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Maryland residents, officials pledge support, unity after Orlando mass shooting

Two vigils were held in Baltimore for the victims of the Orlando shooting. One took place in the Memorial Episcopal Church and the other took place outside at the Washington Monument. (Caitlin Faw, Baltimore Sun video)

Soon after the Orlando nightclub gunman opened fire early Sunday, Hippodrome Theatre President Ron Legler began receiving text messages from friends and former employees trapped inside the club.

Legler co-founded Pulse in Orlando in 2004. Now the gay club is the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

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Police said a 29-year-old gunman killed at least 50 people and wounded 53 others before he was killed in a shootout with officers.

"There are employees of the club we have not been able to reach," said Legler, who gave up ownership of the club when he came to Baltimore in 2014 to head the Hippodrome.

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"It is devastating — the worst nightmare you could ever imagine."

He planned to fly to Orlando Sunday afternoon "to be with my friends and my community."

Police identified the shooter as Omar Mateen, of Port St. Lucie, Fla. Investigators said Mateen called 911 moments before the attack and pledged allegiance to the self-declared Islamic State.

Legler and friend Barbara Poma opened Pulse as a memorial to her late brother. John Poma died in 1991 of HIV.

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"To have this as his legacy now is so terrible," Legler said.

Saturday was Latin night at the club. Legler said the gunman, who authorities said was armed with a pistol and an assault rifle, "shot his way into the building, past a police officer.

"The officer was able to dispatch for help," Legler said.

June is LGBTQ Pride Month. Legler said he didn't know why Pulse was attacked.

"There are bigger gay clubs in Orlando," he said. "There is such a mix of people. It's probably 40 percent straight on any given day."

In Baltimore, mourners held evening candlelight vigils at the Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill and at the Washington Monument.

"I'm just really more angry that we're facing another era of fear," said Jessi Ahart, 50, of Patterson Park, who was at the church.

In the 1980s, she lived in San Francisco and watched friends die of AIDS, growing angry and frustrated, she said, by that city's indifference and stigma.

"I haven't been angry at the world about a social response to us in a long time," she said. "It's like a flashback."

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis attended the vigils and pledged support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.

"I'm aware of their pain and their hurt and their suffering," he said. "We're going to be in contact with every LGBT leader that we possibly can. ... We'll be vigilant."

Such violence, Davis said, could happen anywhere.

"No part of the country is immune to this type of incident," he said.

The gathering at the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon was "beautiful," Omar Harfouch said.

He usually wears an "Equality" T-shirt while running through Mount Vernon. Sunday, he thought twice before putting it on.

"For the first time, I thought I didn't want to wear it. Then you see the smiles," he said. "This is a minority of people who are extremists. They don't represent religion."

The vigil at the monument was organized by Matt Thorn, executive director of OutServe, an organization representing LGBT in the military.

"I woke up this morning, I had a ton of text messages, emails," he said. "Being a national organization, we immediately started checking on our members [in Orlando]. So far everyone was OK ... it's just been a very, very long day."

Another vigil was planned for 7 p.m. Monday at the Ynot Lot in Station North. Police planned to discuss safety precautions for the LGBT community, organizer Jabari Lyles said.

"It was, of course, a very tough morning," said Lyles, president of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland.

"It could have happened anywhere," Lyles said. "That could have very well been at Grand Central on Saturday night. Some lunatic could have walked in and shot up the place."

Don Davis opened Grand Central without security in the early 1990s. But now he has four guards, mostly to protect against crime and interrupt bar fights.

Still, he said, the guards are watchful for suspicious guests.

"We keep alert on packages and we keep alert on people," Davis said.

A close crowd of regulars provide additional eyes.

"It's like a family," he said, "and my heart and prayers go out to our family and friends [in Orlando]."

Grand Central was quiet Sunday afternoon. The massacre was on the minds of its staff.

Bartender Ramses Cloud said attacks around the country show the LGBT community continues to be targeted.

"You would like to think that in 2016, we've come a lot further," he said. "Unfortunately, we haven't."

President Barack Obama ordered the flag of the United States be flown at half-staff until sunset Thursday in honor of the victims. Maryland flags will also be flown at half-staff.

Gov. Larry Hogan said he offered assistance to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

"We offer our most sincere condolences to the family and friends of the innocent victims of this act of terror, and our deepest gratitude to the first responders and law enforcement who responded to this tragedy with bravery and courage," Hogan said in a statement.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called the shooting "a tragic act of hatred and terror."

"I grieve for the victims of this senseless crime and their loved ones," the Baltimore lawmaker said. "We must come together to prevent dangerous people from getting their hands on dangerous weapons."

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland said he was "both horrified and deeply saddened" by the attack.

"Although the investigation remains ongoing," he said. "the fact that it targeted a place where LGBT Americans went to feel safe – and that it occurred during LGBT Pride Month — initially leads to the belief that this was not only an act of terrorism, but also a crime of hate and prejudice.

"As we learn more about what happened, one thing must be made absolutely clear: We must not let hate and intolerance win."

Sen. Ben Cardin called for action.

"Whatever irrational excuse for the shooting, we as a nation must resolve to stop [the Islamic State] from committing and encouraging acts of terror, while also working to ensure guns made solely for the battlefield stay out of the hands of individuals within our borders," he said in a statement.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations planned a press conference Monday to "condemn the attack, offer condolences, and urge Muslims and members of other faiths and no faith to donate blood and support the impacted community."

"We are horrified by the news of this senseless attack at an Orlando nightclub this morning, in Ramadan no less," Zainab Chaudry, a CAIR Maryland spokeswoman, said in a statement. "We extend our sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured.

"The LGBT community has been a faithful ally in the fight against Islamophobia. We stand in solidarity with them and repudiate any group that attempts to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence."

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The United Maryland Muslim Council called the attack "a crime against humanity."

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"This violence is totally unacceptable irrespective of individual's beliefs," the council said in a statement. "We must remain vigilant against all hate crimes."

By Sunday night, seven of the victims' names had been released. They were read to end the vigil at Memorial Episcopal Church.

"Please join me in a moment of silence," asked the rector, Grey Maggiano, "as we toll the bell for the 50 lives lost."

Then the Bolton Hill church, its congregation hushed, rang the bell 50 times — a small gesture from Baltimore to Orlando.

Baltimore Sun reporters Christina Tkacik, Colin Campbell and Tribune Newspapers contributed to this report.

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