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TSA Turmoil

‘Tell My Managers I’ll Be Waiting For Them In Hell.’

On February 2, 2019, Transportation Security Officer Robert Henry jumped to his death from the tenth floor of the Hyatt hotel inside Orlando International Airport.

The last line of his suicide note: “Tell my managers I will be waiting for them in Hell. Especially the ones who feel this was necessary.”

An investigation by WMFE has found a pattern of abuse and retaliation at Orlando International Airport and across TSA.

  • Multiple TSA agents said Robert Henry was bullied at work, but an official investigation by TSA has not yet been released.
  • Robert Henry was trying to leave Orlando International Airport and move back near his family, but couldn’t transfer because he had been written up.
  • The death has brought out years of allegations of retaliation among airport workers under former Federal Security Director Jerry Henderson.
  • Two officers responding to a WMFE survey have been hospitalized for suicide attempts or thoughts, and said TSA was a major contributing factor.
    TSA agent Robert Henry jumped to his death inside Orlando International airport. WMFE Investigates

    Security officer Robert Henry jumped to his death inside the airport. Photo courtesy Sylvia Henry

Henderson has been temporarily replaced while TSA investigates Henry’s death.

TSA released a statement that says any incidents of bullying or workplace issues “have been promptly investigated.” TSA officials have started an administrative inquiry after Henry’s death and “has continued to actively investigate personnel concerns raised by our workforce. TSA places a high priority on addressing any workplace and personnel concerns when they are raised.”

But did TSA fail Robert Henry?

“I would say any time we have a situation where an employee feels this lost, that they feel that they have no other choice but to take their life, we have all failed as a society,” said Acting Deputy TSA Administrator Patricia Cogswell in an exclusive interview with WMFE. “I think this is something devastating on a day-to-day basis that hurts his family, that hurts his airport family, that hurts us as an agency.

“I can’t express enough my sadness that this happened,” Cogswell said.

But Robert Henry’s family still has questions about what happened that morning.

'I have resolved to take matters into my own hands' What we know - and don't know - about Robert Henry's death

Robert Henry jumped from the tenth floor of Hyatt inside the airport. Photo by Isaac Babcock

At 9:28 a.m., Robert Henry hit send on an email to family and friends. Three minutes later, he killed himself.

In the email, Henry said he had nodded off at work and it looked like he was about to be fired. He’d recently switched shifts and was having trouble staying awake on the early-morning shift.

Henry, 36, had worked for TSA his entire adult life. He wrote that if he lost his job, he had no other purpose.

“I jist(sic) can’t help making myself a target for management,” Henry wrote. “I will NOT burden my parents with my issues so I have resolved to take matters into my own hands.”

He finished the email: “Tell my managers I will be waiting for them in Hell. Especially the ones who feel this was necessary.”

Henry took the elevator to the tenth floor of the Hyatt International inside the Orlando airport. He climbed up onto the railing overlooking the atrium and fountain.

TSA Supervisor Felicita Alicea heard someone on her radio tell her to look up. She immediately recognized Robert Henry. She had previously been one of his supervisors.

“I was calling out to him, like, ‘Robert, what are you doing,’ like, ‘Robert what’s going on, what are you doing?’And I’m waving my arms to him,” Alicea said. “And he looked down and saw me, put his head back up. He closed his eyes, put his arms outward and he just leaned forward and … dropped.”

911 calls for TSA agent suicide at MCO Orlando Airport. WMFE 90.7 News Investigates

LISTEN: Robert Henry’s impact caused a flood of panicky 911 calls. Photo by Isaac Babcock

Robert Henry’s family still has questions about his death. His airport access badge was initially unaccounted for.

They wonder if it was taken from him that morning and that he was fired right before he jumped. And if that’s the case: Why did no one walk Henry out? Why wasn’t a union representative in the room when he was fired?

Deb Hanna is the union officer representing TSA employees at the Orlando airport. Hanna said Robert Henry’s immediate supervisor was not going to write him up for nodding off – but that a different officer went over that supervisor’s head and got managers involved.

Hanna said Robert Henry was brought into a meeting with managers that morning. He was told he was being investigated for falling asleep. That investigation would take weeks or months to conclude, she said.

“They were gonna have to investigate,” Hanna said. “But he was not at that point fired, and everybody is saying that and that’s not true.”

Hanna has seen the paperwork Robert Henry filled out to go home early that morning. Robert Henry told his supervisors he wanted to go home because he had a toothache. And instead of leaving, he walked across the airport and jumped to his death.

Hanna said TSA’s own investigation into Robert Henry’s death concluded that Robert Henry was not bullied. Rather, TSA said employees who say Robert Henry was bullied are disgruntled.

Hanna disagrees with that conclusion.

“I think when you have TSA investigating TSA, you’re not ever gonna get the right answer or an honest answer,” she said. “Because you’ve got the fox watching over the chicken coop.”

According to a public records request filed by WMFE, Robert Henry’s airport access badge wasn’t deactivated until five days after his death. But there is still no official accounting of what happened that morning.

“I would love to see the truth, the whole truth, to come out,” said Sylvia Henry, Robert Henry’s mother. “I would like to see a timeline of what happened to Robert on that morning.”

TSA responded to our interview request as the series went to air. Acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell confirmed to WMFE that TSA’s investigation concluded Robert Henry was not targeted or bullied by TSA managers. She said lawyers are currently reviewing it for release to the family and the public.

“The report did find he was not specifically targeted by management,” Cogswell said. “However, the report also highlighted where he had been having a number of issues.”

Listen: The full interview with TSA Acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell

Listen: The full story of the investigation into Robert Henry’s death as heard on air 

To His Friends, He Was A Gentle Giant To His Bullies, He Was 'Lurch'

Robert Henry spent several holidays with Brenda Shearer’s family. Photo courtesy Brenda Shearer.

When Sylvia Henry thinks about her son Robert, one of the first things she remembers is his love of Disney movies.

“He loved to sing along with the songs of the Disney movies,” Sylvia said. She remembers Robert singing “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty. “He would sing the whole song.”

His childhood dream of living near Orlando’s theme parks was one of the reasons Robert transferred from Dulles International Airport to Orlando International Airport. He left his family in Virginia trying to become his own man.

But in Orlando, his dream turned into a nightmare.

“Here in Orlando, people behind his back called him Lurch,” said Stan Tuchalski.

Tuchalski was Robert’s supervisor at Dulles and then again in Orlando. He was also Robert’s coworker and friend.

He said Robert took a pay cut and a demotion to come to Orlando.

But Tuchalski said Robert wasn’t prepared for the bullying he would get from managers and other officers.

“I never saw him as a Lurch,” Tuchalski said. “I knew him to be intelligent. I knew him to be someone who dearly loved his parents and enjoyed his brothers.”

Robert and his siblings on a family vacation. Photo courtesy Sylvia Henry

Tuchalski said not enough of Robert’s managers got to know him the way he did. He said Robert could seem quiet and even withdrawn in Orlando.

That’s why he said shortly after Robert arrived at the airport, he started having problems with his coworkers.

“And I think because of that people misread him,” Tuchalski said. “And then people presumed things about him. People ostracized him. And sometimes in the misunderstandings, things developed.”

Brenda Shearer is a retired TSA officer who was like a second mother to Robert Henry. She took him under her wing after she saw him being bullied. She said the bullying took many forms, including being written up for things in excess.

“He could be doing the exact same thing as somebody else, like have their phone out,” Shearer said. “And he would be the one getting written up and somebody else wouldn’t get written up because they were buddy-buddy with a supervisor or manager or lead.”

Robert Henry at the parks with the Shearers. Photo courtesy Brenda Shearer

Shearer, like Stan Tuchalski, said she also observed colleagues making fun of Robert behind his back.

“He walked away from the podium and all of them just started talking, ‘He is the weirdest man I’ve ever met in my entire life. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him’,” Shearer said.

“And I was standing there and I just looked at everybody and I went, ‘Y’all need to just shut up, I’m done with all of you.’ And I walked away.”

That’s when Shearer started standing up to Robert’s bullies with him. She said Robert and her were a team after that.

“My eyes were opened,” Shearer said. “And I went-you need me. Wherever you are, you find me. I’m there. Don’t worry about it. I got your back.”

When space opened up on her family’s farm in St. Cloud, Shearer invited Robert to come live with her and her two adult sons. She said Robert fit right in with her family. He taught her sons video games, drove them to school, and took them to see Marvel movies.

Robert Henry and his brother at the parks. Photo courtesy Sylvia Henry

“He was so sweet and had a big rip-roaring laugh,” Shearer said “They would sit there at the dining room table and I would be like ‘What are we talking about? Can we talk Star Wars because I at least understand that’.”

But Shearer said this didn’t make the bullying any less hard on Robert. He would tell her about wanting to go home when things got really bad.

“He said ‘They kept moving me around. They kept putting me in places nobody else would go.’ I said- ‘Robert be strong you got this. I’ve got your back. There’s people there that care about you. And we just need to get you out of that airport.”

Shearer said at work, things would follow a pattern with Robert. She remembered a time Robert got a bonus for spotting a bag that shouldn’t have gotten through screening.

“He was the only one and he got a $500 spot award,” she said. “So he would be exceptional and then they would ding him for something.”

Robert Henry on a ride at the parks. Photo courtesy Sylvia Henry

Stan Tuchalski remembers telling Robert he should move back home to Virginia in 2018, a year before he died.

Lawmakers were talking about privatizing the Orlando TSA at the time, and no one was sure if they’d have a job when it was all over.

“Rob was experiencing some difficulty at that time and I remember having a conversation with him in the food court. And saying, ‘You know Rob, Why don’t you go back to Dulles? You thrived in Dulles’.”

But Tuchalski said Robert told him he had just gotten written up again for having his phone out.

That meant Robert would have to wait a year before he could apply for a transfer.

Robert Henry and his parents. Photo courtesy Sylvia Henry

On February 2, Robert sent an email to close friends and family. In it, he said he couldn’t help but make himself a target of management.

He had fallen asleep on the job, a severe offense in the TSA, and had gotten written up.

Stan Tuchalski and Brenda Shearer said in March he would have been able to transfer back home.

 “So he knew he was almost done with that paperwork so he would be able to put in a transfer back to his family,” Shearer said. “And then he was going to be written up again. So he felt trapped.”

But all those dreams died with Robert Henry when he jumped from the balcony of the Hyatt Regency Hotel inside the airport.

Robert’s mother Sylvia Henry said he used to call and say he wanted to come home.

“He just wanted to come home and get away from this horrid situation that he found himself in,” Sylvia Henry said.

“It was just a toxic mix. I mean he felt he had no other way to go. He knew he wouldn’t be getting out of there.”

Listen: The full story of who TSO Robert Henry was as heard on air

Not Just A Cry For Help. A Call For Change.

David Platt told investigators looking into Robert Henry’s death that TSA leaders ran the airport using fear and intimidation. Photo by Isaac Babcock

After Robert Henry’s death, TSA officials came to the Orlando International Airport to investigate “multiple allegations of workplace concerns.”

When investigators spoke with bomb specialist Dave Platt, he told them TSA leaders run the airport using fear and intimidation.

Platt said Robert Henry’s death was not just a cry for help, but a call for change.

“Henry is one thing, but what I’m thinking about is all the people that have been fired and the mental anguish that’s been perpetuated on them and how many years or days that’s taken off of their lives of undue stress,” Platt said.

Platt is one of four TSA agents who spoke with WMFE on the record about alleged bullying.

All four have filed legal action against current and former TSA managers in Orlando, and three have been accused of harassment themselves.

Dave Platt TSA bomb specialist at MCO and Robert Henry suicide at Orlando Airport

Dave Platt said he’s been transferred and suspended because he reported his supervisor for putting an inactive IED on a plane. Photo: Isaac Babcock

Most of these incidents happened under the leadership of Federal Security Director Jerry Henderson.

Henderson, the man in charge of the TSA in Orlando, was temporarily replaced by Pete Garcia after Robert Henry’s death.

