Surviving the Orlando Shooting: Pulse Bartender Shares His Experience
Michael Belvedere, who works and performs at the Florida LGBT club as drag queen Axel Andrews, explains how he made it out alive.
Orlando's Pulse nightclub has been part of 28-year-old Michael Belvedere's life for nearly seven years. The LGBT club was one of the places he began developing the drag queen persona Axel Andrews — whose drag mother is RuPaul's Drag Race vet/Orlando fixture Roxxxy Andrews — before joining the staff as a bartender and castmember about four years ago. Belvedere, who recently purchased a house, says he was able to do so "because of the love and opportunities Pulse had given me."
At 2 a.m. on Sunday, heavily armed gunman Omar Mateen opened fire and began taking hostages at the popular central Florida gay bar. Hours later, a SWAT team shot and killed Mateen, but not before the gunman declared his allegiance to ISIS and killed 49 people in what is now the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
As on most Saturdays, Belvedere was tending bar that night. After several tense, uncertain hours, he made it out alive. On Monday afternoon (June 13), Belvedere spoke to Billboard over the phone about his experience: what he saw, how he survived and helped others escape, and the unexpected kindness a stranger showed him after the tragedy.
How long have you been at Pulse?
I've been there coming up on seven years. I started off as an entertainer doing their talent shows and developing my character as an entertainer. I was working on and off there for a couple years. About four years ago is when I started bartending there. I became a castmember, hosting a talent show every Thursday, and I would bartend every Wednesday and Saturday.
So Saturday you were just bartending?
Were you in drag?
No. I started bartending in drag. The owner [Barbara Poma] thought it would be fun to have the entertainers be bartenders, and it started off fun, but it takes hours to get ready. We ended up making the same amount of money either way, so we decided it wasn't lucrative to bartend in drag.
I know it's a smaller-sized venue. What's its role in the Orlando gay scene?
In Orlando we consider the Pulse, Parliament House and Southern Nights the Big Three. Those are the clubs that are very stable, they've been there since the beginning. Pulse was about to celebrate 12 years. It was one of the more important nightclubs; it was the one for the younger kids. We used to get a lot of straight people too; I feel like 35-40 percent straight sometimes. It was a bar everyone could go to and feel comfortable at.
How many hours had you been working there on Saturday when the shooting started?
I'd been there since 10, when my shift starts. The bartender who is normally next to me was out of town, so I was next to a newer bartender. When that happens, I get a lot of my friend's clientele, so I was extremely busy. It was just a normal night, actually a really good night for me making good money. It was just a couple minutes before 2 o'clock when I heard the first gunshots.
Did you realize what was going on right away, or did you think it was music?
Everyone thought it was music. Especially the room I work in, it's called the Adonis Lounge; it's a separate room attached to the club. It's darker, there are dancers in there, and we have our own DJ, DJ Flawless. That room is older — I thought maybe the wiring was getting messed with when I heard the loud popping. And a lot of people thought it was the music as well and just continued to go along with the night.
When did you realize it wasn't music? Did you see the gunman?
I did not see the gunman. To be honest, the noise was so loud, it sounded like it was on top of me. Your first reaction is to get down. It literally felt like the gunman was next to me. The other bartender ran toward me and we were both lying down, but there was still a question if it was fake. Some of us thought it might be fireworks. Even at one point a girl who was hiding with us jumped up and, very drunkenly, was like, "This is fake, this isn't real." She almost made us believe her. Then the gunshots kept going. I remember lying on my back looking at the ceiling. I remember feeling like the gunshots were on top of me but they were getting louder and closer. At that point we all ran for our lives. I ran toward the back of the room. I don’t know what made me think… there's a back alley and I could have ran to the back alley and out through the parking lot, but I panicked and went into a dressing room. It had a lock on the door you needed a code for. I put the code in quicker than I've ever done it, and by the time I was in there, I noticed there were already people in there — one of them being Angelica Sanchez, our main entertainer at Pulse. She was just out having a good time; I don’t think she was working that night. She was terrified. At first it seemed there were only five of us in there, but then it came out there were eight of us; they were just hiding really well.
How long were you in the room?
We were in there for hours. I don’t know what happened, but I got into survival mode. Maybe because I didn't see the gunner, I still kind of doubted it — I was scared — but I tried to think what I'd do if he came in the room. Everyone was hiding, but I stood on a chair beside the door and I picked up the heaviest chair in the room and held it above my head for a while, waiting for him to open the door. I was going to try to hit him with it. I stood there for a while and realized there wasn't much noise for a little bit. Maybe five, 10 minutes, but I'll be honest, my timeframe was totally off — it could have been two minutes or 20.
