Interview With the Newscasters to First Report on the Pulse Shooting

By Christian Saenz

Like anyone who wasn’t in Orlando in June of last year, I experienced the Pulse shooting through the news. I watched the breathless coverage as new information poured in, the shocked speeches from city officials, and the calls for unity from religious leaders. And some of us watching that coverage were, perhaps, a little closer to the tragedy, being LGBTQIA ourselves and realizing very suddenly that our safety was not guaranteed.

I had the opportunity to see a different side of the coverage. See, it was summer time and I was staying with my dad in Ormond beach. My father, Saul Saenz is a reporter for Channel 13 Central News, which, having its studio in Orlando, was the main source of coverage. I watched the initial reports of the shooting with him — he was waiting to be called in. I watched him, day after day, reporting on the aftermath and coming home exhausted.

I had a long conversation with the Executive Producer at Channel 13 at the time, April Owens, the day after the shooting. She had been the one to call Saul that night. She had been the one to receive calls about the event as it happened. She was, in many ways, the one responsible for how we all found out about the event.

A year later, I took the opportunity to talk to them about that experience:

First, for clarity’s sake, could you tell me how you were involved in the coverage of the shooting?

Saul Saenz: I covered day of. Although it was my day off, I felt compelled to drive to Orlando that same morning, hours after the shooting. I covered the LGBTQIA community and how they were reacting and coping with the massacre. It was amazing how people from different parts of the state came together to lean on each other.

April Owens: As the Executive Producer, I called in crews and sent the staff we already had in-house down to the scene to get our first reports — including staff that weren’t even reporters. I made the call to get us on the air hours before our first broadcast was scheduled to start and I kept us in non-stop coverage for almost 14 hours before finally coming out of the control room and letting the next wave take over. I set up the live phone interviews with officials and witnesses, chose what live pictures of the scene you saw and coordinated live reports from our reporters and producers at the scene.

Can you tell me about the nightclub itself?

Saul Saenz: Before the shooting, Pulse was a nightclub which exemplified fun, a let-lose sort of lifestyle. It held the “Great Gatsby” sense of exuberance, as well as unity amount the patrons.

I have [visited since last year]. But never during off-work hours. It’s always been as a part of our coverage on follow-ups. I think that’s because we strive to distance ourselves from the story we cover.

April Owens: Pulse was one of the first gay clubs I’d been in. I found it to be one of the most welcoming, accepting and genuinely happy places I’d ever been. I even celebrated New Years there — my first year in Orlando. I’d been in that bathroom so many times that I couldn’t help but tear up reading the reports about the massacre in there because I knew the layout perfectly and that his victims had no where to go. That makes me shiver knowing he spent time there to know that, too.

After the shooting, the area around the club was blocked off. I did drive by when they took down the roadblocks, but the building was still pretty well hidden from view. That didn’t stop people from putting up a makeshift memorial around the building with posters and pictures and flowers and stuffed animals.

Since the netting and screens and crime scene tape has come down, I have not been back. I plan to visit in the next few weeks, and I don’t honestly know how I’m going to feel seeing the shell of a place that was once a safe haven for those in the LGBTQIA community. It was a warzone that morning and seeing it there empty and alone I believe may move me more than I’m prepared for.

On the night of the shooting, what was the first indication you had that something was wrong?

SS: On the night of the shooting, I was told by my executive producer that something was terribly wrong. I was told multiple people were shot and that the self-proclaimed shooter called our station, proclaiming his devotion to Allah.

AO: I had to be in early that morning and had actually just gone through the drive-thu at the Dunkin Donuts — literally just a few feet across the street. My station was only a few blocks down Orange Avenue from the club and by the time I pulled into the parking lot, one of my producers was calling me to say that he was getting a lot of calls about a shooting and it sounded like it was something big. The phones were ringing off the hook when I walked into the newsroom and the look on my producer’s face told me something major was going down.

Could you describe some of the calls the station got about what was going on?

AO: The calls were frantic. Everyone was desperate to let us know that what they were telling us was no joke and needed assurance that we knew the club was under attack and that help was on the way. There were so many calls tying up the lines with 9–1–1 dispatch that people were calling us for information about what we knew happened. Some of them were patrons who had made it outside and agreed to let me call them back for live interviews once we could get on the air. Others were sobbing because they’d made it out before Mateen had shut the front doors, locking his victims in the line of fire.

One man told me he could hear banging on the door and screams coming from inside but he didn’t have to describe what he was hearing — I could hear it for myself. I heard the screams. I heard the gunshots. I heard the cries for help from those who were there desperate to know where they could go that was safe, where they could take the victims who’d made it out.

