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SLIDESHOW: After Mass Shooting, An Effort To Collect And Preserve An Outpouring Of Pulse Memorial Items

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Mourners continue to lay items in front of Pulse more than a month after the June 12 mass shooting. Photo by Amy Green
The Pulse memorial is the last of a half-dozen that sprang up after the massacre. The others have been dismantled. Photo by Amy Green
A younger sister left this tribute for 22-year-old Luis Vielma, who was among those slain at Pulse. Photo by Amy Green
Pam Schwartz of the Orange County Regional History Center is leading the conservation effort. Michael Perkins is museum manager. Items collected are brought to this fifth floor archive room of the history center. Photo by Amy Green
This rosary from the Vatican was among the items left at Pulse memorial sites in Orlando. Photo by Amy Green
Many Pulse memorial items are rainbow-colored. Photo by Amy Green
Schwartz says many of the colors used in pieces of artwork left at Pulse memorial sites bled together in the rain, much like the way the community was wounded but came together after the massacre. Photo by Amy Green

Pam Schwartz kneels and pulls from a bush a weathered piece of red construction paper decorated with hand-made hearts. “Sending love and support during this difficult time,” the paper reads. “New Jersey loves Orlando.”

“This kind of piece we’ll kind of try to clear as much of the sand and dirt and dried leaves and things off of it, and then we’ll go over and put it in our press to try to flatten it out, and if there is any moisture, to start to pull that out,” Schwartz says.

She walks the item over to a canopy that she and her team from the Orange County Regional History Center have raised in front of Pulse. Carefully she wipes the item of ants and mold, flower pollen and sand.

Finally she places the item between sheets of paper and lowers a handled metal weight over it.

Beyond the canopy hundreds of expressions of grief and sympathy line the chain-link fence in front of the black-painted nightclub, now silent and shrouded by a dark drape hanging from the enclosure. There are flags from across the globe, scribbled with signatures. There are bows, stars and plush toys. Votive candles are arranged in the shape of an EKG, a heartbeat, a pulse.

There are photos of the 49 who lost their lives.

“It’s still shocking how young everyone was,” says Jonathan Osteen, who traveled from Jacksonville to see the tribute. “It just blows my mind. Some of them were not even 21 because you can be 18 to get into the club. Their lives were just beginning.”

A few feet away the history center’s Adam Ware pauses from his conservation work, wipes a brow and eyes an eight- to 10-foot banner bearing photos of the 49 mounted on oranges.

“You’re seeing people reaching out for connections with these people but also a new way of identifying themselves, and who are we if this is something that can happen in our community. And so you’re seeing people appeal to symbols that we all share.”

Standing in the shade of the canopy the history center’s Emilie Arnold recalls the item that has moved her most, a glass votive candle holder she picked up from a memorial at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The holder was filled with rain water and a two-page note folded up. Arnold remembers unfolding the note and reading it.

“It was front-to-back, a notebook page that was completely covered with words, and she was just dealing with what it meant to be someone in this community who didn’t know anyone who was hurt but is grieving. Because she can’t believe this has happened. She can’t understand the lack of humanity about it.”

Saving Each Item

An outpouring of flowers, candles, artwork and much more were laid at memorial sites in Orlando in the weeks after the Pulse mass shooting. Now an effort is underway to collect and preserve these items. As leader of the history center’s preservation Pam Schwartz has made sure her team understands the goal is to save every item here.

“We can’t make promises to save every single item because some of the items are just destroyed before we can even get to them.”

The items saved take a ride up the elevator to the archive room on the fifth floor of the history center. They are left to dry after their somber display in the central Florida humidity and rain. Schwartz hunches over a conference room-sized table filled with Pulse memorial items. She takes up a palm-sized silver box containing a rosary from the Vatican and carefully begins wrapping it in paper.

“Unless you custom-make every box there’s always going to be some space, and you want at least a little bit of space around your artifact so it’s not rubbing. So we’ll take this acid-free tissue paper, and we’ll kind of build up around it. I kind of roll it to keep it from moving around in the box.”

The task ahead for the history center is monumental. Some 2,500 items have been collected from Pulse memorial sites in Orlando since the massacre. One-by-one each item is boxed up here and transported to off-site storage accessible to few because of the regional treasures housed there.

Among the items already in storage are 49 white wooden crosses that were displayed outside the Orlando Regional Medical Center. Schwartz says extra care was taken with the crosses.

“You want to keep dust off of these items. You don’t know if the paint is going to get tacky in terms of chemical breakdown. There’s a lot of science behind the conservation process. So in order to keep those safe we had custom-made boxes that are acid free. They actually have a clear front to them so you can actually see those items. They’re not hidden away or anything.”

Saving Each Story

Eventually each item again will be unpacked and catalogued with any related information, making it possible to search in years ahead for, say, the number of items with rainbow-colored hearts. But let’s go back to that rosary she wrapped in paper. Schwartz remembers the woman who left it.

“For her it was basically, on an anonymous basis, that I’m a little low on my paycheck right now, and I couldn’t go out and buy flowers. And so what did I have that was important that was going to give some piece of me in memory of these others, and she had gone several years earlier on a trip to the Vatican, and these were the types of things that she brought back, was a rosary from the Vatican.”

She says the aim is to save not only each item but each story.

“Hopefully in the future the families will be able to actually see this and know that story, but that’s just one example. I mean, we’ve probably got 20 to 25 items laying here on this table specifically. And we can see the artifact, and we can read it and we can look at it and we can try to make our own inferences. But each one has a very personal story.”

Back at the Pulse nightclub, Darline Soto is tearful as she arrives with a bouquet of flowers.

“Just to say that I’m praying for you. And for the families I’m praying for you.”

Kim Blue drops a faded string bracelet she has worn every day since she got it three years ago at a Pride event.

“It’s the colors of the rainbow, and it represents unity to me and it represents love for everybody.”

Nearby Pam Schwartz and her team from the history center face a difficult decision. They are gathered around a poster wrapped in plastic, a tribute created by a younger sister for 22-year-old Luis Vielma, who was among those slain. Schwartz reads the message.

“I remember the last tight hug I gave you before I left for Mexico. You tried letting me go sooner, but I held on tight to annoy you. You pushed me away playfully and complained to mom.”

She is overcome with emotion. She takes a moment to collect herself and then ponders the dilemma.

“It is wrapped in plastic, but again if there’s any hole in that and it starts to condensate that marker is going to bleed. And so this is one of our hard moments where we have to decide leave it and let people enjoy it and see it and experience it or take it and save it for the future.”

The history center employees decide to leave the poster where it is but watch it closely for moisture damage. At that point they will collect and begin conserving that item, too.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »