A behind the scenes look at how the Tampa Bay Times told Pulse survivor Angel Santiago’s story

Six months ago, a gunman killed 49 people and injured dozens of others in Orlando’s Pulse dance club. Angel Santiago is one of the survivors of what has been called the deadliest shooting in recent U.S. history. He was badly injured, shot in both legs, but lived to tell his story of the night’s events.

“I’m just grateful to be alive because after seeing what occurred, I don’t even know how I’m alive today,” 22-year-old Santiago told reporters at a news conference held two days after the shooting at Florida Hospital Orlando. Santiago spoke from his hospital bed surrounded by family.

Months after the shooting, Santiago spoke at greater length with the Tampa Bay Times, which recently published a longform narrative about how he is learning to cope with a tragedy that has forever changed his life.  

Tampa Bay Times reporter Kathleen McGrory, who wrote the story, was in Orlando the day of the Pulse shooting. She met Santiago two weeks later. McGrory worked closely with Tampa Bay Times photographer Loren Elliott, who first connected with Santiago on Instagram, where he was sharing images of his daily life after the shooting. Although he was growing tired of media inquiries, Santiago agreed to speak with the team because of how the Tampa Bay Times reported on the news conference: the newspaper ran Santiago’s statement verbatim.

McGrory and Elliott spent four months with Santiago. From mid June to mid October they were with him in the hospital, at home, and in rehab. “We tried to be flies on the wall,” McGrory told ivoh.

The story begins by recounting the news conference and its immediate aftermath. Although Santiago was composed in front of the cameras, McGrory writes: “In reality, nothing was clear. He had drifted, directionless, until this moment, quietly struggling with the burden of being gay in a conservative Puerto Rican family. The shame, the isolation, the depression — he had allowed it to carry him like a current, through college classes that never led to a degree, jobs that went nowhere, relationships that went nowhere. Now, drifting was no longer an option.”

McGrory said that when Santiago was wheeled into the hallway after the news conference, he started to cry. He initially thought that McGrory and Elliott would be telling a quick follow-up story about what happened inside the club. McGrory had to let him know that the story they wanted to tell would go far beyond that. It would focus less on what happened and more on how the tragedy affected Santiago and how he’s finding ways to move forward.

McGrory started reporting with an open mind, unsure of what to expect. “The doctors told him he might be able to walk again,” McGrory told ivoh. “He was having terrible nightmares and going through a really emotional and difficult time; we didn’t know what we were going to get.”

The story carefully weaves in and out of Santiago’s life before the shooting, in the immediate aftermath, and during his deeper more intimate reflection on his life and future. The narrative, which embraces the experience’s messy middle, shows how the path toward recovery and resilience can be murky and difficult. This path, which is often lined with roadblocks and detours, is acknowledged by media practitioners working with the Restorative Narrative genre.

The team’s guiding principle was authenticity, and they worked to “kind of let the story tell itself,” McGrory said. “There were moments that were very dark and then there were bright spots.” McGrory recommends this approach for other journalists interested in reporting on the aftermath of a tragedy. “Staying true to the struggles makes the bright spots even brighter. That’s important if you want to be completely authentic to the story.”

“I feel like I am a pretty optimistic person,” McGrory said, “but above all else I wanted to tell a story that was authentic. After meeting Angel we knew there may be some sense of hope to his story.”

The team made sure to be respectful of Santiago’s day to day experience.The team tried to let his life unfold as if they weren’t there, an approach that sometimes made it difficult to know when and whether to intervene. “For example,” McGrory said, “there is scene where Santiago is trying to reach for a bowl and I am right there and I could have jumped up and grabbed it for him but I couldn’t.”

In one of the most memorable parts of the story, McGrory puts the reader in Santiago’s shoes. The unfiltered snapshot of Santiago’s life is written in second person:

Imagine you are Angel Santiago.

You grow up in Philadelphia, watching your kid brother Sam root for the Eagles and play hockey in the street; you race home from school to play Final Fantasy on the computer and watch the original Star Wars on VHS.

You are teased mercilessly, for being overweight, for your lilting speech, for the “gay” way your hips move when you walk. When you are 16, you tell your parents you are attracted to men. Your father is furious. Your mother tells you to pray. You wait a little longer to tell Sam; when you do, he storms out of the room.

You try teaching yourself to walk straighter, to keep your hands still when you speak, to like women. You’re unsuccessful at that, and everything else.

You drop out of community college, float from job to job, try two more times to go back to school. You walk away with no degree and $47,000 in debt.

There is a moment when you feel you might finally have it together, at 30. You have a mortgage counseling job you actually like, the first boyfriend you care about. Then, simultaneously, you lose both.

With some trepidation, you call Sam in Orlando and ask if you can live with him. He’s about to marry his high school sweetheart, but wants to make things right. He agrees.

You fall into a job at CarMax that makes you cringe at the thought of getting out of bed. You’re so bad at pressuring people to buy cars, your paycheck is just above minimum wage. Your own car is repossessed.

Now, imagine there is a place you can go to escape from all of this, a place that is dark and loud and lets you melt into it. A place full of the only people who know what it’s like to be you. That’s Latin Night at Pulse, where it doesn’t matter that you’re a terrible salsa dancer. You can walk however you want, talk however you want, hold hands with whomever you want.

You feel safe there.

By the end of the story, we know Santiago not as a victim or a survivor, but as a person who is living with grief while trying to make sense of his day to day life.

The team first approached Santiago at a time when he was somewhat guarded around journalists. Initially he did not want to talk about the experience or club. McGrory did not press. Instead, she accepted that over time he might become more comfortable, and he did. She and Elliott set an example for how media practitioners can approach subjects they aim to tell a deeper story about: with utmost care, patience and transparency.   

When the story was ready, McGrory texted Santiago to let him know it was published. Santiago shared the story’s link on his Facebook page with a post that recounted how the Tampa Bay Times team spent months with him, following his story. He went on to say that despite how difficult it was to see his own story shown to the world, he was recovering and more comfortable in his skin then ever before.

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