More than anything else, Omar Delgado remembers the phones. Dozens of them, he said, ringing incessantly and spinning in pools of their owners’ blood, the only sound in an otherwise quiet nightclub.
Delgado, 45, an Eatonville Police officer, was one of the first responders to the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub shooting. As he entered the club through a patio door that night, he saw bleeding and bullet-torn bodies strewn across the dance floor, many of them slumped on top of one another, their phones ringing next to them.
“I knew it was a loved one trying to reach that person and they were never ever going to pick up that phone again,” Delgado said in an interview with USA TODAY. “It was horrific.”
A year ago Monday, gunman Omar Mateen opened fire inside Pulse, a popular LGBT club in Orlando, with a semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock pistol, killing 49 patrons and injuring 53 others in one of the deadliest shooting sprees in U.S. history. Mateen was shot and killed by police after a three-hour standoff.
Delgado is one of 25 people involved in the shooting – survivors, family members, friends, the club owner – profiled in a series of dramatic black-and-white portraits by New Orleans-based Dear World, a group that travels the globe photographing conflict and disaster victims. The group has shot victims of the 2011 Joplin tornado, refugees from Syria and South Sudan and survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
The subjects are typically photographed with messages scrawled in black marker across a part of their body. Pulse survivor Angel Santiago, who hid under a bathroom sink and was shot in the knee and foot, wrote “NOWHERE LEFT TO HIDE” across his right arm and left hand. Another survivor, Angel Colon, was shot six times and survived. Scrawled across his arms: “IN THE DARKNESS OF MY HOSPITAL ROOM, I FORGAVE HIM.” The photographs are accompanied with small essays written by the subjects. (See the portraits here: www.dearworld.org).
Photographing the Pulse survivors was one of the most emotional and technically in-depth projects they’ve done, Dear World founder Robert Fogarty said. The on-skin messages are the beginnings of stories the subjects wanted to tell, he said.
“We hope when people read these, they see themselves,” Fogarty said, “even though the subjects have gone through something extraordinary and unimaginable and hopefully something very few people ever have to experience firsthand.”
One of the subjects is Barbara Poma, owner of Pulse nightclub. On the Dear World website, Poma tells how she struggled to return to the normalcy of being a mom in the wake of the shooting. One day shortly after the incident, she was in line at the deli counter at a local supermarket when another shopper recognized her, cried, hugged her and bought her flowers.
In her photograph, the words “YOU’RE HER, AREN’T YOU?” are written across her forearms.
“I’m always going to be the owner of Pulse. I'm always going to be that person. I'm always going to be her,” Poma explains in her essay. “Not that it's a bad thing, but it changes your life.”
Delgado said he still has nightmares about that night. He jumps at the sound of a gun firing, and the ring of an iPhone at the mall or at his son’s Little League practice transports him back to that night: the thick smell of blood, sweat and spilled liquor and the survivors he helped drag to safety across a dance floor littered with broken glass and bodies. He remebers the bodies slumped by the bar, probably settling the night’s tab before the bullets began flying.
For the Dear World photo, Delgado wrote, “I WISH THEY COULD HAVE ANSWERED THEIR PHONES” down his right arm.
Delgado said he initially couldn’t get therapy because he wasn’t physicially injured and his worker’s compensation wouldn’t cover it. But it is now and he’s starting to see a therapist. He still hasn’t returned to patrol duty. A friend started a GoFundMe page to help him pay off mounting bills.
He realizes he has a long road ahead and hopes others realize that post-traumatic stress disorder is a crippling ailment.
“I don’t care how rich or important you are, when you have a problem, you’re going to dial those three little numbers,” Delgado said. “But when we need the help, who do we call?”