And although Platt said things have improved under Garcia, it’s not enough.

Platt said after reporting second-in-command and Deputy Federal Security Director Keith Jeffries for putting an inert improvised explosive device used for training on a plane, he’s been reassigned and transferred multiple times as retaliation.

Dave Platt with the robot he built in the Army. Photo: Isaac Babcock

According to the incident report, the passenger told TSA officers he was a Department of Defense contractor, and the device was a training aid. The device was allowed on the plane, and Jeffries was later cleared by an internal investigation.

That’s because the federal security director was ultimately responsible for that decision, and was acting within regulations at the time when he let the deactivated bomb on the plane.

“I’ve been mortared before. I’m good. I’ve been down this road. I’ve walked the walk. I’ve had to wear the bomb suit and go down there with the disrupter,” Platt said.

“It’s really tough to come to a place where you know you’ve got to look over your shoulder every day.”

Some officers who claim they were targeted by management said they lost their jobs because of it.

Former security officer Joe Donadio says he got in an argument with his manager. Donadio accused his manager of physical assault, but Donadio was ultimately reported to Keith Jeffries as a “threat to himself and the people around him.”

Security officer Joe Donadio said he was fired because of his anxiety. Photo Isaac Babcock

Donadio said he was told he would need to transfer because of the incident, and he took some time off as his mental health started to decline.

“The anxiety got extremely bad at that point because then it was coupled with depression,” Donadio said.

TSA started a fitness-for-duty investigation into Donadio after he was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

The agency ultimately fired him, writing that his condition “medically disqualified” him from the job. Donadio said being fired just made his condition worse.

“I’m very, very, very familiar with that dark place that Robert was in,” Donadio said. “I look up right now and say, ‘Robert, I hear you man, I know that place’.”

Joe Donadio is now a firefighter at Brevard County Fire Rescue. WMFE TSA Suicide Investigation

Joe Donadio now works as a volunteer firefighter at Marion County Fire Rescue. Photo: Isaac Babcock

Even those near the top of the TSA leadership chain at Orlando International Airport weren’t immune to retaliation.

Sean SanRoman was third-in-command and Assistant Federal Security Director of Screening after Jerry Henderson and Keith Jeffries.

He said he was still a target of bullying. He admits it wasn’t that simple, though.

“I want to be very honest with you. I think I’m part of that too,” SanRoman said. “I think I have a responsibility. I think I witnessed certain things that I think I just let by in the idea of go along to get along.

“And I think I regret that tremendously. In fact, I know I do.”

Sean SanRoman says he was fired after his supervisor alleged he acted erratically in a meeting. Photo Isaac Babcock

SanRoman said the retaliation started after he told Jerry Henderson that Keith Jeffries had given a candidate questions ahead of an interview.

A few months later, Henderson accused SanRoman of erratic behavior at a meeting.

The agency ultimately suspended SanRoman’s security clearance because of “disruptive, aggressive and threatening behavior in the workplace” and Henderson put him on administrative leave.

SanRoman is in the security business. No security clearance, no job.

It took SanRoman a year before he got his qualification back and almost two before he was hired at Sanford International Airport in a similar position.

Sean SanRoman now works at the Sanford International Airport. Photo Isaac Babcock

“Who’s going to hire me? I have to report that the rest of my life,” SanRoman said. “Whenever I want another job in security. I’ve got to rehash everything that’s occurred to me.”

WMFE has made repeated attempts to contact Jerry Henderson through TSA, his attorney and calls to his cell phone. At the time of airing, Henderson had not responded to requests for comment.

Top TSA officials also did not make Interim Federal Security Director Pete Garcia available.

In a written statement, TSA said any incidents of bullying have been investigated: “TSA leadership initiated an administrative inquiry immediately after the death of our officer and has continued to actively investigate personnel concerns raised by our workforce.”

TSA officers talk with passengers at Orlando International Airport. Photo Isaac Babcock

But one official did speak with WMFE in an exclusive interview: Keith Jeffries.

“I could have named them for you right off the get go too. Go ahead what are your questions about them?

Jeffries is no longer at Orlando International Airport, but is the Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport.

Jeffries said Platt was frequently accused of being unprofessional. He recommended Platt be fired, but that recommendation was overruled.

He said he offered Joe Donadio a job that accommodated his anxiety, but Donadio didn’t show up for the job.

And Jeffries was already working at Los Angeles International Airport when Sean SanRoman was put on leave.

Passengers lineup outside of a TSA checkpoint at Orlando International Airport. Photo: Isaac Babcock

Keith Jeffries said he hopes his former supervisor Jerry Henderson is exonerated. If not?

“If not, I expect him to be held accountable,” Jeffries said. “He’s the Federal Security Director.” 

“If morale is bad at Orlando and you’re the Federal Security Director at Orlando, it starts and stops with you the leader. He knows that’s how I feel.”

Jeffries remembers meeting Robert Henry at Orlando International Airport. He said Henry was a quiet kid.

After Henry’s suicide, Jeffries conducted town hall meetings at LAX to encourage workers who needed help to come forward.

“Will Robert Henry’s death change things in TSA? I think it already has,” Jeffries said. “I think that it puts it in the bull’s-eye of us to be more aware that we’ve got real people with real people challenges or issues. We have to do a better job as leaders of helping them.”

TSA responded to our interview request as the series went to air. Acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell said after Rob Henry’s suicide, they sent people to investigate his death and to offer counseling to officers. She said TSA is assessing next steps for Orlando International Airport.

She said federal security director Jerry Henderson and second in command Steve Hanson won’t be returning to the airport “in the next 30 days.” When asked whether Keith Jeffries might transfer back to the airport from LAX, she said nothing has been finalized.

“None of the decisions about the future locations, future decisions around Orlando are completely finalized so I’d prefer not to announce them at this time,” Cogswell said.

Listen: The full story of allegations of bullying made by officers in Orlando as heard on air

WMFE Survey Finds Two More TSA Workers Who Attempted Suicide

The problems with TSA are not just limited to Orlando.

WMFE asked TSA workers to come forward and share stories of the workplace. Seventy-nine people from across the country came forward with stories of harassment and bullying, and examples of nepotism, favoritism and misconduct.

Alison Demzon is one of them. She’s a transgender woman working at Denver International Airport. In 2017, a new supervisor began misgendering her over and over again.

“He looks over and goes, ‘Hey Al, why don’t you come over,’ rather than Alison,” she said. “Go grab him from over there. Which him? Al, Alison, that person.”

Then, in October of 2018 a disabled woman in a wheelchair didn’t want Demzon to do her patdown because she was transgender. The situation was resolved, but afterwards, her supervisor pulled her aside and berated her.

“Eventually, with all that building on top of each other, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Demzon said. “I just fell apart and started crying all over the place and had to be sent home.”

Demzon was hospitalized on suicide watch. She had two previous suicide attempts before working at TSA.

Demzon returned to work after she passed a fitness for duty test two and a half months later. Demzon filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against TSA in 2018, alleging she was discriminated against because she was transgender. She is far from the only one.

TSA overall had more than 400 EEO complaints filed in 2018. That is the sixth highest percentage of employees filing EEOC claims among government agencies with more than 50,000 employees.

Christine Griggs is the Assistant Administrator for Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement with TSA. She said the number of TSA complaints is down and more are resolved before becoming legal cases.

She said TSA has a very similar number of complaints as Customs and Border Patrol, which also has about 60,000 employees.

“So if you take that 400 number, and you look at all of our employees as a whole, it represents a little bit less than 1 percent of our total population of employees,” she said.

The discrimination complaints are in addition to allegations of misconduct. When the Government Accountability Office studied misconduct cases at TSA from 2014 to 2016, they found more than 45,000 allegations of employee misconduct over three years. That means in an agency with about 60,000 workers, there was an average of one misconduct case for every four employees every year.

Customs and Border Patrol, which had a near-identical number of employees, had less than half the number of cases.

TSA said it’s important to realize these are allegations (although only 6 percent of TSA cases were found to be unsubstantiated or warranted no discipline). The five most common misconduct accusations are time and attendance issues, failing to follow instructions, security failures (like falling asleep on the job), disruptive behavior (like sexual misconduct or fighting) and neglect of duty which leads to loss of property and life.

About half of the accusations were for time and attendance issues. But misconduct can also be criminal, like accepting bribes or being arrested off the job.

TSA and the Department of Homeland Security consistently rank at or near the bottom of employee satisfaction surveys conducted of all federal employees.

There is a well-documented history of retaliation by management against employees and whistleblowers. An oversight committee recommended legislation to give TSA employees more protections in 2018 after concluding a three-year investigation. It found that TSA employees were forced to transfer because they had accused management of security breaches. The TSA settled those cases for $1 million dollars. 

At a 2016 committee hearing in the U.S. House, TSA Deputy Administrator Huban Gowadia acknowledged that more than 1,200 TSA employees have had five or more allegations of misconduct.

“We are bringing a lot of this (data) to a centralized location,” Gowadia said. “All the data we now collect we will be able to mine, look for trends, look for opportunities to improve, opportunities to provide remedial training, etc.”

Click the photo to watch a committee hearing.

Former Transportation Security Officer Becky also worked at at Denver International Airport. We’re not using her last name because she hopes a successful Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case will let her be able to return to work for the federal government.

Becky has pseudo brain tumors, a rare condition where pockets of spinal fluid build in her brain and cause migraines, temporary loss of hearing and vision, and vomiting. She said taking time off for a spinal tap to relieve pressure kicked off a year of harassment and retaliation.

“Anything I did, they fought back ferociously,” she said. “They were trying to break me down so I would just resign so they wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore.”

She missed months of work without pay and was eventually fired. That sent her down a dark path, and she was hospitalized twice in the next three months for suicide attempts.

She immediately empathized when she heard about Robert Henry’s suicide in Orlando.

“My heart just broke in a million pieces,” she said. “I was there and I could have been him.”

More than a dozen studies nationwide have found links between workplace bullying and suicidal thoughts. Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that stopping workplace bullying should be used as an intervention to try and reduce suicide.

Hope Tiesman is a researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Her research shows the rate of suicides in the workplace has been steadily rising to an average of five deaths per week.

“The literature that’s out there, and it’s on the lower end of the spectrum for quality, suggests there is a positive association between workplace bullying and suicidal ideation."

“The literature that’s out there, and it’s on the lower end of the spectrum for quality, suggests there is a positive association between workplace bullying and suicidal ideation,” Tiesman said.

Looking to the future, Becky is packing kitchen gadgets into a big amazon box before her home is sold. At the time of our interview, she didn’t know where she was going to live full-time.

But she needs the money from selling her house to pay for her lawyer: $350 an hour.

“So I have to sell my house and find somewhere else to go,” Becky said.

Becky hopes people will hear about her case and decide they should fight too. “Because if everybody is too terrified to take on [TSA] when they have a valid claim, then nothing is ever going to get accomplished.”

Demzon is back working at Denver International. She said there has been some good from her experiences.

She spoke about her experiences during suicide awareness month with her coworkers. Afterwards, she said, ten or more TSA officers came forward and asked for help.

Demzon has a simple message for lawmakers overseeing TSA: Stop playing politics.

“People are dying,” she said. “It’s that simple.

Griggs, the assistant administrator for Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement, said TSA is now rolling out suicide prevention training. She said she was shocked to hear Robert Henry wrote in his suicide note “Tell my managers I’ll be waiting for them in Hell.”

“I mean, it’s heartbreaking,” Griggs said. “It’s really heartbreaking that someone would get to that point in their life and more importantly there wasn’t somewhere along the line that we could have avoided that, that we as a family could have avoided that. So it’s shocking to me.”

Listen: The full interview with Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement Christine Griggs

Listen: The full story of other officers who struggled with suicide as heard on air

Beloved son, brother and protector.

One of the last times Robert Henry’s mother Sylvia Henry saw her son, they spent time together at the Kennedy Space Center with his father and brothers.

She said the boys recreated photos from their childhood.