So you were prepared.
Everyone else was hiding. The way I saw it, someone firing off so many shots, he couldn't have been selectively shooting. I figured if he came in, he wouldn't even blink before shooting all of us, so I figured I'd prepare myself and maybe damage him or stop him before he could just pick us off like fish in a barrel.
Did he attempt to come into the room?
At one point the door opened, very slightly, I don’t even think he looked through the crack. I also don’t know if it was him. Then it closed. I don’t know if he thought it was a storage closet or something, or it could have been someone else looking for a place to stay. But just for a second it was open and then it was closed again.
Was it silent in the room, or were you talking to each other?
In that room, there are makeup stations. There was a girl lying on the ground under one of the stations. I kneeled next to her near the door, still with the chair in my hand, preparing. I found out deep under the makeup station, where it was really dark, there was another girl hiding. And that girl was throwing up a lot. She'd had a lot to drink that night, that and between her nerves. That was the first noise for a while I heard. Angelica, she was calling all the people she loved and whispering to them, so I heard her. Next to her, there's a toilet in there with a privacy curtain; Angelica was there with three girls and two boys hiding behind the curtain. They would talk to each other and cry a lot.
Were you texting anyone?
It took me about 20 minutes. People were blowing up my phone, but I didn’t think I'd be able to talk. Then I started sending text messages. I didn’t want to worry my mom or my family so I sent them a text — maybe they thought I'd been drinking — that I loved them and they're the best family. And I sent a group text message to some of my best friends and people who have been there for me… just because if something happened and I never told them. I didn’t respond to any messages at first. Then my manager called me and I stayed on the phone with him. The police then guided me, through him, through the rest of the night.
When did it end?
At first we would hear some ruckus out there. There were times I'd go 10 minutes without hearing anything. And then I remember at one point I heard some really…blood-curdling screams from some girls who were out there. It sounded like a horror movie, it didn't sound real. I thought someone was playing a joke on us. It wasn't real. The screams were something out of a horror movie. I guess people tried running for it. I heard what I thought was a police officer by the way he was talking to them. He was yelling at them like "get down, motherf—er, put your hands down." To me it was something a cop would say, like, "Put your cell phone down, turn the light off." He kept calling them a motherf—er over and over. So for me, I was relieved because I thought it was the police but it turned out to be the shooter. I wound up shortly after that hearing more gunshots, and then it was silent for a really long time. I kept my ear toward the door, I still had the chair in my hand the whole time. I heard a glass break. Eventually the police…they were just talking to me, I was giving them diagrams of how to find us. And then eventually the police officers got people out in the dressing room across from us. I could hear the door open, get them out, and 30 minutes after that, we gave them a diagram to get to us, and they found a back wall behind us where there was an AC window unit mounted in cement. The police officer pushed it through, we caught it, and we all crawled out through the window.
It sounds like you took control of the situation.
Well, I tried. Two of the boys in there, they didn’t know English, the girls were hysterical, Angelica was praying because she's very spiritual so... When the police officer came, the first thing I worried about was that [the window] was a pretty small space, and my friend Angelica is not a small person. The first thing I thought was, "I'm not going to leave her." I was upset. I was like, "That means I'm not leaving." But we wound up getting Angelica through. I'll be honest: I'm disappointed the two boys went out before the girls. So the two boys went out and I stayed to help the girls go out. Because it was up in the wall, they needed help to stand on things, and then I was the last one to go out.
What did you feel when you were out?
Relief. People want to say so many negatives about the cops and stuff, but the first thing — every time I heard a cop, every time I heard a walkie-talkie, or I thought of a cop coming, it was like the presence of an angel. You prayed for that cop. When I crawled out of the window and saw the cops, they caught me — it was like a safety blanket. I felt safe right away.
They made us all stand in a line and put our hands on each other's shoulders and walked through the parking lot to the other street. Other people kept coming out, people that were hurt, people that were shot. They would pull up pickup trucks really quick, put someone into the back and drive them over to the hospital, which was just blocks away — that was a good thing. At one point we heard an explosion. We thought it was the bomb that was supposedly on him, but I guess the police officers detonated a bomb for some reason, or it might have been that they were knocking down a wall. I'm unsure of that. But I do know they knocked down a wall to get to hostages in the bathroom. And later on in the night, we heard just cops unloading on something. It was like fireworks, it was so fast, and I think that's when they took the gunman down.
Did you feel safe when you were waiting in the street?
I just wanted to leave and get as far away as possible. As far as my knowledge, they didn't know who did it or if he was still in there. I was terrified that he was somebody who, after doing it, threw his gun down and pretended to be a hostage. For all I knew they could have been bringing him to us as a hostage. That was something I was worried about. I just wanted to leave. My boyfriend was terrified — he was on the other side of the street waiting for me. I wanted him to leave. For all I knew, the gunman was running around still. A million thoughts were running through my head.
