This story was reported by Sheila Ann Feeney, Nicole Fuller and Víctor Manuel Ramos. It was written by Fuller.
A Williamsburg social work student, a journalist and a retail manager — three among many who flocked to a popular Orlando club looking for a fun night out only to become grim statistics — were fatal victims of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
- Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25, a student from Williamsburg studying social work, went to Orlando, Florida, to celebrate a friend’s wedding.
- Luis Daniel Wilson-León, 37, was at the Pulse with his spouse and even posted a photo on Facebook of the pair embracing with friends inside.
- Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24, worked as an assistant producer at Spanish-language network Telemundo in Puerto Rico and Orlando, according to Orlando officials and Mekahlo Medina, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Three lives ended — like the other 46 clubgoers shot to death early Sunday by gunman Omar Mateen — suddenly and far too soon.
Two days after the shooting, as mourners gathered together to grieve as one — whether in Orlando, Manhattan, or at a candlelight vigil in Bay Shore — relatives of the dead remembered them alive and tried to make sense of the senseless.
“He had a love for God that was phenomenal,” said Bishop William Whitaker of Greater Free Gift Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Rios attended Monday night bible classes and regularly participated in the Sunday youth ministry.
Whitaker said Monday that Rios also attended church regularly with his parents, Robert and Raquel Gertrude Merced.
It was Rios’ sobbing mother who told Whitaker in a phone call Sunday night that her son’s body had been found among the dead inside the club.
Family members were en route to Orlando on Monday to claim his body. Whitaker said he spent Monday summoning God’s guidance as he prepared a funeral sermon.
“I’m really asking God what to say,” Whitaker said. “Honestly, there are no words. . . . Our entire congregation is really devastated.” Gertrude Merced had begun a “Go Fund Me” page for funeral expenses that had raised more than $16,600 by about 5 p.m.
Her son, Merced wrote on the page, “was just having a great time on his vacation, until this deranged man came in and shot the place up.”
St. Francis College, where Rios was enrolled and pursuing a social work degree, issued a statement saying he had transferred in last year but “sadly, his dreams were cut short by this senseless act of violence.”
On his Facebook page, Rios said he worked as a coordinator at True Care Home Health Care, but a friend, Marisa Abril, said he managed a nursing home at the time of his death.
Before college, Rios worked as a coffee barista at LaGuardia Airport.
“He was an awesome guy. Awesome, awesome, awesome,” said Latosha Gaddie, 25, who worked as a cashier while Rios whipped up coffees and smoothies for harried travelers. “He was funny and fun to be around. . . . He was a caring person, a good friend to talk to if you ever felt down.”
Gaddie, who lives in Mott Haven, recalled Rios as helpful, upbeat and always ready to dance. His friend Marisa Abril, 31, who now lives in Houston, said Rios also liked to cook.
“He liked to joke he could make Trinidadian food better than a West Indian,” said Abril, who recalled Rios calling her Wednesday to tell her he was going to Orlando to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
When she first heard about the shooting, Abril said she sent Rios a text asking if he was OK.
“I just wish I could get that text back,” she said. “All I had to do was pick up the phone and he would listen, give me money — whatever I needed.”
Like Rios, Wilson-Leon and his husband, Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35, ventured out to the Pulse on Saturday night.
Monday, Laly Santiago Leon held a pink carnation as she stood in a parking lot near Orlando’s information center, trying her best to sort out the sea of emotions after getting confirmation of the deaths of Wilson-Leon, her cousin, as well Perez.
Shortly before Matteen — according to investigators, fueled by radical Islamic leanings and a hate for homosexuals — sprayed the club with bullets, Wilson-Leon had posted the Facebook photo. In it, he is embracing a group of his friends, standing next to his spouse while lifting his glass as if to say “cheers to life.”
“He had such a beautiful smile,” Santiago León said of her cousin. “All his life was for his family and friends.”