Sylvia said in a way she’s still recreating memories of Robert after his death. That’s why she keeps a voicemail from him on her phone.

“Hey Mom. This is Robert. Just wanted to catch you. I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. In case you think I’ve forgotten about you. I think about you guys everyday. I’ll catch up with you later then I guess. Talk to you later. Buh bye.”

Sylvia said that some days are harder than others. She says she’s still learning to live with the grief of losing a child.

“I’m having a little bit better success in remembering a few things about Robert and smiling about them because I want to remember,” Sylvia said. “I don’t want to forget anything.”

Sylvia said for his family and friends, that means remembering the man with the gentle spirit and the kind heart.

Robert Henry’s tombstone reads: “Beloved Son, Brother and Protector.”

Robert Henry’s tombstone in Virginia. Photo courtesy Sylvia Henry

If you or someone you know is depressed or thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both are available, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Correction: The original version of this story said that Joe Donadio was accused of harassment-he was not accused of physical assault but only of being a “threat to himself and the people around him.” This story has been updated to include comments from TSA after initial publication.


Apollo: Then & Now

In the 1960’s, NASA’s Apollo program spurred growth and development on Florida’s Space Coast. Fifty years later, the lasting impact of the program can still be seen.

90.7 News worked with photographer Jim Hobart to capture what has changed —  and what hasn’t — in the five decades since the Apollo program.

Use your cursor (or finger, if on a touch screen) to slide the photo tool left and right to compare the before and after images.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center


In order to build and stack the massive Saturn V rocket that would launch humans to the moon, NASA would need a really big building. The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was built in 1966 to assemble the massive pieces of the rocket before being transported vertically to the pad.

“I love this Bell Helicopter in the front here and that Saturn five being rolled out,” said Hobart of the old photo.

The VAB was altered to support Space Shuttle missions. It’s currently undergoing final modifications to support NASA’s next moon rocket, the Space Launch System.

Credit: NASA / Jim Hobart

Firing Room

Apollo launches were controlled from the Launch Control Center. Dozens of operators, technicians and directors were locked in for the launch. Once the rocket cleared the tower, control was switched over to the Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center.

There are four firing rooms at Kennedy Space Center. One firing room has been updated to support the launch of SLS for NASA’s Artemis missions. “We couldn’t get into the exact same spot,” said Hobart. “It also looks like the ceiling has been dropped. Everything is new in there.”

Private company SpaceX, which now leases the pad Apollo launched from, has set up shop in one of the firing rooms for the launch if its rockets Falcon rockets.

Credit: NASA / Jim Hobart

Astronaut Walkout

In this NASA archive photo, Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins wave to the press corps before boarding NASA’s transportation van to take the trio to the launch pad. They suited up at Kennedy Space Center’s Astronaut Crew Quarters in the Operations and Checkout Building.

“For the entire Apollo and then shuttle program, each crew would come out and somebody would slap a sticker up there on their way out the door,” said Hobart. The next generation of astronauts, flying on private capsules from SpaceX and Boeing, will walk through these same doors.

Credit: NASA / Jim Hobart

Pad 39A

Apollo 11 blasted off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A. The pad was built to support Apollo missions and later launched Space Shuttle missions. In 2014, SpaceX leased the pad from NASA, launching it’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy (pictured) rocket. The pad will support Commercial Crew launches, sending NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

Credit: SpaceX / Jim Hobart

Project Mercury Memorial

The Project Mercury Memorial is dedicated to the six crewed space launches from 1961-1963. The memorial was originally placed at Cape Kennedy. A replica was built for public display in Titusville, Florida.

The Mercury program had three main objectives: to orbit a crewed spacecraft around the earth, investigate human’s ability to function in space and to recover both astronaut and spacecraft safely. The program’s successes, along with NASA’s Gemini program, were instrumental in developing the later Apollo Missions.

Credit: Florida Memory / Jim Hobart

Spectators Catch a Glimpse

Mark Sternat’s dad woke him up in the early hours of the morning on July 16, 1969 at his family’s hotel room in Sanford, Florida — Space Coast hotels were all booked up. They made the trip down from Pennsylvania and were about to make the final leg of the trip to the coast to watch the launch in Titusville.

“I wanted to be an astronaut for some reason,” Sternat recalls 50 years later. His parents took him and his siblings across the country every summer. In 1969, it was easy to pick where they were heading. “We were going to go to Florida. We were going to see the Apollo 11 launch.”

Credit: Mark Sternat/ Jim Hobart

Cars Clogged Up Roads

Cars lined the road all along the Space Coast with spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the historic mission blasting off from Kennedy Space Center. On the day of the launch, the Orlando Sentinel reported an estimated 300,000 cars and 1,000,000 spectators showed up to watch the launch.

Credit: Mark Sternat / Jim Hobart

Becoming the “Space Coast”


Before the space program, the area was dominated by the cattle and citrus industry. “When the space program began in the in the mid 1900’s, Brevard was still a very rural agricultural community really,” said Ben Brotemarkle, Executive Director of the Florida Historical Society.

Harvey’s was one of the many groves in Florida and operated a retail stand along the Space Coast. The retail outlet closed permanently in 2017 after owner Jim Harvey suffered an unexpected health issue.

Credit: Florida Historical Society / Jim Hobart

Cape Royal

In the 1950’s & 60’s, the state was rapidly growing in population — especially in Brevard county. “The population exploded by more than 370%,” said Brotemarkle. “It grew very, very quickly with the establishment of the Air Force missile launch site, and then later, NASA moving in.”

Office buildings like Cape Royal in Cocoa Beach sprung up to meet the demand of a growing population and business in the area.

Credit: Florida Memory / Jim Hobart

City Hall

The Mercury spacecraft is paraded down Titusville Main Street to celebrate the city’s centennial in 1967.

“That is a NASA flat bed with a with a Mercury capsule, so this was after that program was finished and while the agency was ramping up for Apollo,” said Hobart.

Credit: Bob Paty / Jim Hobart

Titusville Mainstreet

Titusville celebrates its centennial with a parade paying tribute to the regions bustling space industry.

Credit: Bob Paty / Jim Hobart

“I Dream of Jeannie”

“I Dream of Jeannie” brought the space program into pop-culture. In the show, Captain Tony Nelson, played by Larry Hagman, lived with Jeannie, played by Barbara Eden, in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Although the show was filmed in California, a sign in Cococa Beach pays homage to the show’s fictional location. “Sadly Barbara Eden was not sitting there while I was shooting [this photo] so I had to just do it without her,” said Hobart. “They’ve they’ve cleaned up the sign a bit. It’s still the same one in the same spot.”

Moon Islander

The Moon Islander restaurant opened in Titusville in the 1970s. “It was really the hip, hot spot for astronauts to come and hang out. It was owned by a family and it lasted a very long time and and seemed like a fun spot to hang out,” said Hobart. “But as you can see now it’s gone and big expensive houses are going in.”

Credit: John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division / Jim Hobart

Tropical Wonderland

Tropical Wonderland was a 50-acre, nature-centered theme park, according to Space Coast Daily. “This was a big deal,” said Hobart. “This is the one that Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan endorsed, and it was a kind of a safari place. It’s a bit like Gator land, I imagine.”

Credit: Space Coast Daily / Jim Hobart


‘Update on Active Shooter?’ How Orlando Authorities Failed to Prepare for a Mass Shooting like Pulse

The Orlando Fire Department had been working on a plan to respond to a mass shooting. It had even purchased vests filled with tourniquets and special needles to relieve bleeding in chest. But at the time of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the plan had already sputtered and the vests sat untouched.

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as a member of the Local Reporting Network.

“I need the hospital! Please, why does someone not want to help?”

The man’s screams inside the Pulse nightclub pierced the chaos in the minutes after the shooting stopped on June 12, 2016. With the shooter barricaded in a bathroom and victims piled on top of one another, Orlando police commanders began asking the Fire Department for help getting dozens of shooting victims out of the club and to the hospital.

“We need to get these people out,” a command officer said over the police radio.

“We gotta get ‘em out,” another officer responded. “We got him [the shooter] contained in the bathroom. We have several long guns on the bathroom right now.”

A few minutes later, the Orlando Police Department’s dispatch log shows the police formally requested the Fire Department to come into the club. “We’re pulling victims out the front. Have FD come up and help us out with that,” one officer said.

The Orlando Fire Department had been working on a plan for just such a situation for three years. Like many fire departments at the time, Orlando had long relied on a traditional protocol for mass shootings, in which paramedics stayed at a distance until an all-clear was given. The department had tasked Anibal Saez Jr., an assistant chief, with developing a new approach being adopted across the country: Specialized teams of medics, guarded by police officers and wearing specially designed bulletproof vests, would pull out victims before a shooter is caught or killed.

The Orange County Fire Rescue Department began training firefighters to enter dangerous situations in 2013. The county brought bulletproof vests to Pulse nightclub, but on-scene commanders from the Orlando Fire Department declined to use them. (Cassi Alexandra for ProPublica)

After a recommendation from Saez in 2015, the department bought about 20 of the bulletproof vests and helmets. The vests had pouches filled with tourniquets, special needles to relieve bleeding in the chest, and quick-clotting trauma bandages.

None of that equipment was used at Pulse. Emergency medical professionals stayed across the street from the club. And the bulletproof vests filled with life-saving equipment sat at headquarters.

In the three and a half years before the shooting, bureaucratic inertia had taken hold. Emails obtained by WMFE and ProPublica lay out a record of opportunities missed. It’s not clear whether paramedics could have entered and saved lives. But what is clear is Saez’s plan to prepare for such a scenario sat unused, like the vests.

His effort had sputtered and was ultimately abandoned after a new fire chief, Roderick Williams, took over the department in April 2015. Williams named another administrator to finalize and implement the new policy. That administrator declined multiple requests to comment for this story. Saez said he offered to help but never heard back.    

“There was a committee that was responsible for the [policy], however, I am not sure whether one was created and approved,” one fire official emailed another on March 30, 2016.

In April 2016, two months before Pulse, Williams emailed his deputy chiefs asking for a progress report: “Update on Active Shooter?”

The only response was an email asking if anyone had responded. No one did.

Ultimately 49 people died during the Pulse attack, one of the worst mass shootings in modern history.

Saez, a 30-year veteran of the Orlando Fire Department, a paramedic and a member of the bomb squad, has been haunted by the possibility that things didn’t have to turn out the way they did. “I wonder sometimes if I should’ve done something else,” he said in an interview.

“In my mind I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I would have had that policy, if I could have got it done, if I could have pushed it, maybe it wouldn’t be 49 dead. … Maybe it would be 40. Maybe it would be 48. Anything but the end result here,’” he said.

A study published this year in the journal Prehospital Emergency Care concluded that 16 of the victims might have lived if they had gotten basic EMS care within 10 minutes and made it to a trauma hospital within an hour, the national standard. That’s nearly one third of victims that died that night.

“Those 16, they had injuries that were, potentially were survivable,” said Dr. Edward Reed Smith, the operational medical director for the Arlington County, Virginia, Fire Department, who reviewed autopsies of those who died with two colleagues. Smith, whose department was one of the first in the country to allow paramedics into violent scenes with a police escort, has reviewed more than a dozen civilian mass shootings using the same criteria. “How would they be survivable? With rapid intervention and treatment of their injuries.”

A separate Justice Department review last year concluded “it would have been reasonable” for paramedics to enter after 20 minutes, a different time frame from the one Smith analyzed.

Orlando’s mayor, as well as the Police and Fire chiefs, dispute that they could have done anything differently. They say it was impossible to know at the time that there was only one shooter at Pulse or that he wouldn’t resume shooting after he barricaded himself in the bathroom. It was also impossible to know whether a bomb threat he later made was real. All of that, they say, would have kept victims from getting care in time.

Williams, the fire chief, said he still believes the inside of Pulse nightclub was a “hot zone,” or a place of direct threat, which would have stopped first responders from going in.

“We’re not prepared to go in hot-zone extraction. That’s just not what we do as a fire department,” Williams said. “It was active fire, active shooting.”