Honestly, it sounds like you were a hero in the situation.
I wouldn't say that. Maybe because I didn’t see it, it didn't seem real to me. I was kind of numb to it. Even right now, I'm pretty numb to it. I get my waves of emotion, but I haven’t been hysterical like some people. All of my extremely close friends and co-workers are safe. I keep wondering... There are some acquaintances I knew and cared about that they lost their lives.
Have you cried or have you not really processed it?
That's something I've been battling with since the instance. I've had a bunch of talks going through my head the whole time. While I was in there, I didn’t want to hear anything about deaths. When I was on the phone with my manager and people were behind him talking about actual people dying and being hurt, I told them to walk away. I didn’t want it to be real. I told him, "Listen, if anyone is talking about it, I don’t want to hear it." I don’t want to hear about how many bodies are out there. I told him if I was to walk through it later, I wanted to close my eyes. The main thing for me is you can't un-see something like that. I thought it would have control over my life. So I told them I didn't want to hear about it until I got out or see anything until I got out. I think that I am still pretty numb because I didn't visually witness anything. I have cried. I'm not somebody that cries at realistic things often. I cry at stupid things in movies, but in real life, I'm not much of a crier. Of course when I talked to my mom I cried a little bit. Later that night when I took a shower, I cried a little. But that's pretty much it.
As you mentioned, some of the people there were drunk. Had you been drinking that night?
They'd allow us [bartenders] to drink as long as we're responsible. We're not allowed to over-serve and we're very strict on things like that at Pulse. But it was actually just my birthday a couple weeks ago, so I did a lot of drinking that week. For my birthday, I always have three parties in a row at nightclubs, because I work at all of them. So I decided I'd take a little break from drinking, and I didn’t have anything to drink at all [that night]. I was just drinking ginger beer and soda water all night. That was a good thing too, because around 2 o'clock is when I usually use the bathroom if I've been drinking, and that's where a lot of the hostages were kept. Things like that were going through my head. What if I had walked on the dance floor to get change from the bar? I'll be honest, the main thing running through my head is that when I have my birthday party at Pulse, my biological family and my gay family, everybody is out for that. I couldn't stop thinking, "What if he chose that night where all my loved ones were there?"
Once you found out about the gunman, what were your thoughts?
I honestly at first thought it was a hate crime. I really did not think it was related to any form of terror. I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the places, he picked Pulse? It didn't make sense. Why would there be a national terror attack at this small bar? Then I started thinking about it. It was a Latin night. It was a gay bar. Out of all the gay bars, we're the one with a name like Pulse. Like your pulse, blood. We were called "the heartbeat of Orlando." It was kind of an obvious target, I guess, after I started thinking about all that.
A lot of people have been taking about gun control after this. What are your thoughts on that?
I felt very strongly about gun control. I try to keep my opinions to myself, especially when I don’t feel I'm educated enough. But I don’t think anybody should be able to purchase a gun that holds a certain number of rounds. I don’t think a person should be able to purchase a gun that's more than recreational. There's absolutely no point for anybody to own an automatic rifle. If somebody wants to shoot a gun, there should be ranges and areas if you need to get it out of your system, but you can't walk around with one. To have a handgun for protection or hunting is completely different, but to have a gun that's meant to obliterate something — a person or animal — that's not right. And hunters shouldn't even want a gun like that because to me, that would take the fun out of hunting, if you have an automatic weapon. To me, it logically makes no sense to have a gun like that besides being a toddler with a toy that's too big for them to handle.
Do you know if the club will reopen?
The club was demolished. They ripped out walls to get people out. Even if it hadn't… it breaks my heart [to say] because that's been my home for so long. I built my character there, made my living there. I just purchased a house because of the love and opportunities Pulse had given me. But I don’t think they'll be able to reopen. That building, that area, is always going to be remembered as such a tragic thing. I don’t know how Pulse can recover from it.
I wanted to share one other thing: After I got home, my friends were with me. I took my nap, woke up, and they wanted me to get out of the house and eat. I didn't want to leave, but they convinced me to go, so we went to a Tex-Mex place by the airport called Chuy's. The server wound up being gay, and there were nine of us. I think he knew what was going on, but he didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to make anything personal. But at the end of our meal, he took care of the entire check. He wrote on a blank piece of paper and gave it to us, saying we'd been through a lot and he was happy we were safe. It was one of the kindest things I'd ever experienced. We all started crying.
This story originally appeared on Billboard.com.