Just before the shooting began, Chandice Hunter thought her evening was over.
It was a little after 2 a.m. on June 12, and Chandice was waiting with her girlfriend by the valet at Pulse, the dance club where she and her teammates on the Orlando Anarchy had gone with their significant others as part of a big Saturday night out. Earlier, they'd gathered at Amway Center to watch the Orlando Predators beat the Cleveland Gladiators 59-56. After the game, Chandice had received a signed ball from the Arena Football League team.
The Predators might not have realized it, but Chandice and her friends played tackle football, too. The Anarchy are one of 45 teams in the Women's Football Alliance, and for Chandice, the team's quarterback and captain, playing tackle football on an all-female team had been a revelation, an immersive, physically taxing experience that brought a closeness that, even for a lifelong athlete, was unprecedented. "The love of the game. The sisterhood. It's a bond like no other," Chandice said. "My college teammates from my flag-football team know that I'll do anything for them. But this is a little different."
So when she heard the gunfire coming from inside the club -- "almost sounds like firecrackers at first, but little too close for comfort" -- Chandice thought first of her teammates, some of whom were still inside Pulse. After driving across the street to a 7-Eleven to assess the situation, she ran back across the street as police were arriving on the scene. "The cops are yelling at me to stay back," she said, "and I'm letting 'em know, 'I have people still in there. My teammates, my sisters are in there. I gotta go back.' "
And then: "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Paula."
Barely 5-feet tall and less than 100 pounds, Paula Andrea Blanco was the fastest player on the Anarchy, and the only one who was pre-med in college. Now, as Paula sat near the entrance to the club, Chandice didn't like what she was seeing from Paula. "She was disoriented and she was holding her arm; her hand was pretty badly injured. And so I yelled for her and she started walking towards me." A police officer intercepted Chandice to tell her that Paula needed to be taken by ambulance to Orlando Regional Medical Center. In the heat of the moment, Chandice would not be denied. " 'You know, that's my sister. It's the only sister I got. Like, let me get to her.' But he said, 'If you wanna help her and you wanna be there for her, get to ORMC.' "
She gave the officer Paula's full name and her date of birth; she told Paula she loved her. And as the ambulance pulled away, Chandice did the only thing she could think of. She sprinted behind it. All the way to the hospital -- about a half-mile away.
The attack at Pulse would leave 49 dead and 53 injured -- the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and the highest death toll from a terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. The motives of the assailant -- fatally shot by Orlando police three hours after his attack began -- were debated in the following days; targeting a gay club on Latin night would appear to indicate those whom he set out to victimize.
Members of the Anarchy who were at Pulse that night represented just some of the team's diversity: "You're looking at a melting pot," Chandice said. "I'm Hispanic myself and also African-American. You get white, you get black, you get Native American, all different kinds of cultures. We have moms, we have sisters. Gay, straight, confused. [We] have everybody. We accept everybody. None of that defines you. What defines you to us is how you perform on the field."
"We hope to be an inspiration and model of how a team can come out of the darkness together." Chandice Hunter
Months earlier, Paula Blanco had been leaving her genetics class at the University of Central Florida when she first spotted a banner for the Anarchy. "And I was like, 'Tackle? Women's tackle?' " She'd played sports all her life, encouraged by her charismatic father, and eventually she had gravitated to flag football at Palm Beach Central High School, where her ability to make quick cuts, honed by her days as an in-line speed-skater, made her hard to catch: "It's cool. It's like 'Ha, I got you.' And then you keep going and you make a touchdown."
She liked to win. "I'm extremely competitive," she said. "I always want to be No. 1 and if I'm not No. 1, I'll ask a coach and I'll tell him how can I be No. 1."
On the Anarchy, her speed made her a standout -- in YouTube clips, she is unmistakable as a defensive back, a tiny blur on the dead run -- and she was named second-team All-America in the league her rookie season. "Honestly, my first thought was, 'Aw, she's so tiny. She's cute,' " Chandice said. "But for being so small, she can hit."
"She can take a punch," remembered Jahqui Sevilla, the team's 19-year-old fullback and linebacker. "I remember the first game she got folded like a sandwich. And she's running off the field like, 'Yeah, I'm fine.' "
Opponents "would tackle me, and I felt like I got hit by a train," Paula said. "But I got the hang of it and I just started lifting even more at the gym: 'I'm going to get stronger, I'm going to get faster, and I'm not going to let these big girls push me around.' "
Yet for Paula, a shy, studious 22-year-old from a prosperous Colombian family in West Palm Beach who passed on partying and had found herself without a posse of pals since focusing on her ambition to become a surgeon, it was the time with her teammates that made life on the Anarchy so transformative. In April, a trip to play the Daytona Roadrunners ended in a 26-0 defeat, but the outing itself was a huge win. "You drive up with team, and you eat together, and you stay at a hotel. Instead of just seeing them on the field, you start knowing their personality. And I was like, 'Wow, these girls are cool.' We got very close after Daytona."
Paula would share her story: how her father's death from esophageal cancer had strengthened her resolve to become a doctor. "They're like, 'What? OK, you're going to be my doctor one day.' "
Her teammates also knew all about the romance that Paula still hadn't shared with her family. She'd met Cory Connell playing flag football; he was the quarterback. "I was like wow, OK. He's the good one," she said. "We just clicked right there. When he threw me the ball, I would catch it ... or maybe I wouldn't catch it. He'll be like 'OK, adjust this.' He was always happy: laughing, making jokes, doing something that would just make you smile."
