America, says Patience Carter sadly over the phone from New York, has moved on from Orlando. But six months after the mass shooting, which left 49 people dead and 53 injured, the 20-year-old survivor feels few lessons have been learned.
Carter, a student, was on holiday in the Florida city with her best friend, Tiara Parker, when the pair decided to go with Parker’s cousin, Akyra Murray, to Pulse nightclub to celebrate 18-year-old Murray’s graduation from high school. “The energy in the club was amazing,” Carter remembers. “Everyone was smiling.”
The three women made friends with other clubbers, watched Beyoncé and J-Lo tribute acts, and danced to hip-hop until they realised it was almost time to leave. “I glanced at Akyra’s phone and it was 1.58am,” she says. “I asked how we were getting home and Tiara said she was about to order an Uber; in the space of that conversation we started hearing gunshots.”
The gunman, Omar Mateen, had entered the nightclub and begun his killing spree. Carter and her friends didn’t know what was happening, and only knew it was serious because the “energy in the room changed. There was fear and shock.” Carter dropped to the floor and then escaped through a nearby exit, but after Murray joined her, they went back inside to get Parker, who had fled in a different direction. When they found her, the three of them joined clubbers hiding in a bathroom and locked themselves in a disabled stall.
Pinned down by an injured clubber called Jason, Carter said they were trapped in the bathroom for almost three hours. When the police arrived, Mateen began shooting in the bathroom. “He said: ‘Hey you.’ Then, pow! He shot somebody. ‘Hey you’. Pow! He shot somebody else.”
Carter says her mind could not process the sudden lurch into tragedy, and even when Mateen began spraying the stalls with bullets, it took her a few seconds to realise she was truly in danger. “I had two holes in my leg, Akyra was shot in the arm and Tiara was bleeding too.” When Mateen turned towards Carter, Jason shielded her body with his own, saving her life. He, along with Murray, was among those killed on 12 June.
She still walks with a limp, and the constant pain is an ever-present reminder. “Physically I am still connected to what happened. When I hear loud noises, it reminds me of being in there.”
Carter has not returned to Orlando, but has written a song about overcoming pain, and says she and Parker meet other survivors whenever they are offered the chance. She has also had to deal with anonymous phone calls and texts from conspiracy theorists who claim the shooting never happened. Some have even warned that they would “expose” her as an actor. “It’s such an insult – clearly people have no idea how it feels to survive something like this. I was shot in both legs. I am never going to feel the same way again.”
But the media, culture and communications student is also frustrated at how quickly the debates that the shooting sparked have slipped from the agenda once the news cycle moved on. “Why do we wait for something terrible to happen before we start having conversations about terrorism, gun control or hate crime? I just wish people would have these conversations without a new headline.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010