One woman’s voice in particular I think will stay with me forever… she said she was inside the club and sobbed that she didn’t want to die. I didn’t hear any gunshots at that time, so can only assume that happened in the brief period he took to reload and make a couple of phone calls. One of the phone calls Mateen would make would be to our newsroom and my producer next to me would be the one to take that call.

That woman was the last person I spoke to on the phone and it took everything in me to force myself to stay calm and tell her that we did know they were inside the club. That we did know there was a shooter. And that they were not alone — help was on the way. I don’t know if she survived. And when I hear her voice in my head I hope that mine was not the last she heard — a lie that she was going to be ok.

You mentioned the shooter also called the station. What do you remember of that?

AO: I remember I was in between calls and realized my producer had stopped answering the phone. Before I could ask him what was wrong he turned to me and in all seriousness said, “I think I just talked to the shooter.” I wasn’t really sure what to think … he said the call had started the way many of the others had — with someone asking us if we knew about a shooting at Pulse. Matt replied that we did and that help was on the way, but that’s when the voice on the phone said, “Well, I did it. It’s me. I’m the shooter. And I did it in the name of — “ then he started speaking a foreign language.

When he finished, Matt asked him if he had anything else he wanted to tell us. The man said no, and then once again repeated what we now know to be a pledge to Allah. And then he hung up. I wrote down the phone number and traced the area code to Omar Mateen’s town and I was surprised to see he had a Florida number. That made my heartbeat quicken a bit, realizing this was someone who lived here and probably had a lot of knowledge of the area — especially if he knew the number to our newsroom!

We tried to call police, but the lines were jammed with the hundreds of phone calls and even our contacts at the police and sheriff’s officers weren’t answering. It was about 4 hours later that Matt finally got through to speak to someone at the police department, like 7 AM or 8 AM, and the FBI showed up to question us around 4 PM that afternoon.

Can you speak to what your guiding principles were for covering the aftermath?

SS: My guiding principles were to tell the story in an unbiased, compelling way. I wanted to let our viewer know that what the killer was targeting was his own beliefs about a community and not the[1] “who” he was targeting, a community of people, who regardless their origin, gender, or preference, stood tall and firm in the face of a cowardly terrorist who chose to die rather than face what he hated, and subsequently feared, the most.

AO: There were several things to consider in the days that followed, but I think the biggest theme in our decision-making was how to cover this as part of the community, for our community. My newsroom as a rule doesn’t show a lot of blood, bodies, or exploit grieving family members. However, all of that is very hard to adhere to when you are live in the middle of it. You can’t help but show the scene around you and the people you are interviewing at the scene are so shaken because of what they’ve seen or waiting for information about a loved one and fearing the worst, so that sort of raw emotion is telling the story, too.

We ultimately decided to stop showing a lot of the video after about a week because, much like coverage of 9/11, the victims’ families don’t need to see those reminders played over and over and over every time they turn on the TV. We also chose NOT to give the shooter the recognition he was looking for in his attack; we did not want him to become a martyr. To that end, we decided that after a few hours of officials releasing his name that moving forward, Omar Mateen would be known simply as “the shooter.”

We also had to decide when it was time to pull back from around-the-clock coverage and that we would give air time we would give to all Spanish language interpretations at news conferences and memorials because so many of the victims were Hispanic.

Can you tell me about the reaction the community had to the shooting?

SS: What sticks in my memory the most is how one man chose to divide a community [2] but brought the world together instead. The love spread beyond Orlando to the reaches of the planet. There were marches and candlelight vigils honoring the victims and proclaiming their allegiance to a community. So much changed, from the way we view the LGBTQIA community to the way to the way first responders react in a terrorist attack. People’s attitudes toward the gay community evolved. Orlando law enforcement is much more mindful of security and makes a great effort to make sure the population is safe.

AO: First and foremost, how quickly people lined up to give blood. Volunteers were wrapped around blocks at several blood bank locations within hours- a huge show of support for a community that can’t themselves donate because of their sexual orientation. Also, the church across the street was in the crime zone so they canceled services, but member so the congregation still showed up, opened their doors for anyone wanting prayer or counseling and provided a constant supply of food and water to first responders. Also, there have been rainbows popping up in lights and flags across the City Beautiful that are still up to this day.

In the days the followed, there were several cries for more security- man power and/or metal detectors at the doors of clubs, security cameras, etc, but those demands have died down. For tactical reasons, police and the sheriff’s office have not given specifics but have said this was a game changer for them — they expected and trained for a terror attack to happen at a theme park, the malls, even the airport — NOT a regular club in the city. In interviews, Sheriff Deming’s also told us it highlighted areas for improvements in interdepartmental communication. But I think the biggest change in every day life is the realization that the hypothetical attack has now happened and we survived. We are more aware of our surroundings and don’t take our safety for granted.

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