“He was beyond words.”
That’s how Alexis Merrill described her best friend and bowling rival, who died in a hail of bullets at the Pulse nightclub.
Many clubgoers had planned a hard night of partying on Saturday at Pulse before the festivities turned into a slaughter.
But not Cory Connell.
The 21-year-old was more of an avid bowler and diehard Atlanta Falcons fan, who was over the moon for his 2008 red Mustang GT, a car with white race stripes and which he named Eleanor.
He was so protective of his wheels that he often parked out of the way. “Eleanor was his baby,” Merrill told The Daily Beast. “He would wash Eleanor and take it out once a week, and he would park it three miles away so no one would ding it.”
On Saturday, Connell tagged along to Pulse with his girlfriend, Paula Blanco. The couple was leaving the club around 2 a.m. when the gunman walked in and sprayed them with bullets from his AR-15.
Blanco survived the attack; her beau didn’t.
She has gone under the knife twice. Her future firefighting boyfriend, who had been accepted into Central Florida Fire Academy, wasn’t so lucky.
When he was senselessly killed, he was likely sober.
“He never picked up a drink,” Merrill, 20, told The Daily Beast. “He never bought alcohol in his life. He was the guy always helping the drunk people.”
Merrill and her fireman husband, Chris Richards, were best friends with Connell since they attended and graduated Edgewater High School.
“Cory was our number one fan,” Merrill, a pharmacy technician who worked with Connell at the supermarket chain Publix, said.
The trio were competitive bowlers, with Merrill rolling for the state of Florida. Yet Connell wasn’t deterred by the stiff competition. Before every roll, he declared, “I’m going to drop the pendulum.”
Strike or gutterball, he was always smiling with his effort. “He was proud of himself every time,” Richards laughed.
All three had traded text messages the day before the bloodletting. “Cory texted me at 3 p.m. on Friday saying ‘Hey, when you get back I need to talk to you guys.’”
She said she wrote him right away: “Of course, any time, tell me what’s going on.”
And she never received a response. “I never thought that would be the last time I would ever hear from him.”
Merrill was excited to meet Connell’s girlfriend, Blanco, who played on the Orlando Anarchy women’s football team, which is raising money for her medical care. The couple met on the gridiron “around this time last year through their intramural teams,” Merrill said.
They were planning a double date where Connell was going to introduce Merrill to his girlfriend.
“We were going to meet her,” Merrill said. “We were always trying to plan a double date.”
But nothing like a big night out at the club. “Maybe get take-out food,” she said, adding that the couple were more about Chipotle burritos than hitting the booze. “Cory would have never had us go with him to a club.”
The double date is now in that painful realm of things that could have been, but never will be. As is the trip to Niagara Falls that Connell dreamed about.
The couple, who spoke to us during a vacation in Ohio, made a point to visit Chagrin Falls on Monday as a nod to their late pal.
“Even though it’s not Niagara Falls we got as close as we could for you, Cory,” Merrill said.
Her husband Richards’s own path as a firefighter in Kissimmee, Florida coaxed Connell into leaving his job as the dairy manager at Publix to save lives. “He always wanted to be a firefighter,” Richards remembered, adding that his pal had a passion to help people after a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. “I think seeing how they lived and how we take things for granted—they’re praying for a glimpse of that.”
With the loss of Connell, the couple are trying to come to grips with losing that smile that brightened their lives. And however understated he was, in heaven they believe he is still smiling. “Cory is looking down and saying ‘I’m famous,’” Richards said.
“We have big faith,” Merrill added through tears. “We know we’ll see him again someday.”
Connell was among 49 people killed in the worst mass shooting in American history.
Fifty-three others were injured in the attack early Sunday, in which 29-year-old gunman Omar Mateen ambushed the nightclub with an assault rifle. He took hostages for three hours before being killed in a standoff with police.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, the victims came from all walks of life and ranged from 19 to 50 years old. They were parents, college students, performers, and aspiring nurses. One victim was a mother of 12 who beat cancer—twice.
Many were gay, lesbian, or transgender, in their twenties and thirties, and should have had their entire lives ahead of them. None will be forgotten.
Amanda Alvear and Mercedez Flores
She chose the gay and lesbian club Pulse because she felt safe. But as Amanda Alvear danced on Sunday, she unwittingly captured some of her final moments.
The 25-year-old former prom queen popped into the club’s Latin night for a night out with her best friend Mercedez Flores. Neither of them ever made it home.
Alvear, who had recently shed 180 pounds and loved taking selfies, was all smiles and dancing before the fateful blasts rocked the club. She recorded the horrific scene in a SnapChat video, before her cellphone suddenly cut off.
According to her family, she had been “hiding in the bathroom” before the terrorist launched another round of gunfire.
Alvear’s brother, Brian, told the Orlando Sentinel that his sister frequented gay clubs because she felt safe to be herself there.
