Leading the Way
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer talks about the painful days since a shooter killed 49 people inside a nightclub. And about how proud he is of his city.
Mayor Buddy Dyer on the balcony of his City Hall office. The memorial on the Dr. Phillips Center's lawn is behind him.
Photos by Roberto Gonzalez
For 11 days, he had been able to keep his emotions mostly in check, acting as a pillar of strength for a city stunned by the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But on Thursday morning, as Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer headed to work, the tears came.
“You know what got me finally? I dropped my dog off at the groomer’s and was driving…and they had a sign at Edgewater High School’’ paying tribute to Cory Connell, a recent graduate and one of 49 victims of a gunman who opened fire at the Pulse nightclub. Connell, 21, had attended middle school with Dyer's youngest son.
“I cried today,’’ Dyer said.
It has been a tumultuous two weeks for the city and its four-term mayor, who recounted the details in an interview with Orlando magazine.
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It was 3 a.m. Sunday, June 12, when a phone call awakened Dyer at home.
“There’s an active shooter with hostages at Pulse nightclub. Multiple hostages. And we’re setting up the command post,” Deputy Orlando Police Chief Bobby Anzueto told Dyer.
As a father, Dyer's first instinct was to call his 26-year-old son, Trey. He answered the phone and said he was home asleep. Relieved, Dyer then went into leader mode.
An OPD liaison officer picked up him and then his deputy chief of staff, Heather Fagan, and sped to the command post set up a few blocks from the club. A phalanx of top police officials, officers from various sheriff’s departments, and FBI officials were in one section of the command center trailer.
Over the next two hours, Dyer watched on a grainy wide-angle video feed as the standoff between police and gunman Omar Mateen, 29, of Fort Pierce, unfolded. Mateen phoned 911, swore allegiance to the leader of ISIS, and threatened to detonate bombs on himself and four hostages inside the gay club. By 5:15 a.m., SWAT team officers breached the wall of the building with explosives and a BearCat armored vehicle, freed hostages, and shot and killed Mateen.
At the initial press conference at 7:30 a.m., Orlando Police Chief John Mina said there were 20 dead. But Dyer knew the toll would climb. He soon was informed it had risen to 50, which would not be announced for a few hours. More than 50 were wounded.
“I was ready to tell that [death toll] number, but I still had to take a deep breath and a gulp to be able to say that,” said Dyer, who used small hand-scrawled notes with his talking points. “I could tell that all of the reporters were stunned, too.”
“The whole thing was almost surreal as you were going through it. And it’s sad but you know you have to present strength to the community and be very focused. And also, there wasn’t time for what some of the other politicians were doing.”
Although Dyer didn't directly name the politicians, several seeking election or wanting face time on television appeared at the scene. He says he was focused on reassuring the public that the threat was over and telling them what was being done to help the injured.
“We had a discussion and I thought it was important that it be the mayor— and not one of the [unknown] law enforcement people—giving out information that it was far more severe than originally known.”
Dyer’s announcement at midmorning on the deaths of the 49 club-goers and the shooter drew a collective gasp from the gathered media. For the mayor, it was the hardest time during his 13½-year tenure.
“By far. There’s no comparison…I would venture that other than [former New York] Mayor Rudy Giuliani, there aren’t many mayors who can pick anything [like this] that happened in their city.”
Dyer and law enforcement then were concerned with removing the bodies as soon as possible so they could be identified and family and friends be notified.
The mayor declared a state of emergency in the city to expand needed services, and Gov. Rick Scott did the same to bring in additional help. Dyer appeared at press conferences, and conferred with Scott and President Barack Obama on victim needs. When Orlando Regional Medical Center officials asked Dyer for help in getting federal permission to relax restrictions on patient privacy, he contacted White House staffers to make that happen.
The mayor and his staff also quickly set up the OneOrlando Fund to help victims and their loved ones. So far, nearly $10 million has been collected from local businesses, Orlando sports teams, residents and people around the country.
After his daily command duties, Dyer appeared and spoke at nighttime vigils. He attended only one victim funeral, insisting that he would go only if invited or asked to speak. Working 15-hour days since the tragedy, he has been unable to return any e-mail or texts outside of his “city family.” He and his staff are just now catching up on news accounts of the ordeal.
Dyer, 57, said mayors from New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles all called him to offer help and support. Britain’s Prince Harry also sent a message of condolence.
Other city staffers conferred with counterparts in jurisdictions that suffered similar tragedies, including San Bernardino County, California; Aurora, Colorado; and Boston to compare notes and get advice on lessons they learned. Giuliani complimented Dyer on Orlando’s community response and its law enforcement action.
In 2004, three hurricanes had devastated Orlando and the surrounding region in a six-week period. Dyer said the lesson learned from the first storm, Hurricane Charley, was that communication with the public was the most important aspect of his job.
The community responded then by helping their neighbors. But the Pulse shooting response—including donations of time, services, blood, water, food, and at least $15 million among various funds—has demonstrated Orlando’s spirit to the nation. In the eight days after the attack, more than 1,200 volunteers assisted 956 persons from 298 families, according to the city.
Law enforcement, first responders, doctors and nurses, and other government officials all have exceeded their expected roles— especially those volunteers thrown into emergency assistance roles they were not trained for, including city administrators and secretaries, the mayor said.
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One of the memorials to the 49 mostly gay victims is on the front lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which is across the street from Dyer’s office on Orange Avenue. He says he walks over there a few times a day and has met people from all over the country offering condolences.
Dyer calls those visits “cathartic.” And no matter where he journeys around town, the mayor says he keeps hearing the same thing.
“I haven’t gone anywhere where people haven’t said they weren’t proud of Orlando.’’
“June 12th was the most horrific day in the history of our city,” said Dyer, who is keeping a journal on the event. “But I’m so proud of how the residents of our city have responded. Also, I said at the first press conference that we will not be defined by the hate-filled act of a killer. We will be defined by the response of love, compassion and unity. And that has borne out to be true.”
During his entire time in office, the mayor has preached inclusion. Now he is watching a community embrace it even more.
“Here’s the potential silver lining in this: A lot of people who may not have held the same point of view, in terms of diversity and equity and equality, have had a change of heart,'' Dyer said. "So I think it’s opening up a lot of hearts and minds related to that…The world has seen the response of our citizens and our hearts.”
Mayor Buddy Dyer's "talking points'' notes from his first press conference on June 12.