Orlando Fire Chief Roderick Williams says that first responders couldn’t have safely gone in to save Pulse victims while the shooter was still active. (Cassi Alexandra for ProPublica)

But not everyone who responded that night is sure the Fire Department had done all it could. They say some victims might have had a chance had Orlando finished what it started.

Orlando Fire District Chief Bryan Davis was in charge of his agency’s response the night of the Pulse shooting. In an interview, he said his department had done active shooter drills, but it wasn’t enough.

“We didn’t have formalized training,” Davis said. “We didn’t have a policy. We didn’t have a procedure. We had the equipment [bulletproof vests]. But it was locked up in EMS in a storage closet … And unfortunately, we were a day and a dollar too late. ”

“A Wake-Up Call That, for Us, It Can Happen Anywhere”

Just after midnight on March 18, 2013, a former University of Central Florida student pulled a fire alarm in a building that housed 500 students.

He was armed with a rifle, a handgun, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and four Molotov cocktails. Three minutes later, a person in Room 308 called 911: His roommate had pointed a rifle at him.

When police entered the room, the would-be shooter was dead. After his rifle had jammed, he killed himself with his handgun.

Police found handwritten notes about his planned rampage.

“That was a near miss and that was certainly a wake-up call that, for us, it could happen anywhere,” said Orange County Fire Rescue Chief Otto Drozd, whose agency helped respond to the scene. “Everybody is susceptible.”

That year, Orange County, where Orlando is located, started holding department-wide training sessions on how to respond to such situations. It also wrote a new policy that said paramedics, guarded by sheriff’s deputies, should provide aid to victims after a shooting ends, but before a perpetrator is caught or killed.

Also in 2013, the city of Orlando Fire Department assigned Saez, an assistant chief, to create its active shooter policy.

Saez said he began by using the policy adopted by Arlington County as the backbone of his draft but stopped when he learned that another group within the Fire Department also was working on the project. When he tried to merge the two groups together, he was instead told that the other group would handle the policy.

“They were, for lack of a better term, a little gun-shy about how aggressive we were gonna get,” said Saez, who goes by JR, drinking a pint of craft beer through a grey goatee and wearing a Five Finger Death Punch T-shirt. “They started saying ‘Hey, JR’s crazy.’”

Then, in 2015, as the FBI was planning a major drill with public safety agencies, Saez said he was again asked to take the lead on the policy. At the time, Fire Chief John Miller was in the process of retiring and Williams, a longtime veteran of the department, had been named to succeed him.  

“The whole active shooter thing, it wasn’t rocket science, it was common sense,” said Saez, who had a reputation for being blunt.

In March, Saez wrote an email to a group of firefighters, including the incoming chief and other high-level administrators as well as medics, “Looks Like I got a Dream Team for this Active Shooter Exercise.” In the email, he laid out a timeline for getting the policy finalized and an active shooter exercise done in April. He said he was choosing which bulletproof vests and equipment to buy and hoped to train the entire department by the end of the year.

But within a month, Williams was sworn in as fire chief and Saez was sent back to work in a fire station. (Such personnel changes are common when a new chief takes over.) The active shooter policy was given to another administrator.  

Two months later, the city of Orlando’s emergency manager sent an email to Williams and other members of the Fire Department’s administration calling their attention to a Department of Homeland Security guide for responding to an active shooter. It recommended that fire personnel in bulletproof vests go into “warm zones,” places where victims may be but where a shooter is not believed to be, guarded by the police.

“It echoes our lessons learned and fixes,” the official, Manny Soto, wrote, referring to the Fire Department’s previous active shooter drills, which included practices involving rescue task forces.

In July 2015, the city of Orlando spent $33,000 on about 20 bulletproof vests, according to purchase orders obtained by WMFE. Each vest could hold enough supplies to treat 10 to 15 patients. That was enough for each of the five district chiefs working on any given shift to equip a rescue task force.

The policy was never finished, though, and on June 12, 2016, the night of the Pulse massacre, the Orlando Fire Department policy told paramedics to stay three blocks away if they felt “uncomfortable with the situation.

“To Know That He Could Have Survived Would Be Horrific.”

The “interim” memorial to honor the victims and survivors of the Pulse nightclub massacre seen on Sunday, May 20, 2018. (Cassi Alexandra for ProPublica)

The gunfire started at 2:02 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, just after last call.  A request for immediate assistance brought hundreds of officers from 15 police agencies across Central Florida. When the shooting stopped eight minutes later, Officer Brandon Cornwell of the Belle Isle Police Department and three other officers went inside the Pulse nightclub to kill or arrest the shooter.

They entered through a broken window in the front of the club. The club was dark, lit by pink and blue video screens and disco balls. There was no music playing. Unfinished drinks and unpaid bar tabs littered the tables.

As they got farther inside, a woman could be heard screaming over and over again, according to police body camera video of the scene reviewed by WMFE. Sometimes she screamed for help. Sometimes she just screamed.

The scene was so chaotic, police couldn’t figure out who was screaming.

“Who the fuck is this coming from!” one of the officers shouted.

The team walked toward the gunfire and believed it had the shooter cornered in one of the club’s bathrooms. They pointed assault rifles and handguns at the doors and hallways to keep the shooter contained.

Officers then started bringing 14 incapacitated victims out of the club. Victims grabbed police officers’ ankles as they walked by, according to first responder recollections in the Justice Department report.

People — some dead, some alive — fell stacked on top of one another “like matchsticks.” Some victims played dead. Phones rang and rang.

In the ensuing minutes, body camera footage captured the discussion between officers and commanders about getting help.

At 2:23 a.m., a police command officer tried to come up with a way to get paramedics inside. He asked if the shooter’s rounds could get into the main area “if we start bringing FD to try to get some of these guys out of here?”

The officer inside responded: “He’s got a long gun, so yes, can penetrate,” but then said that he was contained in the bathroom and that they had to get the victims out.

A few minutes later, the Orlando Police Department’s dispatch logs show the police asked for the Fire Department “to go in scene secure,” meaning dispatchers were asking the Fire Department to come into the club.

This is about the time the Justice Department concluded a rescue task force could have entered the Pulse nightclub.

Still, the Fire Department did not enter.

Orlando city officials downplayed the significance of the log, saying in a written statement that it only reflected the judgment of a “single officer.”   

“In this type of changing situation, this was an isolated perspective and ‘secure’ did not mean the scene was ‘clear,’ which is very important to distinguish,” the statement said. “This was still an active scene with an armed shooter and many unknown threats, like were there additional shooters or were there explosives.

“And in fact, within moments, the suspect made the threat of explosives and pledged allegiance to ISIS. Shortly after this, there were also reports of a second shooting at Orlando Health and the hospital was locked down for approximately an hour.”

At 2:50 a.m., the shooter threatened to blow up a city block with explosives in his car. Around the same time, the Orange County Fire Rescue Department, which had trained with the Sheriff’s Office beginning in 2013, brought 12 ballistic vests to Orlando Fire Department commanders on the scene.

Davis, the Orlando Fire Department district chief in charge of his agency’s response that night, said he told Orange County commanders that city firefighters and paramedics hadn’t been trained on how to use the vests — and wouldn’t use them. Davis’s account was confirmed by an after-action report by the county.

In an interview, Davis said that while his department had done active shooter drills, those hadn’t been enough. In retrospect, he said he wishes he had asked the county firefighters to send a rescue crew into the club.

“When that Orange County chief arrived, I would have looked at him and said, ‘Hey Chief, my guys are not properly trained in the use of those vests. Do you have individuals here that are?’” he said. “And if so, then we utilize those resources that were properly trained … and we assemble them into the rescue task force and move them forward into the scene.”

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said vests or no vests, commanders on the ground would not have told firefighters to go inside Pulse.  

“I don’t think that scene was the appropriate place to do it,” Dyer said. “Whether we had the policy strictly or not, I don’t think it affected the outcome at all.”

While paramedics didn’t enter Pulse, some victims who had left the club managed to go back in to help friends.

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez made it outside the club after the shooting, but he realized his boyfriend was still back inside. He went back in to get Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, who everyone called Dani.

The couple was found by the entrance in the club. Wilson-Leon had wounds to his back, while Perez had wounds to his front. They both died.

“I think (Dani) was protecting Jean,” Laly Santiago-Leon, Dani’s cousin, said.

Laly Santiago-Leon lost her cousin Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon during the Pulse Nightclub Massacre in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016. Laly poses for a portrait in Luis’s old room in Rockledge, Florida on Monday, September 17, 2018. (Cassi Alexandra for ProPublica)

Santiago-Leon says it’s heartbreaking to learn that the Fire Department put the policy on the backburner. She said she hopes to never learn who the 16 victims with survivable wounds were.

“I’m still, as I said, I’m still angry that he’s gone,” she said through quiet tears. “But to know that he could have survived would be horrific.”

The Orlando Fire Department’s Leadership Didn’t Show Up During The Attack

Downtown City of Orlando Fire Station One (Cassi Alexandra for ProPublica)

Fire and police agencies from across the Orlando region swarmed to the scene as word of the Pulse shooting spread. Initially, they each responded independently, but sometime in the first hour they established a mobile command center to coordinate their responses. The Orlando Police Department took the lead, but it was joined by two sheriff’s offices, as well as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI.

The Orlando Fire Department leadership wasn’t part of it.

According to department protocol, the fire chief was paged at 2:14 a.m. But the Justice Department’s report on how the police responded to Pulse said the fire chief didn’t arrive at the scene until after the shooter was dead. There was no follow-up call to make sure the page was received, the report said.

Williams declined multiple requests to explain why he didn’t show up that night, but city officials have blamed it on a faulty paging system. The policy has changed since Pulse: Now, if the fire chief doesn’t answer a page in three minutes, he or she will get a phone call.  

Dyer said he views what happened as a breakdown in communication, not a lack of leadership.

“Operationally, it didn’t affect it,” Dyer said, referring to the Pulse response. “It just would have been better for the morale of the organization if the chief would have been on site.”

Firefighters had their own command system, separate from the Police Department, whose chief was present. The two sister agencies didn’t even operate on the same radio channel, the type of challenge identified more than a decade earlier after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Justice Department report said the setup outside Pulse “negatively impacted information and resource sharing, coordination, and overall situational awareness.”

Davis, the firefighter in charge of the department’s response, was four ranks below chief. Looking back, he said, he wishes that he or someone else in his department’s leadership had gone to the police command post.

Williams disputed the notion that being in the command center would have changed the department’s response or prompted officials to send in a rescue crew earlier. In a recent interview with WMFE, he said that training had been in place and that a rescue task force could have gone in if asked for.

“Those commanders on the scene made those choices,” Williams said. “We did exactly what was appropriate based on the resources that was required at the time.

But a month after the Pulse shooting, Williams gave a different response in an interview with WMFE. He said that his department was looking at active shooter protocols and vests, but that “we haven’t trained to that level.”

Smith,  operational medical director for the Arlington County Fire Department, said if the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in his community, the response would have been different. With the shooter barricaded in a back bathroom, paramedics and EMTs would have put on ballistic vests and gone inside the club to pull victims out with a police escort.

While conceding that his assessment had the benefit of hindsight, Smith said the story of how Orlando responded to Pulse nightclub isn’t just about the lack of a rescue task force. It’s about the lack of communication between the Orlando Police and Fire departments.

“They had two separate command centers that were, by the way, were on opposite sides of the club” for part of the event, Smith said. “The police commander couldn’t walk outside and walk over to the fire command because they had the club in between the two of them. So there’s no integration there.”

According to Smith’s study of Pulse victims, out of the 16 victims who possibly could have lived, four died at the hospital. That leaves 12 who died either inside the club or in the triage area outside. It’s not possible to know how many of those died on the dance floor, where rescuers could potentially have reached them and provided aid, or inside the bathroom, where the shooter had barricaded himself and held them as hostages. It’s also not clear who would have survived if they had gotten help within 10 minutes of being shot. And for those who could have survived, it’s not clear how debilitating their injuries would have been.