“She wouldn’t want anyone to spread hate for her,” Brian Alvear said. “She’d rather they spread more love, keep friends and family close, and have a good time doing it.”
Sister-in-law Shannon Baxley described Alvear as an aspiring nurse who spoiled Brian’s 8- and 12-year-old daughters. Indeed, the devoted aunt “was like a mother to them,” Baxley told The Daily Beast.
The young woman was raised Catholic and espoused a “magnetic personality.” As word spread of her demise, loved ones and those who met Alvear “only once” came to cry together with the immediate family. “She had that effect on people,” Baxley said through tears. “She had an entourage for a reason.”
Alvear’s family was slated to move to Tampa, with boxes packed and ready to load prior to this tragedy. A GoFundMe page has since been created to “not only support the funeral but the losses of work due to the tragedy.”
Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez
The 31-year-old McDonald’s manager and his partner, Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26, had just returned home from a Niagara Falls vacation and were planning on buying a house, friends and relatives told The Daily Beast.
“He was very charismatic and a hard worker,” Fernandez’s brother Gustavo Cuevas said outside an Orlando hospital where the survivors were being triaged.
Cuevas said his sibling was the Venezuelan family’s breadwinner, and was one year away from obtaining his accounting degree.
His brother remembered the last time they spoke was earlier on Saturday and it was about taking a future vacation together.
“He was telling me how beautiful Canada was… and how we had to go back there together,” Cuevas said. “Those were the last minutes I spent with him.”
An outpouring of Facebook friends mourned the couple Monday.
“I remember the excitement we all felt at the closing of your new home, our dinners there, the arepas you made for me with so much love,” Norkis Fernandez-Valdez wrote.
“You both promised me you were going to become realtors,” she added. “I’m so heartbroken that you guys and so many other friends lost their lives in such a senseless act.”
Christian Turner said Aracena-Montero was among the first people he met in Orlando’s tight-knit gay community.
“He’s always been the sweetest guy, such a humble person,” Turner told The Daily Beast. “He’d just gotten back from vacation [and] was just there at Pulse, trying to have a good time and dance.
“No one in a million years who goes to Pulse or works there would have ever thought an evil like this could come to our doorstep.”
Turner described Aracena-Montero as a “very family-oriented person” and “religious.”
“A lot of people think being gay means you’re automatically not a religious person. Oscar was always… a man of faith. He believed in doing the right thing,” Turner said.
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado
Rosado was the father of a young son, a salsa dancer, and a Disney Live crew member, according to his Facebook page. Friends say the 35-year-old was at Pulse with his boyfriend, Leroy Valentin Fernandez, when shots rang out.
Rosado—who also went by stage name Eman Valentino—wanted to compete in the Mr. Gay US of A pageant, friend and fellow artist Kyle Vest wrote on Facebook. Vest called the talented Rosado “the best father I know.”
“I’ve been with him a lot on the downlow… helping him compete,” Vest wrote, adding that Rosado “would work multiple jobs and pass on hanging out with friends just to make an extra dollar for his son.”
Rosado’s son had just graduated from pre-kindergarten earlier this month, the Associated Press reported. “I have no words to express how proud and happy I am of my little boy,” he wrote recently on Facebook.
Another friend said he met Rosado at the Mr. Pride of America contest. “He was the type of person that people naturally gravitate towards,” Jonathan Moralde posted in a Facebook tribute. “He had a glowing personality and smile that just always made you want to smile.”
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Fernandez, recently landed a job as a leasing agent for an Orlando apartment complex. “He had finally found something he liked. He was taking care of his mom,” friend Jennifer Rodriguez told the AP.
Miguel Angel Honorato
The 30-year-old father of three went dancing with friends and never came home. Honorato worked hard managing four Florida restaurants, while also running a catering business.
“Miguel was a person who really loved life, who loved treating you like family and bringing you in close,” friend Mario Cabriales told The Daily Beast. “He was like a brother to me.”
Cabriales said he worked with Honorato at Tortilleria La Mexicana, part of a chain of restaurants that Honorato’s parents own.
Honorato leaves behind a wife and two kids who are aged 1 and 2, Cabriales said, adding that he also has a teenage child.
While he focused on family, Honorato also gave his time to community groups helping Central Florida’s immigrant population. “He would contribute food or time or money to help them find legal aid and counseling,” Cabriales said.
Honorato’s brother, Jose, was too shaken up to speak. On Monday, he posted a Facebook photo of himself and Honorato grilling out.
“Miguel Honorato come home bro im waiting for you,” Jose wrote Sunday before getting the heartbreaking news.
Jessica Garcia, a family friend, said Honorato’s kin frantically searched hospitals and hoped the dad would find his way home.
“You will be greatly missed and your memory will live on. Your kids that are still babies unfortunately lost their father. Your family and community will make sure that they know who you were,” Garcia wrote on Facebook.
“You don’t know how much we all love you,” she added.
For a complete list of the 49 victims of the Orlando shooting, please visit this tribute to their lives.