AND FROM THE DARKNESS AROSE A BRILLIANT LIGHT
By: Jen Fertenbaugh
Tony Marrero is still experiencing intense physical pain nearly six months after the shooting inside Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. He is unable to return to his job at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where he loved to make people smile. Yet, Marrero is hard at work in a different way, lifting people up with a very powerful message.
On The Ellen Degeneres Show, he thanked Katy Perry for her music—moving everyone to tears. He delivered a heartfelt presentation at the Hispanic Heritage Awards in Washington, DC—inspiring the audience with his message of hope. Tony Marrero teaches us that from life’s darkest moments, we have the power to rise up together—that through simple acts of kindness and love, we can repair division and overcome hatred to create a beautiful life for us all.
LC: On the night of June 12th, you went to Latin night at Pulse Nightclub. What can you tell us about that night?
Marrero: I was headed home after work, and I received a text message from my best friend, Luis. He wanted to go to Pulse because somebody was having a birthday party there. He wasn’t gay; he had never been to that club before. He just wanted me to go with him. So, he came to pick me up.
We didn’t get to Pulse until midnight. The vibe of the club was amazing; everybody was having a good time. We weren’t drinking; we were just dancing and talking. It was close to 2:00 a.m., and the bartender made last call. We started walking towards the door, and that’s when we started hearing the gunshots. We followed our instincts and hit the ground. When we hit the ground, we landed in different directions. That’s the last time I saw him.
LC: I’m so, so sorry. Why don’t you just tell me what you are comfortable telling me about what happened next.
Marrero: I was lying [on the floor] next to the couches in the VIP section. Everybody was screaming. It was chaos; people were trapped on the ground. I don’t know how, but I focused on finding a way to survive—to protect my head. I lifted up the couch, and I put my head underneath it. I had to lay there, pretending to be dead. And the hate—you could feel the hate in there. It was terrible. To go through something like that, it was very traumatizing for everyone.
LC: At what point were you shot?
Marrero: I was laying there pretending to be dead, and all I could hear was nonstop shooting. He walked around, just shooting. When he got close to me, I think he needed to make sure that I was dead. He shot me four times in the back and [at close range, severely damaging] my arm.
LC: Do you remember how you got out? How you got to the hospital?
Marrero: I just laid there and tried to stay calm. There was more shooting for a while. Then, the police arrived. They yelled ‘if anyone is alive, raise your hand.’ I stuck my head out from under the couch and made eye contact with a police officer. He told me to find the strength to crawl to him. And somehow, I did.
LC: I can’t imagine the physical and mental strength that must have taken.
Marrero: I don’t know how I did it. I think maybe I have a guardian angel. That is the part I still have nightmares about, crawling to the police officer. It was terrifying. [The police] dragged me to the other side of the street, and the First Response team took me to the hospital. I felt very thirsty, apparently because I was losing a lot of blood. I started to lose [my] vision. I was going. Then, they gave me two adrenaline shots that brought me back.
LC: Do you remember being at the hospital?
Marrero: I remember all these doctors around me and a lot of yelling. They were trying to save as many lives as possible. I was telling the doctor ‘I can’t breathe.’ I grabbed her, and I passed out. That’s the last thing I remember.
LC: Can you share what you remember after waking up in the hospital? What was your physical condition?
Marrero: My boyfriend Justin told me I was out for hours. I woke up with tubes everywhere—down my throat to my stomach, and on each side of my body, under my armpits. They were debating if they were going to take my arm because it looked very bad. They did some skin grafting. My surgeon, Dr. Ibrahim, recently told me that when he saw my arm that night, he thought he wasn’t going to be able to save it.
LC: How were you doing emotionally?
Marrero: At first, it was like a nightmare. I just had to lay there and not talk. I was scared to sleep because I was afraid I wasn’t going to wake up. The doctor who came to see me said that out of the eight people he tried saving that night, I was the only one who survived. And technically, I died too. But, he brought me back. I was touched, but scared. Happy, but sad.
I feel so sad because I lost my best friend. But, I deal with it. I don’t close myself off or shut down. A couple of days ago was his birthday. I was a wreck. But I got up, and I kept going.