Smith and his team previously studied 12 mass shooting events, including one at a San Diego McDonald’s in 1984 and one at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013. In those 12 incidents, an average of 7 percent of victims died with potentially survivable wounds. According to Smith’s analysis, nearly a third of victims had survivable wounds at Pulse.

Both the fire chief, Williams, and the police chief, John Mina, have a simple response to those who criticize how the Pulse nightclub shooting was handled.

“The fact of the matter is those people weren’t there,” Mina said of Smith and others who criticize the response. “So they can’t say, ‘I would have done this’ or ‘I could have done this’ or ‘I should have done this’ because they weren’t there.”

The city said the Police and Fire departments had nine joint training exercises between 2005 and 2016 on how to respond to an active shooter.

“If we had needed the Fire Department in there, we would have called them,” Mina said. “Many officers were inside the club transporting the wounded directly to the fire department feet away to their triage center.”

Mina later declined to comment further when asked about the dispatch logs showing that the that the police asked for the Fire Department to come to come inside the the nightclub. Dyer described those logs as a “random individual talking about that,” which didn’t reflect the views of police the views of police leadership.

Pulse is no longer the worst mass shooting in the U.S. history. Las Vegas took the mantle last year. Just this year, Florida saw mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and at a video game tournament in Jacksonville.

But Pulse changed the way many law enforcement agencies view the need for a rescue task force. Drozd, the Orange County Fire Rescue chief whose department brought vests to the scene, began working with the National Fire Protection Association to create a blueprint for how police and fire departments should work together to respond to active shooter incidents, which came out this year. He said he hopes fire agencies become more willing to enter “warm zones.”

“That’s where as an industry we can do the most good.”

“I Pray She Made It”

Two weeks after the Pulse nightclub shooting, the upper echelons of the Orlando Fire Department called a meeting. The topic? “Active shooter project discussion.”

Within 10 months, more vests were purchased, and all firefighters had gone through a mandatory 16-hour rescue training course modeled off of the military’s approach to field medicine, reworked for civilians. In April 2017, the mayor stood in front of a fire engine and donned a bulletproof vest with “Fire-Rescue” written in big red letters on the front and “Orlando Fire Department” on the back.

The point of the April 2017 press conference was to show off new equipment the city had purchased to help respond to future disasters like the Pulse shooting. Like the vests that had been sitting in the department’s headquarters on the night of the shooting, the vest Dyer modeled had pouches filled with tourniquets, special needles to relieve bleeding in the chest, and bandages.

Dyer and Williams also unveiled their new rescue task force policy.

“Since Columbine, all these different events happened,” Williams said at the press conference.  “We realize a new norm somewhat, but our goal is to make sure our personnel is equipped to handle that new norm.”

Dyer said vests and helmets, which cost about $118,000 would add a layer of protection if firefighters came in the line of fire. The city now has about 150 vests, enough for each firefighter working on a shift to have one.

Those vests could have been helpful in past events, he acknowledged: “Certainly Pulse.”

Neither Williams nor Dyer mentioned the vests and helmets sitting at the agency’s headquarters untouched at the time of the Pulse shooting. Nor did they mention the years of work on an active shooter policy that hadn’t been completed.

The active shooter policy adopted in April 2017 is just two pages long. It says that firefighters working at certain stations will be called into risky situations, operating as a rescue task force, and that all firefighters may be required to do the same.

Ron Glass, president of the union representing the Orlando Fire Department, said the new policy doesn’t have enough details for emergency medical professionals treating patients. He said if another Pulse happens tomorrow, “we’re gonna do the exact same thing again.”

“We have a three-inch notebook … on every type of house fire, every type of specialty, high angle call, below-grade call, extrication call, elevator extrication call,” Glass said. “The only thing that’s not in the book is … active shooters.”

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, which critiqued the police response to Pulse, has been commissioned by the Fire Department to evaluate its response.

That report is due out soon, and it could give needed closure about the department’s response to the Pulse shooting.

Saez, the assistant chief who had been charged with modernizing the department’s active shooter policy, was not on duty the night of Pulse. But when his wife, who worked for the Orlando Police Department, texted him that the shooting was the “for deal,” Saez remembers driving his hybrid Toyota more than 100 mph to get to the scene.

Saez worked with the arson squad and helped use explosives to breach the outer wall of the club before the shooter was killed. Afterwards, the police dragged a woman to him who had been shot multiple times.

“All I could do was put my hand on her chest to hold pressure and pray, hope, fuck, I hope I did something,” Saez said.

An ambulance finally did come and bring the shooting victim to the hospital. Saez doesn’t know what happened to her.

“I pray she made it,” Saez said.

Saez has filed a hostile work environment complaint with the city of Orlando’s human resources department against his immediate supervisor and the fire chief. The city of Orlando said it is “currently reviewing the facts of this case as it is active and ongoing.”

Saez said he thinks about the Pulse nightclub shooting every day, and feels responsible for not getting the active shooter protocol pushed through. He has a “sick feeling in the gut.”

Correction, October 3, 2018: This story originally misidentified the function of special needles carried in the pouch of bulletproof vests. They relieve air pressure in the chest, not bleeding. It also misidentified the role of Anibal Saez Jr. on the night of the Pulse shooting. He did not work on the explosive breach of the club.

Are you a first responder with PTSD or stress-related symptoms you believe may be related to your work? Do you have a family member or close friend who is a first responder with PTSD or who has committed suicide? We want to hear from you.

Abe Aboraya covers health care for WMFE, an NPR affiliate in Orlando. This year, he is focusing on the toll post-traumatic stress disorder takes on first responders. Email him at wmfe@propublica.org and follow him on Twitter @wmfehealthnerd.


One Year After Irma, Everglades City Struggles to Rebuild

State climate change denial leaves coastal communities on their own to face the risks.

By Amy Green

Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

This report, part of an FCIR series on climate change, was produced in partnership with WMFE, the NPR member station in Orlando. Click on the player below to hear a radio version. 

EVERGLADES CITY – Three presidents have slept in Tina Collins’ home.

Her mint-colored cottage sheltered Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and other VIP guests to this frontier outpost of the southwest Florida wilderness, where the Barron River, Everglades and Gulf of Mexico converge.

Collins’ fondest memories of her 23-year home involve her husband and high school sweetheart Richard and their three children — James, 13, Katie, 12, and Gina, 11 — gathered on the expansive porch as Richard, a commercial stone crabber, motored by on the river.

More recent memories are not as sweet. One afternoon in August, Collins pushed open the door and stepped inside the dark, musty, dirty house.

“I don’t like staying here very long because I don’t like being exposed to the mold and stuff,” the 48-year-old Collins said quietly. “It’s not a healthy place.”

Tina Collins’ home once sheltered presidents and other VIP guests to Everglades City. She and her husband plan to knock down the house and rebuild on stilts. Photo by Amy Green

The power was out. The furniture was broken. Black mold gripped the white frame of a door leading into the kitchen, with bright teal cabinets Collins had painted. Stacked boxes were filled with the children’s old Halloween costumes and toys, things to be thrown away. Collins walked over to a wall paneled with original Dade County pine faded up to her knees — the height of the flood.

It’s been a long, challenging year for Collins and her family.

Since Hurricane Irma roared through Everglades City and up the Florida peninsula on Sept. 10, 2017, leaving almost no part of the state untouched, the Collins family has rented a ranger’s house in Everglades National Park while keeping up the mortgage payments on their shell of a home.

Eventually the Collins family plans to knock down the black mold-infested home and rebuild on stilts, but they don’t know when they will receive the money from their insurance company or how long they can continue to live temporarily in Everglades National Park.

“We’re all safe, and that’s what matters,” said Collins, who works in the administrative office of Big Cypress National Preserve, up the highway from Everglades City.

Irma was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic Ocean, a Category 5 monster with winds topping out at 185 miles an hour. The hurricane lost intensity before making landfall as a Category 4. Coming weeks after Harvey’s deluge in Houston, Texas, Irma marked the first time two Category 4 storms hit the U.S. in the same year.

No state is more exposed to the dangers of hurricanes and storm surges than Florida, where by century’s end the total value of homes at risk for chronic inundation is projected to be more than $351 billion in today’s dollars, the highest amount of any coastal state, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization.

Hurricanes are forecast to grow more destructive with climate change, as warmer waters boost intensity and rising tides push storm surges like that experienced by Everglades City higher and farther inland.

By 2100, about 40 percent of the at-risk homes in the entire United States will be in Florida, where today this real estate generates $5 billion annually in property tax revenue. Nearly a quarter of these homes were built after 2000, a testament to Florida’s brazen coastal building despite the risks.

Everglades City bills itself as the Stone Crab Capital of the World. Photo by Amy Green

Irma ended up in Everglades City after early forecasts showed the hurricane making landfall in densely populated South Florida before following a path straight up the state’s center. Instead, the hurricane walloped Florida with a one-two punch, making landfall on Cudjoe Key and then hours later on Marco Island, about 18 miles south of Naples. Everglades City bore the brunt of this second landfall when the hurricane pushed a devastating storm surge into the remote village. Everything not on stilts flooded.

Irma was responsible for 84 deaths in Florida and nearly $10 billion in insurance claims.

The uncertainty about Irma’s path led to the largest hurricane evacuation in U.S. history. Some 7 million Floridians left home to seek shelter elsewhere.

Today, the uncertainty underscores the fact that Everglades City’s storm surge could have happened anywhere. The community’s recovery — now a year in the making — is a window into the future for coastal communities across Florida in a warming world. Gov. Rick Scott’s climate change policy of denial has left the state to focus after disasters on how to build rather than where to build.

“There are a lot of different ways that if we acknowledge these problems now that we can actually help people save money, help keep people safer and make for a future where hopefully some of these events are less catastrophic,” said Thomas Ruppert, a coastal planning specialist for Florida Sea Grant, an education and research organization focused on coastal resources at the University of Florida.

“The longer we continue to pretend that our coastal areas and the hazards they face are not changing,” Ruppert said, “the more we are promoting a future where events will be increasingly catastrophic.”


Few places in Florida are as remote as Everglades City. The community of some 450 year-round residents spreads out from the Barron River’s east bank in layers of cottages and stilted homes, with a gleaming white city hall at the center.

Irma was not the first hurricane to destroy the community. Damage from Hurricane Donna in 1960 was so severe that Collier County moved its seat to East Naples.

The resilience of Everglades City’s residents traces back to soon after the Civil War, when the first settlers arrived in search of a frost-free climate, although long before that the wilderness here harbored Native Americans fleeing the Indian Wars and slaves escaped from the Confederate states. The same wilderness ensured the settlers’ self-reliance. With no roads, the closest doctor was a six-hour boat trip away in Key West.

Today, 1 million visitors pass through Everglades City annually on their way into the Everglades or the sprinkling of islands just off shore in the Gulf of Mexico, and many locals make a living as airboat tour guides, fishing guides or stone crabbers. Everglades City bills itself as the Stone Crab Capital of the World.

Now, Hurricane Irma has threatened to change all that.

Lisa Marteeny waded through chest-high water with her husband Lee and their pug mix Killer to escape their flooding trailer. Photo by Amy Green

After the storm made landfall, water began rising through the floorboards of Lisa Marteeny’s mobile home on a canal of the Barron River.

Marteeny knew it was time to go. She grabbed the couple’s pug mix Killer and waded to a neighbor’s home on stilts, Killer doggy-paddling alongside her. Then she returned for Lee, who suffered from heart problems. Marteeny helped her husband to his feet, and together the couple made it safely next door.

“It was so loud, and the blowing and the whistling from the wind, we couldn’t even hardly hear each other unless we were close,” Marteeny recalled, describing an apocalyptic scene. “You had roofs flying all over the place and water rushing in. A refrigerator went down the street. It was very scary.”

Less than a week later, Lee, 72, was dead. The couple had lived in the trailer for 12 years.

The disaster of Everglades City’s storm surge continued, even after the water receded.

