Volunteer Interprets For Orlando Victims' Families: 'It Could Have Been Me' | KUOW News and Information

Volunteer Interprets For Orlando Victims' Families: 'It Could Have Been Me'

Jun 15, 2016
Originally published on June 16, 2016 11:47 am

His name is Eddie Meltzer and he's 34 years old, though according to NPR's Ari Shapiro, he looks about 10 years younger. But it's his humanitarian act to assist many families of the victims of the Orlando shooting massacre that brought him to Shapiro's attention.

Meltzer tells Shapiro that he'd left Pulse nightclub just five minutes before the shooting began. The next day, as relatives of the victims — many of whom don't speak English — met with FBI and other law enforcement officials, Meltzer volunteered as a translator and liaison, interpreting dialogue from English to Spanish and back again for all parties.

The Orlando community is slowly shifting from a sense of shock to a deeper understanding of what happened and who the people were that were affected by the tragedy. Shapiro spoke with Meltzer in Orlando about his role in helping to bring some measure of comfort to the grieving families.


Interview Highlights

On how he narrowly escaped the Pulse nightclub before the shooting

I got really lucky. I got really hungry, and I was like, I just don't want to be here; I think I'm going to go. And I left my friends there. I went to eat, and I woke up in the morning and found out that, you know, this was going on.

On what he did the day after the shooting

I helped translate for the Latino families. I helped with a lot of grieving. I got yelled at as well. It was a lady. They announced the name, and she said, "Oh, that's the people that are doing OK." And I said, no, they're talking about the people that didn't make it. And she yelled at me, "You don't know what you're talking about." And she just went crazy.

And I grabbed her, and I said, "I'm so sorry you're going through this." And I just helped her grieve. And she yelled at me, but she was yelling at me with, like — she knew it wasn't my fault. She was just yelling. ...Out of grief, yeah.

On whether there are many families of victims that don't speak English

I wouldn't say it's half and half. There was just a lot of people that are not from this country, and some people are — their kids were born here. They're not from here. This is Florida. A lot of people don't speak English when they can get away with Spanish.

On whether there were things authorities told him that he didn't want to be the one to tell a family

I had some people that said, my son wasn't there because he doesn't go to these kinds of places. And I was like, well, I have a lot of straight friends that come here, you know? And I had some people that, they were like, well, if he was there, you know, he was probably with a girl or something, you know? It's like they were in that shock. They're just saying whatever they can say to not relate their son to this event.

On the kinds of reactions people had

You know, I saw everything. I saw a woman hyperventilating. I saw people that stayed very together and had moments of euphoria, and then they will go back to normal. Then they will get very mechanical. So where do I get the belongings? What is the phone number I call? What do I do?

This gentleman — he was writing the phone number down for something that he needed to do, and I was like, what is he writing down? It was just scribble because he probably was in just a state of shock that he was just writing whatever. He was trying to write a number, but it was, like, a mess. And I grabbed it, and I wrote the phone number for him because I can tell that he couldn't. In his mind, I mean, they're not there. They're somewhere else. I was there yesterday constantly thinking that these parents could have been my parents. To some extent, it's like. ... I looked around, and all I could think is, that could have been my dad. And that was tearing me apart. I was so close. It could have been me.

On whether he had any training to prepare him for such situations

I don't think there's anything will prepare you for this. You know, people keep arguing if this is a terror attack or a hate crime. I'm like, it's both. It doesn't matter what it is. It's horrible. That's what it is. And I think nothing can prepare you for this.

But today I decided to have a new ideology. And I decided that I needed to not give in to the hate of what these people want. They want chaos. They want us to suffer. So one of the reasons I did some of the interviews was because I wanted to show them that they did not get through us and that we're going to go party as soon as we get better, party really hard, be very gay, have a lot of fun.

And we're going to rebuild from the ashes today stronger, and I'm not going to put tears anywhere. I'm going to show them that I came out stronger with more love. And that's ... what gets you through it.

On whether he lost any close friends during the massacre

I did. Two friends that were a couple, another friend that I knew for a long time. I lost another friend also that I was supposed to meet there. Another one died on the way to the hospital. So ... five and one acquaintance that was injured. I just got word that he's doing really well in the hospital after surgery, so that's happy news.

I'm just not going to subscribe to fear. We're a strong community. You know, we're gay men. We ... live in a world where we get a lot of hate. We take a lot of hate. And we know how the world feels about us. And we're strong people because we live in a world that wasn't made for us. And if tomorrow somebody took over this country and said, we're going to kill all the gays, I will be the first one in that square saying, shoot me with my big flag all over the place because I would rather die for what I stand for. You can't kill me. I'm an idea, I'm timeless.

Eddie Meltzer is set to begin a new career as a nurse this fall.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In a moment we're going to hear what it's been like for Latino victims' families. But Ari, before that, I want to ask you. As we keep learning more about the victims and the huge impact on this specific community, what have you seen and heard from people today?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You know, it feels like the community is shifting from a sense of shock to a deeper understanding of what happened and who the people were that were affected by it. Last night's vigil felt like the first moment that the entire city came together. And now moving on would be too strong a word, but it feels like the city is actually beginning to figure out what all of this feels like and what it means.

