Early Sunday morning, hours before dawn, the city of Orlando was brutally attacked as a mass shooter opened fire in Pulse, a nightclub located in the heart of the city. Dozens were killed. Dozens were wounded.
Still early that Sunday but long after dawn, citizen after sweaty citizen waited in far-stretching lines across hot Central Florida, all to donate blood for the injured victims and replenish that which had been depleted. Around 300 of these givers found themselves in the Waterford Lakes Town Center, a common stop for the bright red, OneBlood bus.
“I have a friend that was there last night, and he’s actually still missing,” said local appeals analyst Marci Bookman. “When I woke up this morning and I saw what happened, I immediately went to his Facebook page, and I just started crying. I couldn’t stop.”
Bookman then called her friend, Rebecca Glogower, who suggested they go do something to help.
“Marci and I have tattoos from this past year, so unfortunately we can’t donate blood,” said Glogower, a disability case manager. “But, when we heard that there were three to five hour waits for blood, we knew people needed water; they need snacks. They need sunscreen, so we just came out.”
Glogower and Bookman even coordinated with others in the Target a few meters from the bus, saying some chose to bring water while others chose snacks or sunscreen. Glogower said it gave her hope seeing so many people lending a hand.
“We can’t give back to give blood, but this is what we can do,” Glogower said.
Bookman also said seeing everybody coming to help made her feel “happy and sad all at the same time.” Happy to be able to help, but sad there was a need for it in the first place.
“This isn’t right, you know?” Bookman said. “And, my friend, he should be at home right now, and I don’t know where he is. And, it’s killing me that I don’t know where he is. I don’t even need to talk to him. I just want to make sure that he’s okay, and I don’t even know that.”
Bookman said she would have driven herself crazy had she just stayed home and thought about him. Alternatively, she chose to leave the house and work for the cause.
“I know that he would want me to be out here helping, so that’s what I wanted to do,” Bookman said.
The women were only two of many distributing supplies that day. Wendy Austin and her husband Kelly were among the first in line to give blood, and after waiting in the sun for over an hour, they were thankful for the free-of-charge refreshments provided.
“It’s been amazing,” Kelly Austin said. “Everybody’s donating water, donating fruit, doing wonderful things to help everyone else that’s in line.”
Austin, who had never given blood before, chose Sunday to do so as his way to help out.
“People have brought energy bars. Little kids have been walking around passing out oranges and bananas. Somebody walked by and gave out sunscreen, which was helpful,” Wendy Austin said. “It’s just become a big party.”
Despite likening the impromptu event to a party, Austin described the actual shooting from a few hours before as both cowardly and horrible. Still, she appreciated the unity the community displayed following the tragedy.
“This is the true Orlando,” Austin said.
Mirroring Austin’s description, Samantha Mitchell, an employee at Cricket Wireless across the street from the Target plaza, brought ice and water to help cool off those waiting in the sun.
“I’ve been in the military for nine years,” Mitchell said. “I’ve watched a lot of bad things happen, and this is probably one of the worst and the closest to home. So, it’s time for everybody in this city to come together and just love one another.”
Mitchell’s expression of this was staying “until the last person goes home.”
“If (the bus is) here till one o’clock in the morning, then we’re here till one in the morning,” Mitchell said.
There were so many people ready to donate that they were eventually turned away and encouraged to make appointments throughout the week instead. Sara Ellis, a phlebotomist with OneBlood for three months, called the event “the most insane thing I've ever seen.”
“It’s really sweet. It’s really cool,” Ellis said. “All the businesses are coming out and helping people. It’s hot out there, and they’re giving out free waters.”
Ellis had a long day before her, expecting Sunday’s “bleeds” - the amount of time the bus is open for blood donation - to be almost twice that of a normal day. The young phlebotomist said she dealt with the hectic schedule by “holding (her) breath and smiling.”
“And a lot of coffee,” she said.
If you would like to donate blood for the lost or injured victims of Sunday’s attack, visit www.oneblood.org to find a location near you. The FDA blood ban against non-celibate gay men remains in effect.
Story originally published on June 13, 2016.