The next danger came from the mud. It was everywhere, with fecal contamination so severe that county scientists found it was beyond measure. One man’s leg had to be amputated because of infection. Tina Collins had just enough gasoline to drive to Marco Island to have an infected leg wound treated.

Lee Marteeny was 72. Photo courtesy Lisa Marteeny

A few days after Hurricane Irma blew through, Marteeny said open wounds on her husband Lee’s legs grew hot and turned black. He began vomiting and experiencing excruciating pain. An ambulance from Naples took nearly an hour to arrive, and Lee never regained consciousness. He died five days after Irma.

Marteeny spent the following months with friends and in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Our town is kind of like a ghost town,” said Marteeny, 63, who works in the water billing office of Everglades City. “It’s kind of sad because there’s whole families that are gone, that have to live somewhere else. I think there might be still people living in cars, or they’re living in their homes, and it’s truly not safe from the bacteria and the mold and all of that stuff.”

Hurricane Irma took a huge toll on Everglade City — some 60 percent of Everglades City’s homes were condemned. Dozens must be put on stilts under a National Flood Insurance Program rule requiring that if more than half of the structure is damaged, it must be brought up to current building codes.

Nearly a quarter of residents here have yet to return home. Some are awaiting grant and insurance money. Others are having trouble hiring contractors. There just aren’t enough contractors and handymen in the area, and few are willing to make the trip from Naples or Marco Island.

Everglades City Mayor Howie Grimm says the town will be better than before. Photo by Amy Green

Many in Everglades City hope to see faster progress as more densely populated areas such as Marco Island and Naples complete repairs and contractors look for work elsewhere, said Tony Pernas, chairman of a locally appointed committee overseeing the recovery.

“Ten years down the line, I think it’s going to be a much more resilient community. Everyone’s going to be up on stilts. There’s not going to be this panic the next time a hurricane comes, and we’re not going to have to worry about storm surge. The roads will probably be elevated,” said Pernas, a botanist at Big Cypress National Preserve.

“People are always drawn to the coast, and it’s pretty short-sighted that people are going to move inland to higher ground.”

The challenges experienced by the community raise questions about rebuilding in areas vulnerable to the more extreme weather events of climate change and also sea-level rise.

“It becomes a wicked problem,” said Chris Emrich, an associate professor of environmental science and public administration at the University of Central Florida’s National Center for Integrated Coastal Research.

“It’s an easy problem when we say, ‘Oh, we only have to move 400 people, and they would be safe.’ But it becomes wicked and confounding when we say, ‘It’s not just 400 people,’ “ Emrich explained. “It’s the livelihoods. It’s the culture. It’s all of the other things that turn just a simple answer into a more complex and devilish problem.”

The Scott administration has shown almost no leadership on these complex issues. The governor has doubted whether more extreme weather events and rising tides are threats, questioned whether human activity is speeding the Earth’s warming and banned words such as “climate change” and “global warming” from state reports and communications, as the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed in 2015.

After touring Irma-related damage in the Florida Keys the same week the hurricane hit, the governor said, “Clearly our environment changes all the time, and whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is.” Scott, a Republican, cannot seek a third term and is running this year against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

“We’ve typically developed our law and policy on the assumption that the way the world is today probably is the way it’s going to be tomorrow,” said Ruppert of Florida Sea Grant.

The reality many Florida coastal communities will face is whether they can afford to remain where they are, he said.

Already there is evidence the risks of climate change and sea-level rise are affecting property values, and that will mean less tax revenue for infrastructure improvements that can mitigate problems such as the flooding associated with sea-level rise. It also is possible insurance and mortgage companies will withdraw from coastal areas.

“What the science tells us now is that the past is not necessarily a good guide to what is coming down the road in the future, and the more we acknowledge that reality, that is going to allow us to go forward and help people understand that if we’re going to rebuild here, maybe you’re going to be at higher risk and maybe you want to rethink that. Or maybe you want to rebuild differently,” Ruppert said. “I have no doubt that at some point there will be a significant change, and I’m not alone in believing that.”


Just beyond Everglades City, growing thickets of mangroves are overtaking the sawgrass prairie as more salt water pushes farther inland. Photo by Amy Green

The sawgrass of the Everglades once unfurled green and vast from Everglades City to the horizon, a remarkable freshwater prairie beneath a blue dome of a sky.

Many locals describe their community as City of Everglades, although the watershed here is changing. Up the highway, growing thickets of mangroves, small trees that thrive in coastal brackish waters, are obscuring the horizon. The trees have found a place here as less freshwater flows from the north and more saltwater pushes inland. In some places, hundreds of thousands of mangroves have overtaken the prairie. The sawgrass that is the essence of the river of grass is disappearing.

Tina Collins stood in her front yard, at the intersection of Florida’s past and future, apologizing for an overgrown lawn as she considered the demolishment of her historic home and its reconstruction on stilts.

“Do I ever want to go through this again? No. I want my home raised up, whatever I have to do,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be a victim of flooding again.”

Like many residents, she and her husband have considered leaving Everglades City, but Richard is a fifth-generation resident and a third-generation stone crabber while she has her career at Big Cypress. The only life they know is here.

It’s a life in Florida whose future may no longer be certain in our warming world.

Amy Green covers the environment for WMFE. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the Everglades.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.


Five First Responders to the Pulse Massacre. One Diagnosis: PTSD.

“My head’s still not right,” said one paramedic who responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Illustration by Sonia Pulido, special to ProPublica

On the morning of June 12, 2016, police officer Omar Delgado pulled his cruiser up to his two-story townhome in Sanford, Florida, and sat in silence for 15 minutes, trying to process what he had seen during 3 1/2 hours inside the Pulse nightclub.

He stripped his bloody uniform and gear off, put them in a trash bag, and took a shower. Then, he shut the door to his bedroom, locked it and tried to sleep.

That same morning, firefighter EMT Brian Stilwell walked back to Orlando Fire Department Station 5. Working at the station just 300 feet from Pulse nightclub, Stilwell was one of the first on scene hours earlier.

In the dawn’s light, he saw a pool of coagulated blood in front of the station. It was from a Pulse patron who had been shot in the stomach and dragged to that spot. Stilwell wondered if the man survived the night. Then, with a bucket of bleach and water, he helped clean the blood off the concrete.

Down Orange Avenue, Alison Clarke and a fellow Orlando Police officer walked into a McDonald’s to use the bathroom. The restaurant had a TV with the news on, streaming live video of the scene she had just come from. People looked up from their coffee and breakfast, glanced at her and her partner, then back to the food. She used the restroom, washed up and bought two coffees. No one said anything. It was surreal.

Josh Granada and his partner drove their ambulance back across town to their Orlando Fire station. They spent the night ferrying 13 people who had been shot at Pulse to the hospital. Before showering, they threw away their uniforms.

“We were covered in just sticky, nasty — just covered in blood,” Granada said. “I’m not gonna put that much blood in the washer.”

Orlando Police officer Gerry Realin was called in from vacation on June 12 to work a 16-hour shift the morning after the shooting. He spent four or five hours of that inside the nightclub, preparing bodies to be taken to the morgue, and it wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. the following day that he came back to his home in New Smyrna Beach, an hour northeast of Orlando. He looked in on his two sleeping children. In the shower, he started wailing. Outside the bathroom, his wife heard him saying, over and over again, how sorry he was for the victims.

“I never saw myself in this position,” he would later say. “I’ve never been the same since, and I can’t go back.”

Pulse was one of the nation’s largest mass shootings, where 49 people died and at least 53 others were wounded. The invisible injuries to first responders represent another toll of the catastrophe.

For these five first responders — and many others — June 12 was the first day of their new lives, one in which they would confront post-traumatic stress disorder. Even though most had responded to gruesome scenes of murder, suicide and car accidents, that didn’t prepare them for the psychological injury of PTSD. Going forward, they would relive that day in flashbacks and nightmares, see danger behind every closed door, and become irritable and impatient with spouses and coworkers.

“There are just some events that are so horrific that no human being should be able to just process that and put it away,” said Deborah Beidel, a University of Central Florida professor who runs a clinic called UCF Restores that treats first responders with PTSD.

Some of the five also would face indifference, resistance and harassment from the departments they served. One said he was fired because of PTSD, another was fired for a mistake on the job, and a third was never cleared to return to work. They said they were subjected to retaliation for speaking up. Those three have each filed lawsuits asserting they’ve been mistreated.

The other two were offered work reassignments to seek treatment and reduce stress, and said they were satisfied with their agencies’ responses.

Orlando Police Department Chief John Mina said he’s been through counseling himself, and that officers dealing with PTSD can come forward to get treatment and request a change of assignment without affecting future promotions and transfers. Orlando Fire Department Chief Roderick Williams likewise said his department provides resources to help firefighters confronting PTSD.

But if employees disclose that they’re dealing with PTSD or mental health issues, they can be given a “fit for duty” test, both Mina and Williams said.

“We wouldn’t want someone out on the street who was having issues,” Mina said. “We may be held liable because of that, because we knew about that. But again, I’ll go back to the fact that they don’t have to come forward. They can receive treatment anonymously.”

The Nightmares Began Immediately

People visit the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where a memorial has been set up, in May. (Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica)

In his bedroom alone the morning after the shooting, Eatonville Police Officer Omar Delgado had his first nightmare: He’s back inside Pulse, bodies stacked on each other on the dance floor. He’s dragging one of the victims out when the rapid gunfire starts again.

“And I’m yelling, get down, get down, get down!” Delgado said. “Not knowing if he’s shooting at us because we’re pulling bodies out, he’s maybe upset or whatever. Not knowing where the bullets were making their way. When you’re trying to pull somebody and you slip and fall and now you’re on the ground, trying to take cover because you don’t know where the shooting is coming from.”

Even though two years have passed, Delgado says he often has that same nightmare. Delgado stayed inside Pulse for more than three hours while the shooter was barricaded in a bathroom. When the smell of gunpowder, blood, death and liquor got to be too much, he tried to breathe through his mouth. Then he tasted it.

He now has flashbacks. One of his triggers: The default iPhone marimba ringtone. While Delgado was inside Pulse, phones rang and rang and rang. Sometimes he could see the caller ID. Mom, sister, friend. He saw one phone vibrate and slide away in a pool of blood.

“I hear an iPhone ring and I freeze. I pause. I’m back there a quick second,” Delgado said. “Then I realize, OK, I’m not there, I’m here, I’m OK.”

In August of 2016, Delgado told his department that he couldn’t keep working as a patrol officer. His bosses ordered him to report to the University of Central Florida’s Restores clinic.

The clinic was originally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense for post-9/11 combat veterans with PTSD. It uses virtual reality, sounds and smells to recreate the scenes of war — exposure therapy in which participants relive the events that caused their PTSD and the triggers that provoke flashbacks and nightmares. Such therapy has been shown to reduce symptoms for some, and is combined with group therapy for anger, depression, guilt and social isolation.

After Pulse, UCF Restores opened its doors to first responders. So for three weeks, Delgado sat and recounted, in vivid detail, everything that happened inside Pulse.

Near the end of the third week, his counselor took him on a field trip back to Pulse. They pulled into the Einstein Bros. Bagels parking lot across the street from the nightclub, which was used as a triage site the night of the shooting. Delgado didn’t want to get out of the car.

“I got angry,” Delgado said. “Where you’re standing, there were nothing but bodies laying around here.”

Hit play to hear Omar Delgado describe returning to Pulse as part of UCF Restores’ therapy for PTSD.

Omar Delgado, 46, credits his therapy dog Jediah for assisting him in his healing process after being diagnosed with PTSD.

Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica

The counselor wanted him to start at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Kaley Street, where he first pulled up to the scene, and recount what happened. To walk across the street and get close to the club.

“The icing on the cake was when I heard an ambulance or a fire truck with their sirens going off, and I couldn’t take it anymore,” Delgado said. “I dropped to my knees and started crying like a little 5-year-old on the corner of Orange and Kaley. A hundred plus degrees outside, I didn’t care. I just got overtaken. It was just way, way too much for me.”

