New Orleans-raised Orlando shooting victim guest of honor at Mardi Gras ball

Leo Melendez
Leo Melendez, who was raised in New Orleans, was one of the 53 people injured during the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. An additional 49 people died in the shooting. Melendez will be the beneficiary of a Mardi Gras ball fundraiser on Feb. 24, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Leo Melendez)
Chelsea Brasted By Chelsea Brasted MardiGras.com
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on February 16, 2017 at 1:39 PM, updated February 16, 2017 at 7:44 PM

Leo Melendez had to be convinced to go out June 11, 2016. The Nicaraguan native who was raised in New Orleans had moved to Orlando, Fla., just after Hurricane Katrina, when his job at Gucci was transferred there, and his friend from the store, Javier Reyes, made a good argument for a night out at the Pulse nightclub. 

Melendez tried to say no, saying he had to work the next morning, but Reyes was insistent. Melendez relented.

"It was a typical, normal Saturday night. We were having a good time, drinking cocktails," Melendez said. "Right when that thing happened, everything happened so fast."

When you speak to Melendez, "that thing" is interchangeable with what he calls "the incident." Everyone else calls it the Orlando shooting when Omar Mateen opened fire just after midnight on June 12, 2016, inside the busy Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people and injuring 53 others. Reyes was one of the former, and Melendez one of the latter. 

Melendez has been home in New Orleans since he was released from the hospital July 24, 2016. Since then, he's been on the long path to recovery, the result of four gunshot wounds to his head, leg and elbow. Maybe most miraculously, he's focused on staying as positive as possible about his recovery. And on Feb. 24, he'll be the guest of honor at the Friday Night Before Mardi Gras' Masquerade Ball, thrown by a group that arranges "parties with a purpose" for LGBT-related causes. Tickets are available through EventBrite.

"If it's happening to you, it's for some reason," Melendez said of his outlook. "I can't explain for the moment, but eventually, there's an answer to why this happened to me in the future." 

Leo MelendezLeo Melendez, center, who was raised in New Orleans, was one of the 53 people injured during the June 12, 2016, Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. An additional 49 people died in the shooting. Melendez will be the beneficiary of a Mardi Gras ball fundraiser on Feb. 24, 2017. Here is is in an undated photo surrounded by loved ones as he recovers from his injuries. (Photo courtesy of Leo Melendez) 

The last thing Melendez remembers from the early hours of June 12 was when Mateen begin firing. The sound, he thought then, seemed like it was part of the music. It was Reyes who noticed the gunshots were real, and he told Melendez to "throw yourself on the floor and be quiet." 

"That's when I got the first shot in the leg," Melendez said. "(Reyes) said 'Be quiet and stay on the floor.' After he said that, I don't remember anything else." 

The next thing Melendez knew, he was waking up in a hospital room in Orlando on July 3, surrounded by his family and, coincidentally, members of the Orlando Magic basketball team, who were visiting shooting victims that day. 

"It was just bizarre, because I'm waking up from this coma, confused because my last memory was with my friend. Then, I see all these people and realize I'm in the hospital, that I had injuries," he said. "I started asking all the questions, and they started to answer."

The news his family delivered was heartbreaking, and his mother soon insisted he return home to New Orleans to convalesce. The months since have been challenging as he deals with the injuries that left him unable to hear in one ear and he has difficulty walking. 

He hopes to soon be able to return to Orlando, where his daughter has remained while he convalesces at his mother's home. 

"Eventually, with time, I'm going to overcome these obstacles, and I'll be close to the same Leo I was before. ... Once you give up is when you lose hope, and if you keep fighting, there's still hope," he said. 

If there's any other message Melendez said he's considered since the shooting, it's simple: "Just love others. Love people. Accept them for who they are, no matter what. Don't hate. Love."