The 21-year-old Cory would become part of the Anarchy posse, too -- coaching at practices and afterward, too. "We would talk for hours about the game," Paula said, "and we [would] look at footage the day after and go through it. He helped me out a lot."
"He was always carrying her dirty cleats, her pads -- almost like old-school, when you go steady and you carry your girlfriend's books." Chandice said. "We used to joke with them all the time, cause they didn't wanna admit they were together. But you could see the dynamic morphing into something more than that. We gave 'em a lot of crap for that."
They spent as much time together as possible. Cory introduced Paula to his family. He told her of his dream: to become a firefighter someday. They'd take trips to the nearby springs; in May, as they floated in an inflated tube, Cory leaned over to Paula and said, for the first time, "I love you."
"And I was like, 'Ah, you said it.' " She recalled with a smile. "He kept saying it, and it felt good. Then I started saying it, and it felt good. That was his first time ever telling a girl that he loved [her]. I just felt amazing."
After the Predators' victory on June 11, the team headed to Pulse. "Pulse is a nightclub where you can be free and be who you are," Chandice said. "Whether you're gay, straight, in between, questioning, transgender -- doesn't matter. You can go there and not feel judged."
It was designed to be a big night of firsts for Cory: first time dancing with Paula, first night at a club. Paula enjoyed all the music that was being played in the main room: "Spanish music that I love. I would just sing every song, and I'm like, 'Oh my god, this is amazing.' It just felt like a special night, having Cory there with my teammates, dancing, having a great time after, like, such a beautiful day. It just felt right."
They were heading for the door just after 2 a.m., but when the DJ started playing one more great song, they ran back on the floor.
"And all of the sudden, we heard some gunshots. The first thing I thought was, 'Who did that? Like, what happened?' Paula said. "I look at my arm, and I actually notice that ... I was shot."
She hid behind a couch with Jahqui.
Paula would see Cory gunned down; she would try to keep him conscious by rubbing his head with her feet and awaiting his response, until there was no more. She would hold her wound to keep from bleeding out. As the rampage continued, Jahqui wrapped her legs around Paula's bleeding arm. "I just knew that you put pressure to stop the bleeding." Jahqui said. "That was the one job that I appointed myself. That. That was the one thing that I was gonna focus on. To stop the bleeding."
They were the only three members of the Anarchy left in the club. As teammates called Jahqui, she was terrified that the ring of her cellphone would attract the shooter's attention: "I just kinda just took my phone under my stomach and let it ring. I mean, like, the whole team was calling me at that point."
The shooting continued. "There was a VIP section right across from where I was," Jahqui said. "I watched everyone trying to run out of the VIP section. People were trying to jump over the rope. It didn't matter. He just got everyone in that corner. And that is something I wish I'd never saw."
Paula would hear the muffled goodbyes of the dying and the wounded, their cellphones still aglow, as the shooting continued. Paula would say her own farewells, to the mother who always supported her, to the family who loved her. She would hear the chilling, inhuman laugh of the shooter as he reloaded and moved deeper into the club. She would pray that Cory might somehow survive.
And finally, she would listen to Jahqui, her steadfast teammate, as she grabbed Cory and urged Paula, still in shock, to get up and get out of the club while the path to the front door was clear. Once outside, dazed and weak from loss of blood, she would be attended to by police and taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center down the street with Chandice running behind.
Chandice could not get in to see Paula, but she would not leave the hospital. For the next 14 hours, Paula waited on a gurney outside an operating room, once pulling the sheet over her head to play dead when the hospital received an inaccurate report that an active shooter was roaming its halls. As Paula underwent the first of a series of surgeries on her right arm, Chandice and her teammates waited. At last, around 4 p.m. on June 12, the Anarchy were reunited. Chandice accompanied Paula out of post-op recovery and to her room. Paula wanted to know if her teammates had gotten anything to eat.
"She just got shot," Chandice said. "Everything is all mangled in her arm. And her first concern is whether her teammates have eaten, because they've been there so long waiting for her. That's what kind of person she is."
They would remain by her side, in shifts, along with her family. The news they dreaded most came 24 hours later: Cory Connell had died. They agreed that Paula should not be told until after her most important surgery, the one to preserve the movement in her hand and fingers. Afterward, they helped dry her tears. They tried to make her smile. They stayed there until Paula was released from the hospital late in the afternoon of June 28 and went with her family to Cory's grave.
"It's important for everybody to see this and know that, although I'm part of the LGBT community and I'm Hispanic ... there were people there that weren't part of those communities," Chandice said. "And although our rights are important, I don't want to lose sight of the fact that we lost an awesome young man who wasn't gay. Who wasn't Hispanic. He was just a guy hanging out with his girlfriend, and essentially his friends, just having a good time. We're not the only community that was affected by this. And I want his family to know that he was loved, very much."
"We just lost such a big chunk of our team, so that's what I focus on: the team." Jahqui Sevilla
"It's just hard," Jahqui said. "We just lost such a big chunk of our team, so that's what I focus on: the team. And how we can heal as a team."
In the days since, members of the Anarchy have continued to be in touch with Paula, supporting her with phone calls and texts, and weekly get-togethers when she comes to ORMC for therapy sessions on weekends. Five Anarchy teammates joined Cory's old flag-football team, where he and Paula first met, for their Wednesday night game.
"We hope to be an inspiration and model of how a team can come out of the darkness together," Chandice wrote last week. "One cohesive unit ... ready to fight until the end for one another."