The UCF Restores program typically lasts three weeks. Delgado spent 10 weeks going through the program. He said it was hell repeatedly reliving Pulse.

“Did it help? I don’t know. Did it make it worse? I don’t know,” Delgado said. “But I’m not well. And when you’re not well, is something working?”

In total, 26 Pulse first responders have been evaluated by or treated at the UCF Restores clinic, including the five interviewed for this story. Another 96 first responders have gone through the program for events not related to Pulse.

The clinic says that 60 to 70 percent of the people who complete the program no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, meaning their symptoms are no longer disabling. Police and fire departments like the clinic because it’s nearby, effective and free — funded by state and federal governments. Many first responders say they like the program because it’s a neutral place to get treatment without tipping off their departments.

But some first responders like Delgado worry the clinic isn’t enough. Until this year, the UCF Restores clinic didn’t have a psychiatrist available to see patients and write prescriptions. In the first year after the shooting, the therapy was provided by a psychologist leading a team of doctoral students. With more state funding, the therapy is now done entirely by licensed, full-time clinicians.

Moreover, exposure therapy can worsen symptoms if it’s done too soon, said Beidel, who runs the clinic.

“We don’t want to do treatment in the first couple months,” Beidel said. “That can make people worse in some cases. Three to six months is the sweet spot. We want to get people into treatment before patterns of avoidance set in, before patterns of using too much alcohol to sleep set in.”

Are you a first responder with PTSD or stress-related symptoms you believe may be related to your work? Do you have a family member or close friend who is a first responder with PTSD or who has committed suicide? We want to hear from you.

After Delgado’s 10 weeks in the UCF Restores program, the Eatonville Police Department gave him a “fit for duty” test and put him back on the road. Afterward, a citizen complained that when Delgado and his partner arrested her, Delgado told her, “I’m emotionally disturbed right now.”

In December 2017, Eatonville terminated Delgado. During a press conference that month, city officials said Delgado was terminated because of his behavior during the arrest. But in his personnel file, obtained by WMFE under Florida’s public records laws, officials cite medical reasons. Delgado says department leaders told him it was because of his PTSD. Eatonville’s mayor, chief administrative officer and the police chief at the time declined to comment for this story through the town clerk.

“I believe they [the city of Eatonville] should have stepped up and found more therapy for me,” Delgado said. “There are so many programs out there now. They looked at one and that was the end of it and they thought it was gonna be the cure for all, and it wasn’t.”

Struggling at home, and on the job

Josh Granada, 38, credits his therapy dog Jack for assisting him in his healing process after being diagnosed with PTSD. (Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica)

As the first anniversary of the nightclub shooting approached, Amber Granada woke up at 5 a.m. to her husband Josh searching, angrily, for a bloodstone bracelet.

He was slamming drawers. He asked if the dogs took it. He asked if Amber took it.

Then, Josh walked out of the bedroom and kicked the couch. It slid into the coffee table, knocking the glass coasters to the ground and shattering them. The couple’s two dogs scattered. Amber started crying. She handed Josh a different bracelet and told him to leave the house.

His face was red. His eyes were bulging. He screamed: “It’s not the bloodstone!”

“And I’m looking at him like, I have no idea who this is,” Amber said. “He ends up just leaving, slams the door. He leaves and I’m sitting there on my hands and knees like mopping up this shattered glass that’s all over the floor in tears because I have no idea what that was.”

This was the first time Amber realized something was wrong. Right after Pulse, Josh Granada had trouble sleeping and nightmares. His coworkers at the Orlando Fire Department also noticed his temper flare in ways they hadn’t seen before. That didn’t stop him from putting in for a promotion and being elevated to an engineer. Granada and his partner Carlos Tavares were among Florida’s firefighters of the year in 2017 for their response to Pulse.

But as the first anniversary approached, journalists sought out Granada and Tavares to ask about what they saw that night. The anxiousness he had right after the shooting returned, along with the nightmares.

Around the same time, Granada drove his ambulance by Pulse for the first time since the shooting. He looked over at the nightclub, which had become a makeshift memorial of flowers and mementos to the dead. Then he looked across the street, at the Einstein Bros. Bagels.

In his mind, he saw blood running down the driveway and into the storm drain.

“And I knew it wasn’t there, but I saw it plain as day,” Granada said. “And that’s what it was that night. The night we were there, that’s exactly what it looked like. There were so many people dying and bleeding behind Einstein that it was literally a pool that was coming down the driveway … and running into the gutters … and I just remember that image. And it still sticks with me. I can still see it.”

Hit play to hear Josh Granada explain the flashback he had driving by Pulse.

That night, survivors grabbed Granada, begging for help, and slapped the windshield of his ambulance when it was full. There were so many patients, Granada used a penlight and gauze to make tourniquets when the supplies ran out. Two patients died at the triage site and had to be placed off to the side with a makeshift curtain around them.

“I saw a guy crawling and take his last breath,” Granada said. “It was horrible.”

Granada’s home life and professional life suffered as his PTSD symptoms grew worse. The other responders interviewed for this story described similar problems.

Granada’s wife Amber told him to ask the department for help. Granada decided his family life was worth more than his pride. In June 2017, he told his lieutenant at the fire department about the flashback when he drove by Pulse.

On July 19, 2017, Lt. Gregg McLay wrote an email to the district chief in charge of health and safety at the Orlando Fire Department, recommending that Granada be given an excused absence with pay to go into the UCF Restores program.

Then, Granada waited. And waited.

Finally, in August, McLay told Granada that he had been told that a top Fire Department official had said, “PTSD is bullshit. These pussies need to man up,” Granada said.

“And the second I [was] told that, I got really depressed and stressed. I didn’t really tell anybody… but that’s when I started having suicidal thoughts.”

On August 17, Granada broke the chain of command and wrote an email directly to deputy fire chief Gary Fussell, the man he believed was blocking his access to care.

“It has been well over 2 months since I reached out to the department for help,” Granada wrote. “Two long months of waiting for something to happen while our administration has no sense of urgency or care.”

Three hours after Granada sent the email, McLay sent another email to the district chief in charge of health and safety, copying Granada. McLay seemed frustrated — both that Granada broke chain of command and at the administration’s slow response to Granada’s request.

“I will be totally honest with both of you,” McLay wrote. “Our department [takes people off shift] all the time. If a person was to ask [for] help for a substance abuse problem, he is immediately taken off shift and offered help. In this case, Josh is seeking help and the licensed mental health professional that he is seeing is recommending a beautiful opportunity for him to be with fellow workers and military to share stories and coping skills.”

“I do not think this is a true character of Josh. I believe he is struggling inside and needing some guidance to get past this hurdle.” – Lt. Gregg McLay

But Granada wasn’t taken off duty. Instead, 10 days after that email, he made a mistake that would cost him his job.

It was a routine medical call. A woman didn’t check out of the penthouse suite at the Doubletree hotel near the theme parks, and she was unresponsive. When paramedics woke her up by rubbing her sternum with their knuckles, Granada says she started yelling. Granada pulled out his iPhone, started the audio recorder, and put it back in his pocket.

The patient refused treatment and everyone left. Back at the fire station, Granada played the recording for his coworkers at the dinner table before he deleted it, a possible violation of federal and state privacy laws.

The next day, an internal investigation was started. The patient he recorded was Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill. Granada wrote an email admitting what happened and apologizing, saying it was “not a smart idea.” Hill filed a complaint with the Orlando Police Department, alleging Granada violated her privacy.

Granada was put on light duty while internal affairs investigators spent three months looking into what happened. During that time, he was finally able to go to the UCF Restores program for PTSD therapy.

Ultimately, Granda was fired for violating two department policies and for violating state law by recording someone without consent. He is currently suing the Orlando Fire Department in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Orange County for wrongful termination, and alleging that the city violated a state law that protects people who file worker’s compensation claims from retaliation. The department has denied wrongdoing, saying in a pleading in response to Granada’s lawsuit that the city “is not liable because it also had valid, legal reasons for taking the adverse employment action.”

McLay, Granada’s boss, told a reporter that he would be not be able to speak without permission from the Orlando Fire Department. The department refused, citing the lawsuit. In court documents, the city denied that an official had said “PTSD is bullshit.”

If Granada is unsuccessful in court, his firing will have very real consequences: He will not be eligible for any kind of pension.

“The second I raised my hand and said something’s wrong with me in June, they should have pulled me off shift,” Granada said. “I should have been getting help. I never should have been allowed to run those calls, day in and day out, my head was not right, I can admit. My head’s still not right.”

In a job evaluation less than a month before Granada was fired, obtained by WMFE under Florida’s public records laws, McLay wrote that Granada was “without a doubt one of the department’s sharpest medics.” But he was having spontaneous outbursts, and McLay wrote that Granada “started to unravel” when there were delays getting into treatment.

“I do not think this is a true character of Josh,” McLay wrote. “I believe he is struggling inside and needing some guidance to get past this hurdle.”

“Get Over It and Move On"

Gerry Realin, 38, credits paddleboarding for assisting him in his healing process after being diagnosed with PTSD. (Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica)

Unlike Delgado and Granada, Gerry Realin didn’t arrive at Pulse during the shooting or its immediate aftermath. He worked inside the club after the shooting ended, when many of those first on scene had gone home.

He was part of a small Hazmat team within the Orlando Police Department that placed bodies and body parts into bags to go to the medical examiner for autopsy and identification. The building had no air conditioning, and the smell was choking. Wearing a white hazmat suit without a helmet, Realin spent four or five hours inside the nightclub, his boots turning yellow and then red from the blood and gore.

In the weeks that followed, Realin had nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. He tried to work but often called out sick or left early. After about two weeks, a doctor at a walk-in clinic diagnosed Realin with “acute post-traumatic stress disorder” and wrote that he couldn’t even work a desk job. The doctor referred him to a psychiatrist.

Realin, burning through his sick time, filed a worker’s compensation claim, and in August started doing interviews with the press about his struggles. He was relieved of duty with pay, meaning the department kept sending him a paycheck as long as he kept up with paperwork. (It didn’t legally have to do this under Florida’s worker’s compensation system at the time.)

Going public, though, came with a price. His wife, Jessica Realin, said the rumor among police officers was that her husband was a faker trying to game the system. Two psychiatrists wrote in their reports that the department’s treatment of Realin likely worsened his condition.

His union warned Realin that he could be put under surveillance, so he should be careful not to do anything that would appear to contradict his diagnosis. A union official wrote that he was worried Realin was getting bad advice that could cost him a disability pension.

The department got involved in Realin’s clinical care as well. Realin’s deputy chief, Orlando Rolon, met the Realins at a gas station in early September 2016. Rolon gave him a copy of a memo: It was a direct order to report to the Restores clinic for treatment.

“Gerry, as you know, the members of the law enforcement profession are exposed to horrible situations during their careers,” Rolon wrote in the memo. “I am confident that this program, that has helped many, will address some of your needs and for this reason I’m ordering you to participate. Your wellbeing is our top priority!”

At the gas station, Realin said he told Rolon he had already been to the clinic and didn’t want to go back. Things escalated. Rolon asked Realin if he was a threat to himself or others and, according to allegations in one of Realin’s two civil lawsuits against the city, threatened to have Realin involuntarily admitted to the hospital on a psychiatric hold.

Rolon told him about responding to a scene in which a 12-year-old had hung himself in a closet. Realin “needed to get over it and move on,” Realin said Rolon told him.

“It’s exhausting, physically and mentally. But then there’s the moments you can’t control. The images or flashbacks or the nightmares that you don’t even know about, and your wife tells you the next day you were screaming or twitching all night.” - Gerry Realin

Rolon did not return phone calls or text messages for this story. Asked in an interview in September 2016 whether officers with PTSD should be eligible for worker’s compensation, he said, “I think it’s tough to be able to justify that when you are already expected to be exposed to so much that the average person may not be able to handle.”

