President Barack Obama will come face to face with the heartbreaking aftermath of America’s deadliest mass shooting when he visits Orlando on Thursday to comfort grieving families and thank emergency medical crews.
Obama, travelling with vice-president Joe Biden, will offer his condolences to families of 49 people killed in Sunday’s shooting at a gay nightclub in the central Florida city. Another 53 people were wounded.
The White House said Obama will also confer with emergency medical crews and hospital staff who worked feverishly to patch together broken bodies and save lives in the chaotic hours after the massacre by gunman Omar Mateen, who was shot dead when police stormed the club.
“This will be, I think, an emotional trip,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Wednesday.
Obama also wants to “make clear that the country stands with the people of Orlando, stands with the LGBT community in Orlando, as they grieve for their loss,” Earnest said.
As the city geared up to receive the president, the process of saying goodbye to the dead began.
The first wake was held on Wednesday. It was for a 40-year-old man named Javier Jorge Reyes.
More wakes and funerals are expected later this week.
Given the circumstances, US authorities have warned that threats against Muslims will not be tolerated, and could be prosecuted. Mateen was Muslim. Instead, officials asked the public to help in the investigation.
“Civil rights violations are a priority for the FBI,” assistant special agent Ron Hopper told reporters. “We will investigate reported incidents against individuals based upon any class, any protected class, to include race, religion, and sexual orientation.”
US attorney Lee Bentley said, “Making these threats is not only wrong, in most cases, making these threats is illegal. Stop it. Any threats like this detract from what we’re doing in law enforcement.”
Members of the small Muslim community in Mateen’s hometown of Fort Pierce say they have endured profanity-laced taunts in recent days – and even death threats.
“We’re scared,” Bedar Bakht, a Pakistani in his 50s who worships at the same mosque attended by Mateen, told AFP.
The shooting shocked many and the lack of an apparent motive has left the Orlando community struggling to find closure.
In a 911 call during the attack in the early hours of Sunday, Mateen pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group, and Obama said he was radicalised by reading extremist propaganda online.
But witnesses also say he was a regular at the Pulse gay club, and was using gay dating apps.
“He appears to have been an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalised,” said Obama.
Authorities refused to comment on reports that Mateen’s wife would face charges over her alleged knowledge of his intentions to carry out an attack, calling any talk of charges
CNN said on Wednesday that federal prosecutors planned to present evidence to a grand jury, including that Mateen’s 30-year-old wife Noor accompanied him to the gun store and the club on what may have been a mission to plan the attack.
The woman claims she tried to talk her husband out of the attack and did not know of a specific plot, CNN said, citing unnamed law enforcement officials.
Authorities, however, refused to comment on their discussions with her.
Orlando has been through the wringer this past week, starting with the shooting and killing of a popular musician after a concert. The shooter killed Christina Grimmie, a finalist on the popular singing contest The Voice last year, before turning the gun on himself.
Then on Wednesday, a toddler was snatched by an alligator at a Disney resort hotel, his body resurfacing a day later.
“The past three or four days have been horrendous for our community,” Orange County mayor, Teresa Jacobs, said on Wednesday.