini said.
The shooting erupted just after 2 a.m. Sunday at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando that was celebrating Latino Night during June’s Pride Month. The gunman, Omar Mateen, held some of the club-goers hostage for several hours before Florida law officers smashed their way in and fatally shot Mateen during a gunbattle.
For Jeff Hough, owner of Club Legends, a gay nightclub near Shields and Blackstone avenues in Fresno, the mass shooting coming during Gay Pride Month was especially angering.
“June is Gay Pride Month. We celebrate the diversity; we celebrate our right to love one another,” Hough said in an interview Sunday afternoon. “This could have happened at any club – straight or gay. But Pulse was most likely targeted because of it being gay. For years people have fought and some have died for the rights that we have today.”
Hough said that while he was disgusted by how “something like this can even happen in Orlando or anywhere in the United States,” the public’s focus should be on the victims – not the killer.
“We should concentrate on the people who were injured and killed and not on the person who did this,” he said.
The sick individual who did this is just that – sick.
Jeff Hough, owner of Club Legends in Fresno
Valley law enforcement officials said Sunday that they train to be ready should they ever have to respond to a mass shooting – and they reminded the public caught in such a shooting to run or hide if they can, and fight if they can’t get away.
“Twenty years ago this was unheard of,” said Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer. “Then all of a sudden there was an incident called Columbine. That changed the way we police forever.” Twelve students and a teacher were killed when two disaffected students invaded their high school in Colorado with guns. The two attackers ultimately committed suicide.
Dyer said anytime there is an active shooter situation, “the first thing we instruct people to do is to run – to try to get out of the environment.” If people can’t escape, they should try to hide or fight for their life if necessary.
Dyer said Fresno police would be increasing their presence around gay nightclubs to prevent similar shootings here, as well as making an increased presence around Islamic faith centers to prevent any type of retaliation.
Fresno police officers go through active shooter training, as do deputies from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Officers are trained to respond to an active shooting as quickly as they can, Dyer said.
“They’re equipped and trained to know that when there is an active shooter, that they do not have time to wait for a SWAT team. They don’t have time to wait beyond two to three officers before they have to make the decision to make an entry at great risk to themselves.”
Dyer said that it’s more important to neutralize the shooter than it is worrying about whose crime scene it is.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re from two or three different jurisdictions, just like we saw in San Bernardino,” Dyer said. “Some of those were San Bernardino Police Department; some of them were sheriff’s department. It really doesn’t matter. We’ve all been consistently trained and we understand the need to go in quickly, and we cannot wait for your particular agency to get there if you do not have enough officers.”
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said law enforcement agencies around the region have agreements to aid each other in a major emergency. Mims added that she was saddened by the events in Orlando.
“The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office trains its personnel on a regular basis to react and respond to active shooter situations. We also work to educate local schools and businesses in our community through a program called ‘Seconds 2 Survive.’ We stress the importance of being able to react by making decisions to run, hide or fight.”
We have agreements in place with our local, state and federal partners to deploy extra resources to our region should a large emergency ever take place.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims
Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney called the Orlando gunman a bully and a coward. He said officers have one thing in mind when there is a gunman on the loose.
“As with all active shooter situations, law enforcement will concentrate on ending the armed threat as rapidly as possible,” Varney said. “I’m sure that the number of casualties involved here made it very difficult for law enforcement to stay focused on finding and ending the threat. While we would call out our Madera Regional SWAT team, our personnel already on scene would be making every effort to end the threat with the resources already on scene.”
Dyer said the victims include more than just the people who were shot.
“Behind each one of those individuals that were shot are families that are suffering because of what has occurred,” he said.