In March 2017, Realin was ordered to report back to work for the city of Orlando. He would monitor city cameras for drivers who drift into bike lanes. Realin’s psychiatrist worried that Realin could witness fatal pedestrian accidents and recommended that he not report for the new job, so he did not.

That decision grabbed headlines: Orlando police officer with PTSD ordered back to work at City Hall — but he’s not going.

Dr. Noel Figueroa, Realin’s psychiatrist, wrote in his medical chart that, in his opinion, Realin was not able to work “at any job at this point. As far as I’m concerned, the patient is permanently unable to return to full duty.”

He continued: “The patient has been feeling ‘prosecuted’ [sic] by his employer throughout this process. The behaviors by the employer in the last 72 hours only have enhance [sic] his perceptions.”

Figueroa’s notes were included in one of Realin’s lawsuits against the city.

A year after the shooting, Realin said he hid from his children so they wouldn’t be traumatized by his rage or depression.

Hit play to hear Gerry Realin describe his PTSD symptoms and how they impact his family.

“It’s exhausting, physically and mentally,” Realin said. “But then there’s the moments you can’t control. The images or flashbacks or the nightmares that you don’t even know about, and your wife tells you the next day you were screaming or twitching all night.”

Realin’s fight with the city came to a head before Orlando’s Police Pension Fund Board in July 2017. Realin was asking for a line-of-duty pension, which would entitle him to 80 percent of his salary for the rest of his life.

Dr. Herndon Harding, one of the doctors hired by the city to perform an independent exam of Realin, wrote that Realin had a “dramatic, perhaps histrionic element to his presentation” that could have been “an attempt to demonstrate his pathology.” But he also wrote that one of the factors leading to Realin’s inability to function was “how much the role of OPD has contaminated this treatment.”

Steve McKillop, an outside attorney hired by the city of Orlando to fight the pension, argued that Realin never really wanted to get well. Getting a pension was his goal all along.

“Rather than accept the hand that has reached out to him, at every turn he’s utilized all means necessary to suit his goal of obtaining permanent, in the line of duty benefits so that he does not have to return to work as a police officer,” McKillop said to the board.

Ultimately, the board approved the disability pension, writing that Realin was permanently and totally disabled from police work in the line of duty because of PTSD. He was given 80 percent of his pay for the rest of his life: about $41,000 annually, after health insurance costs.

In one of Realin’s lawsuits against the city, filed in December 2017, he alleges that the way the department treated him worsened his condition and that the city violated a state law protecting people from being fired or threatened because they file worker’s compensation claims. In the other, he claims the city should cover his health insurance costs because he was disabled in the line of duty. The city is contesting the first lawsuit and hasn’t yet responded to the second, which was filed in May. Both suits were filed in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Orange County.

In an interview with WMFE, Orlando police chief Mina wouldn’t comment on Realin’s case because of the ongoing lawsuits. But he said when an officer is injured, officials never worry about the financial burden on the city.

Hit play to hear Orlando Police Chief John Mina talk about how OPD handles officers with PTSD.

“No, any time an officer is injured or can’t perform, the financial aspect of that is never taken into consideration,” said Mina, who is a candidate for Orange County Sheriff this year. “What’s taken into consideration, by our pension board, which handles that, is was this an on-duty injury, did this happen in the line of duty, can this person go forward performing the job they were hired to do.”

Keeping It Quiet, Trying to Get Better

Brian Stilwell poses with the 1965 Mustang he’s restoring in Lakeland. Working on cars is one of his health outlets. (Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica)

In early 2017, firefighter EMT Brian Stilwell had requested a meeting with Orlando Fire Department Chief Williams to encourage him to commission an after-action review of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the department’s response to it.

Stilwell, as well as leaders of the firefighters’ union, thought the department needed an outside expert to come in and evaluate whether anything could have been done to reduce the death toll.

At the end of the conversation, Williams told Stilwell to take advantage of the city’s employee assistance program for free counseling if he needed it, or to go through the UCF Restores clinic. Williams said that if Stilwell needed time on light duty to go to the clinic, the department would work with him.

Stilwell was already going to the clinic. Sometimes, he’d wake up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep because something would jar a memory of the shooting. At work, he would be shorter with patients. At home, he was curt with his wife, and would lose his temper.

“And I was like yeah, I’ve already been going to UCF, which he was kinda taken aback,” Stilwell said.

On the night of the shooting, Stilwell was one of four men inside Station 5, about 300 feet from Pulse nightclub. On any given night, they were close enough to hear the music and see the club from the dinner table. On June 12, they heard the gunfire and saw a flood of survivors running for their lives down the street.

The gunfire was so loud, the lieutenant working that night wouldn’t let them out to start treating patients until a few minutes passed and a police officer was out in front of the club with an assault rifle.

The firefighters and EMTs went to the triage area across the street, and helped the paramedics already there sort patients. Green tags meant a person was walking and stable. Yellow ones went to those who had serious injuries, but who were stable and could wait to go to the hospital. Red tags were for those people who needed to go to trauma surgery immediately or risked death. Black was reserved for those considered too far gone.

“Some of the people changed from being stable but serious to critical in front of us,” Stilwell said.

Stilwell had been open with his coworkers about getting treatment for PTSD, but he hadn’t formally told the department. In part, he says, that was because there’s no clear protocol on what happens when a first responder comes out and says he or she needs help. He wondered: If you file an injury report for PTSD, are you taken off shift to go into treatment?

Stilwell also worried about how peers would view him. If someone in his department had a heart attack six months earlier, no one would worry about whether he or she was still physically able to do the job.

“No, you go in, you fight the fire, you do whatever you have to, never crosses your mind,” Stilwell said. “But if you know a guy that had a mental breakdown or had some mental issues, the stigma is still like, ‘Oh, this guy’s weird.’”

Hit play to hear Brian Stilwell talk about the stigma of PTSD as a firefighter. 

Stilwell said the meeting with the chief was productive and didn’t lead to any negative consequences at work. He completed the Restores program and says he’s doing better.

Officer Alison Clarke with the Orlando Police Department is going through the Restores program now. She also was working the triage scene at Einstein Bros. Bagels. Clarke, an openly gay female who had previously worked at Pulse as an off-duty security officer, saw a flood of survivors knock down the fence outside the club.

“Of course, they were traumatized, screaming and crying, and not knowing where they were going,” Clarke said. “At that point I started asking for ambulances, and there weren’t any ambulances that were responding at that point. So we just started loading up patrol cars and [fellow officer] Jimmy Hyland’s pickup truck and started running people to the hospital.”

Clarke was able to work through her PTSD with a counselor provided by the city’s Employee Assistance Program. She stopped working the night shift, and had gotten to the point where she was only seeing a counselor sporadically.

But then trauma hit again. In January of 2017, her boss Lt. Debra Clayton was tracking a man in an Orlando Walmart who was wanted for killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend.

Clarke heard the gunshots over the radio as her lieutenant was shot. When she got to the Walmart, she held Clayton’s hand while others performed CPR. Clarke escorted the ambulance to the hospital, where Clayton was pronounced dead.

Afterward, the anxiety and agitation came back, with a new symptom — hypervigilance. Clarke would think the worst was going to happen on each call. Knocking on a door for a noise complaint, she’d worry that someone on the other side would shoot her through the door. She went to a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac.

“Now I’ve seen it twice,” Clarke said. “My first look at evil was Pulse, and then my second look at evil was the day that Debra was killed. So I know it’s there. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. So now my brain thinks the worst thing’s gonna happen when you’re out on the street.”

Hit play to hear Alison Clarke describe how her hyper vigilance manifests. 

“It came to a choice where I could either keep suffering and ruin my home life or step forward and take the help being offered by the department. Not just the department, the whole community.” - Alison Clarke

In February of this year, she responded to what she came to believe was a man who wanted an officer to shoot him, sometimes called “attempted suicide by cop.” The man was holding his hands behind his back, acting like he had a weapon. Clarke drew her pistol. He kept yelling: “You know you want to shoot me, you know you want to shoot me.”

Ultimately, the man was subdued with a Taser, and no one was seriously hurt. He was found to be unarmed.

“The moment the handcuffs went on and I was able to take a deep breath and realize that the situation was safe, my anxiety, I just full on had just a like a huge anxiety, panic attack. I couldn’t get the adrenaline and my anxiety to calm down,” Clarke said.

As she was walking to the patrol car, she thought: This was it. I can’t be an initial responder. It was her last shift as a patrol officer.

Clarke asked to be put on light duty while she went through the Restores program, and the department agreed.

“It came to a choice where I could either keep suffering and ruin my home life or step forward and take the help being offered by the department,” Clarke said. “Not just the department, the whole community.”

How They Cope

Alison Clarke with the Orlando Police Department poses for a portrait at the Kissimmee Golf Club. 

Josh Granada has been teaching classes for paramedics and EMTs since he was fired from the Orlando Fire Department. He and his wife are having trouble making ends meet, so they’re planning to sell their house and move in with Amber’s father before they fall behind on the mortgage.

He leans on his therapy dog, Jack, which he got from the Pawsitive Action Foundation, a group that provides service dogs for veterans and people with disabilities.

Omar Delgado got a dog from the same group: Jediah.

On the days when Delgado has trouble getting out of bed, shaving or brushing his teeth, the dog gives him the motivation he needs, he said. Since he was terminated from the Eatonville Police Department, Delgado has been living off the proceeds of a GoFundMe campaign. He’s stuck in limbo, waiting to see if his disability pension will be approved. Once that happens, he’ll be able to decide what’s next.

“We cut back on everything humanly possible,” Delgado said. “It’s rough. We gotta keep going. What else is there?”

Alison Clarke has accepted a position as a police department liaison to the LGBTQ community. She no longer works on patrol, and when she’s ready to put a uniform back on, she plans to finish out her career at the Orlando Airport. To help cope, she drives her Mazda Miata with the top down, or takes an hour at the driving range, hitting golf balls with her headphones on.

After policing, she plans to work as a counselor to help other officers.

“I’ll never be the same [as] before Pulse,” Clarke said. “You can recover to a certain extent. At least for me, I can recover to a certain extent. But I know that I’ll always have some type of small anxiety issue. It’s just learning how to live with it and function with it.”

To cope, Gerry Realin goes out paddleboarding and fishing. Walking ankle deep in saltwater in Webster Creek, north of Mosquito Lagoon and the Canaveral National Seashore, Realin casts out into the channel with a lure, hoping to catch redfish, jack and trout.

He sleeps better on the nights he fishes.

“I used to have pressure in my mind. I better hurry up and heal,” Realin said. “But how? How do you hurry that up? With some physical injuries, you kinda know. Tear a hamstring, you’re out six months. Sprain your ankle, couple weeks. But for this? I don’t know.”

Realin’s wife has become a crusader. After realizing that Florida’s workers’ compensation law didn’t cover lost wages for PTSD and mental conditions, Jessica Realin set out to change the law, and is running for local office. Under a law signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March, first responders will soon become eligible for these benefits.

Brian Stilwell has found healthy ways to cope. He rebuilds classic cars and plays drums. He still works for the Orlando Fire Department, but he’s been transferred away from Station 5. Now, he’s at a small station in an old Navy base, what he calls “the last stop on a trip to nowhere.” He wants to go back to Station 5.

That station, so close to Pulse nightclub, feels like home to him.

“I feel a bigger connection to that area and that community now because of that,” Stilwell said. “It feels like the station is a part of me now, not something I want to leave.”

As the two-year mark for the shooting approaches, Stilwell says he may go back to UCF Restores for more treatment. The anniversary, he says, is bringing things back to the surface again.

This article was produced in partnership with WMFE, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Are you a first responder with PTSD or stress-related symptoms you believe may be related to your work? Do you have a family member or close friend who is a first responder with PTSD or who has committed suicide? We want to hear from you.

Abe Aboraya covers health care for WMFE, an NPR affiliate in Orlando. This year, he is focusing on the toll post-traumatic stress disorder takes on first responders. Email him at wmfe@propublica.org and follow him on Twitter @wmfehealthnerd.

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