Out Here in America: He left home looking for more — and saved 2 in the Pulse massacre

Surrounded by bloodshed in the darkness of June 12, 2016, Chris Hansen did the only thing he could think to do: He untied his bandana and pressed it against the bullet wound of stranger next to him on the ground outside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, hoping he could stop the blood from rushing out.

Even from where they sat, Hansen says, the smell of gunpowder hung heavy in the air. They could hear screams coming from inside the club, where Omar Mateen was prowling the side rooms and bathrooms of the popular LGBTQ nightspot, killing 49 people and wounding 58 others in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.

“The firing just kept going,” Hansen said on the debut episode of Out Here in America, a podcast produced by Sun Herald and McClatchy that explores the lives of LGBTQ people in the Deep South and America’s heartland. You can subscribe now on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

The Arkansas native covered his face with his and hands and began to cry. “And there was no help,” he told us. “We were it. We were each other.”

Hansen may well have saved the lives of two people that night — an unlikely hero, perhaps. He had been living in Orlando for just two months when he went to meet a new friend at the club, having moved to the city to find a community he says would welcome his LGBTQ lifestyle — a place far away from the small-town close-mindedness and family drama he said clouded his life in Arkansas.

Soon after he arrived at Pulse, Hansen was running from gunfire — and then helping save Jose “Junior” Martinez and Kaliesha Andino, shot by Mateen.

“The blood was coming up almost like what water would like before a boil,” Hansen said of one man he aided before medical response teams arrived.

That stranger had been shot twice in the back, and Hansen tried to plug the bullet holes with his own clothing. He then assisted a woman who had been shot in the back and in the arm, by cradling her in his lap to help stop the bleeding.

Not a day goes by, Hansen says, that he doesn’t think about that horrific night . He’s struggled to return to a normal life.

“It’s still pretty hard, pretty rough on me because they’re alive and I know this,” he said, “but a part of me is broken.”

Yet, through his own recovery, Hansen has found strength in the community whom he served in one of its darkest hours. He has become a spokesman for the memory of those killed one year ago, and a central figure around which survivors have rallied as they refuse to be frightened back into the shadows.

There is a mural today set against the fencing outside Pulse, capturing memories and stories of the victims — Hansen will soon begin a nationwide tour alongside it, speaking to communities around the country about the community that embraced him in Orlando—and the members they have lost.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • Hansen’s powerful recounting of what happened at Pulse before and after gunfire filled the nightclub.
  • Why he made the decision to leave home in Arkansas for a community that embraces LGBTQ people.
  • How his relationship with his father changed after he came out and how it changed again after the shooting.

New episodes publish every Monday. Have an idea for OHIA? Send questions and suggestions to jmitchell@sunherald.com.

Justin Mitchell: 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_