Known by friends as Dani, Wilson-León worked as a retail manager in Altamonte Springs, north of Orlando, and he had moved to Florida from Puerto Rico decades ago with his family, partly seeking more acceptance as a gay man. He lived in Kissimmee, west of Orlando, and had found his community at the nightclub.
“It’s awful,” Santiago León said. “I can’t wrap my head around why anybody would pick anyplace for something this atrocious.”
Also felled by bullets fired from Mateen’s AR-15 was Vega, a journalist for Spanish-language television.
Vega “was an active member at one of our student chapters in Puerto Rico before moving to Florida to work for Telemundo network,” according to a statement by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
He worked on the hit show “La Voz Kids” that airs on the network and is produced in Orlando, the NAHJ said.
“The NAHJ familia is heartbroken and offers our condolences to Jonathan’s family in Florida and Puerto Rico,” the statement said. “We also have Jonathan’s work family at Telemundo in our thoughts and prayers.”
Cesar Conde, Chairman of NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, said in a statement:
“We want to extend our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences to Jonathan’s family and friends. He was a great assistant producer and had been working with us since “Yo Soy el Artista” and previously at Telemundo Puerto Rico. Most recently, he was working in audience management in the current season of “La Voz Kids.” Jonathan will be missed dearly.”
Friends and relatives of other victims spent Monday night at a crowded candlelight vigil in Orlando. Some lit candles and raised them to the sky, as if light from above could overcome the dark mood below.
Bells tolled 49 times, one for each life lost.
Giovanni Nieves was among those in the crowd. Nieves said he lost five friends in the massacre. As he spoke, he wept and friends consoled him.
“It’s a hard thought to understand that they’re never coming back,” said Nieves, 31, a hairdresser in Orlando, of his friends. “It was the last goodbye.”
A somber Luis Vasquez went to the Orlando information center Monday to find out how to make final arrangements for the burial of his nephew, Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25, who was among the confirmed dead.
“We were hoping for the best but it didn’t happen,” said Vasquez, adding his nephew was “a great kid.”
He said finding out his nephew was dead was a shock.
“Hurtful. Hurtful. There’s no other way to describe it, you know,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez decried “a lack of responsibility from these people who sell guns and don’t make a lot of effort to find out who they sell it to.”
José Luis Paniagua, an east Orlando resident looking for updates at the Orlando information center, said his family was growing increasingly desperate in Florida and back in Mexico at the lack of news about his cousin, Joel Rayon Paniagua.
Paniagua said Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32, a landscaper, had gone to the club with friends.
“We spent the day yesterday looking in hospitals and they told us he wasn’t there,” said Paniagua, speaking in Spanish. “The family is expecting the worst at this point. . . . We are all in bad shape, crying, not knowing anything.”
“We came here for a better life” and didn’t expect something like this could happen. “We came because here in the United States there are many opportunities here and because we were fleeing because in our country there was a lot of crime, violence and death . . . and we expect it should be more peaceful here.”
Esmeralda Leal and her daughter, Julissa, arrived Monday morning at the family information center from Louisiana. They were sad, unnerved and yet trying to hold on to hope that they would find Leal’s son on the list of those being treated.
Her son, Frank Hernandez, 27, was at the club with his boyfriend, Leal said.
“His boyfriend told us that they were there at the club and that he was hurt by a bullet and that he doesn’t know where my son is,” Leal said in Spanish. “He lost him in the crowd. They had been together. Everyone ran and they didn’t see him anymore.”
Leal described Hernández as a person of sunny disposition who moved to Orlando about three years ago and worked at Calvin Klein.
“He was funny, outgoing,” said a sister, Julissa Leal. “I wish I could have seen him more. I hope he’s OK . . . I do have hope.”
Esmeralda Leal said her son “was the best” and her eyes teared up, her voice faltered as she spoke about him.
“If something happened to him I hope he was happy in those last moments because he always was someone who liked to go out” and enjoy life.
By the early afternoon, officials confirmed what the Leal family had feared: Hernandez’s name was on the list of the deceased.