What it’s like to... Comfort first responders
We awoke that Sunday — 12 June 2016 — to news that there had been a shooting at a local nightclub. As we headed for church, we saw helicopters hovering over downtown Orlando. By the time we arrived, we learned there were 50 dead, including the shooter.
My wife, Pamala, and I were stationed in Orlando with the Salvation Army. We had an emergency canteen — a food truck — that could serve 1,000 meals a day. We offered to help the first responders, and city and county officials accepted almost immediately.
The canteen was stocked and a crew assembled by noon. After a short prayer, we rolled out to the site of the shooting, where police had cordoned off several square blocks. We were waved through, and we parked about a block from the Pulse nightclub. We set up tables and began serving food.
As the temperature soared, I delivered bottles of ice-cold water to the police in their squad cars. As I passed the front of the club, I saw tiny, numbered plastic tents, which I understood marked the locations of bullet casings. I had realized cognitively what had happened, but seeing those little tents helped me see the enormity of the situation. These were people having a good time, and suddenly all hell broke loose. I saw the result of blatant evil and realized, in a gut-wrenching way, the fragility and preciousness of life.
Our team remained on-site the remainder of the day; a small crew served coffee and doughnuts overnight. Someone asked how long we planned to stick around. I said, “As long as the first responders are here, we’ll be here to feed them.”
The next day, the city pitched two large air-conditioned tents. One of them was the quiet tent for the first responders; the rest of us respected the sacredness of that tent and never entered. We used the other tent to serve food donated by local restaurants. There wasn’t a lot of laughter, but the mood wasn’t morbid. We provided a chance for the police, the medical examiners in their scrubs, the officials in jackets emblazoned FBI and ATF, to step away from their terrible task and enjoy a meal. One of the volunteers brought in red-and-white checkered tablecloths and potted plants for each table. That made a big difference. There was a feeling of calmness, a sense of peace.
Three times a day, we walked over to the club. The walls were pocked with bullet holes, and there was a gaping hole where the SWAT team had stormed the building. Standing in a circle holding hands, we would each say a word of prayer for the families of the dead, for the wounded at the hospital, and for all the first responders.
During the nine days that the on-site investigation took place, we provided more than 6,300 meals and 26,000 drinks. It was a privilege to be there, to touch the lives of people going through such turmoil. To have played a small part in that was meaningful for all of us. Our lives will never be the same.