ORLANDO, Fla. (FOX 35 ORLANDO) - Pulse victims, survivors, loved ones and community leaders gathered in front of the temporary memorial on Monday, showing their support for a major announcement.
Only days before the third anniversary of the worst attack on gay people in the U.S., members of central Florida's congressional delegation said Monday they were introducing legislation that would designate as a national memorial the gay nightclub where 49 people were massacred by a supporter of the Islamic State.
U.S. Reps. Darren Soto and Stephanie Murphy, both Democrats, said at a ceremony outside the former nightclub that the designation will preserve and protect Pulse for future generations and give it the federal recognition it deserves.
“This will give this hallowed ground the federal recognition it deserves. Especially those who lost everything,” said Congressman Soto.
Designating Pulse as a national memorial will make Pulse part of the national park system.
“It’s an incredibly important bill needed to bring national attention to what occurred here. It also helps us to honor lives of victims, survivors and first responders. A federally recognized memorial shows congress views the Pulse shooting as a national event,” said Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy.
It will be three years on Wednesday that gunman Omar Mateen opened fire at the Orlando gay nightclub on Latin night. Mateen, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, was killed in a shootout with police after a three-hour standoff inside Pulse.
At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. However, the mass shooting in 2017 along the Las Vegas Strip became the deadliest when 58 people were killed.
The designation would have significant meaning to Kate Maini. She worked at Pulse from the club’s opening day to its last, having survived the tragedy.
“The memorial will be a place to heal, it’ll be a place to cry when you need to cry and it will be a reminder that every moment here matters. It will be a place to go to remember the 13 years of laughing, dancing love and support,” she told the crowd.
Pulse owner Barbara Poma has established a nonprofit to open a memorial and museum at the site. About $14 million has been raised for the $50 million project. Six design firms have been selected as finalists and the winner will be chosen in the fall. The permanent memorial and museum are scheduled to open in 2022. Poma told reporters that the OnePulse Foundation would still make all the major decisions on the memorial.
Soto said the national memorial designation would allow the Pulse site to become part of the national park system while still allowing for the nonprofit to maintain control over it.
“It really gives such dignity and respect to what happened here and ensures what I’ve always wanted: that it will never be forgotten long after we’re not here to tell the story anymore, and that our government recognizes what happened here," Poma said.
Congressman Soto said he just introduced the bill (HB3094) to the U.S. House of Representatives last week. Also backing the bill is U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla.
The ceremony at Pulse was interrupted briefly by the mother of Christopher "Drew" Leinonen, who was killed at the nightclub. Christine Leinonen began shouting at Poma when she came to the speaker's podium. Two police officers escorted her out of the ceremony, and they were followed by two state lawmakers and a city commissioner who talked to Leinonen for several minutes while the ceremony continued.
Afterward, Leinonen blamed Poma for inadequate security at the nightclub. Leinonen and other families also have sued Poma and her husband for negligence and wrongful death in state court and that lawsuit is pending.
"My son's blood is on her hands, and she's walking around like she's the hero," said Leinonen, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. "This is Orlando. This is where everyone wants to be in a fairy tale. Well, guess what? My son wasn't in a fairy tale. My son was in a real-life horror movie."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.