LC: You seem very grateful for everyone who helped you.
Marrero: Everybody that came together that night to try to save as many lives as possible did an amazing, amazing thing, and I am so grateful. [Dr. Ibrahim] has been so amazing through all of this, too. I’ve never seen a community come together like it did for this tragedy. That’s the kind of attitude and positivity that people need in their life, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.
LC: It’s been almost six months since the attack. How are you healing?
Marrero: I still have one open wound where I was shot in the back. My muscles started growing [before the wound healed], causing me a lot of pain. They did surgery a couple of weeks ago and removed the excess muscle. Now, it is starting to heal normally.
My arm had wounds deep enough to see the bone. Finally, it healed a couple of weeks ago, but the nervous system is still trying to reconnect. I’m getting pain in my fingers because they are still numb. Everything is still reconstructing.
LC: With everything that is still going on physically, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. How do you find the courage to share your story?
Marrero: As much as I don’t like to say it, some go through something called survivor’s guilt. Why are we here, and why are our friends are not here? It is very bad. But something happened to me when I was in recovery at the hospital. It’s like [my] brain switched in a way that everything negative, automatically [turns] to a positive. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. That’s what keeps me going; that’s why I’m here right now [doing this interview] with you.
After Pulse, no one wanted to say anything. The survivors—we were scared—and nobody wanted to talk. But I started talking because I figure there’s a lot of people out there who have to be feeling super scared, just like me. They don’t know how to cope. If I start talking, and I can help people try to get through this together, then that is a good thing.
LC: You have such courage and strength to tell your story. You mention you want to ‘Be the light’ for people. How do you find the strength to do that?
Marrero: During recovery, I started getting so much love on social media—all types of messages. People were thanking me for having the courage to speak up. It hit me. If I’m doing all this for people, that’s got to be the reason why God still has me here.
LC: So, has the response on social media all been positive?
Marrero: I have been getting some horrible messages too, saying Pulse was a hoax; Pulse never happened. Here I am, looking in the mirror with all these scars on my body while I’m still trying to deal with the loss of my best friend. But, I don’t focus on those comments. I focus on the positive comments because it’s very easy to hate somebody or to project hate using a computer.
Many people don’t understand the power that the simplest message can have.
A beautiful message is powerful, but if you write a hateful comment, it [can also be] really powerful. But there’s more good than bad people out there. Because we are connected, nothing is going to stop the good from rising up. I’m going to live for my best friend that didn’t make it. I’m going to live the other 49 victims that didn’t make it that night.
LC: What would you tell others who are dealing with negativity, bullying, or hateful acts?
Marrero: You’re not going to be 100% happy unless you be yourself. Don’t change to please anyone. It’s just a waste of time because you are not loving yourself. If you can’t love you, you can’t love any other human being.
The happier you are, the more happiness you are going to project, and the more happiness you will find around you.
Imagine if everyone was happy—if they loved themselves—the world would be very different.
There’s always going to be problems, but every problem has a solution. The way we respond to the problem affects the solution we find. Be yourself, be happy, and reach out to others. That’s the most beautiful thing you can do.
LC: While some have seen this as an attack on the gay community, you see it in a broader sense, correct?
Marrero: This is not just about the gay community. This is about the whole community. My friend wasn’t gay, but my friend has such a beautiful soul. He was so open-minded; he loved everybody. Now, I carry that with me because we’re both the same way. Not just the gay community, but the whole community needs to come together and stay together.
Dividing people is the worst thing you can do. We need to work together; to stay together; to come together, to reach our goals together. Everybody has personal goals, but I’m pretty sure we can help each other out.
LC: Keep sharing that message, Tony, it will inspire people to act and you will heal a lot of hearts.
Marrero: So many people aren’t living. They are just going through life. They don’t realize how short life can be, and how beautiful life really is. I technically died, and I came back. Now, I’m living my life to the fullest, helping people, living every moment.
Tell and anybody and everybody that you love, that you love them because you don’t know when it will be the last time you are going to see them. Life is short, trust me, life is very short. It is a gift. We should not be taking it for granted.
People underestimate the power of love—it can heal anything. Project that love. I do it with all my heart because I know I am helping people. And what better job is there than that.