MCEVERS: So tell us who we're going to hear from now. I mean, this is someone you have been in contact with since you arrived in Orlando, right? And you finally got a chance to sit down with him last night.

SHAPIRO: That's right. His name is Eddie Meltzer. He's 34 years old but looks about 10 years younger than that. I had a hard time arranging this meeting with him because he had been helping victims' families who don't speak English, translating for them from English to Spanish and back again as they met with FBI, law enforcement. He was actually at Pulse Nightclub himself, and he told me he left about five minutes before the shooting started.

EDDIE MELTZER: I got really lucky. I got really hungry, and I was like, I just don't want to be here; I think I'm going to go. And I left my friends there. I went to eat, and I woke up in the morning and found out that, you know, this was going on.

SHAPIRO: You spent the day doing some really important work. Will you tell me about what you've been doing?

MELTZER: I helped translate for the Latino families. I helped with a lot of grieving. I got yell at as well. There was a...

SHAPIRO: What? Who yelled at you?

MELTZER: It was a lady. They announced the name, and she said, oh, that's the people that are doing OK. And I said, no, they're talking about the people that didn't make it. And she yell at me, you don't know what you're talking about. And she just went crazy.

And I grabbed her, and I said, I'm so sorry you're going through this. And I just helped her grieve. And she yell at me, but she was yelling at me with, like - she knew it wasn't my fault. She was just yelling...

SHAPIRO: She was yelling out of grief.

MELTZER: ...Out of grief, yeah.

SHAPIRO: There are many families of victims that don't speak English.

MELTZER: Yes. I wouldn't say it's half and half. There was just a lot of people that are not from this country, and some people are - their kids were born here. They're not from here. This is Florida. A lot of people don't speak English when they can get away with Spanish.

SHAPIRO: That seems like an invaluable service then for you to be able to translate what the FBI or local police are telling these parents of people who might have been killed in the club.

MELTZER: Yes. It was hard, but yes.

SHAPIRO: Were there any moments that somebody said something for one of the families that you didn't want to be the one to tell them?

MELTZER: I had some people that said, my son wasn't there because he doesn't go to these kinds of places. And I was like, well, I have a lot of straight friends that come here, you know? And I had some people that - they were like, well, if he was there, you know, he was probably with a girl or something, you know? It's like they were in that shock. They're just saying whatever they can say to not relate their son to this event.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying that there are families that were at the same time coming to terms with the fact that their child was killed and also coming to terms with the fact that their child was gay...

MELTZER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...In the same moment.

MELTZER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of reactions did people have?

MELTZER: You know, I saw everything. I saw a woman hyperventilating. I saw people that stayed very together and had moments of euphoria, and then they will go back to normal. Then they will get very mechanical. So where to do I get the belongings? What is the phone number I call? What do I do?

This gentleman - he was writing the phone number down for something that he needed to do, and I was like, what is he writing down? It was just scribble because he probably was in just a state of shock that he was just writing whatever.

SHAPIRO: You mean he wasn't even writing letters and number. It was just scribble.

MELTZER: He was trying to write a number, but it was, like, a mess. And I grabbed it, and I wrote the phone number for him because I can tell that he couldn't. In his mind, I mean, they're not there. They're somewhere else. I was there yesterday constantly thinking that these parents could have been my parents. To some extent, it's like...

SHAPIRO: Of course.

MELTZER: I looked around, and all I could think is, that could have been my dad. And that was tearing me apart. I was so close. It could have been me.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any training to prepare you for an experience like this, to play this role?

MELTZER: I don't think there's anything will prepare you for this. You know, people keep arguing if this is a terror attack or a hate crime. I'm like, it's both. It doesn't matter what it is. It's horrible. That's what it is. And I think nothing can prepare you for this.

But today I decided to have a new ideology. And I decided that I needed to not give in to the hate of what these people want. They want chaos. They want us to suffer. So one of the reasons I did some of the interviews was because I wanted to show them that they did not get through us and that we're going to go party as soon as we get better, party really hard, be very gay, have a lot of fun.

And we're going to rebuild from the ashes today stronger, and I'm not going to put tears anywhere. I'm going to show them that I came out stronger with more love. And that's how - what gets you through it.

SHAPIRO: Just so I better understand your story and what you went through, did you lose close friends on Saturday night?

MELTZER: I did - two friends that were couple, another friend that I knew for a long time. I lost another friend also that I was supposed to meet there. Another one died on the way to the hospital. So...

SHAPIRO: See you lost maybe five friends that night.

MELTZER: Five and one acquaintance that was injured. I just got word that he's doing really well in the hospital after surgery, so that's happy news.

SHAPIRO: The first time you see him, what are you going to say?

MELTZER: I'll ask him, when are we going out again? That's what I'll say.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MELTZER: That's what I'll say. I'll say, when are we going to go have martinis again?

SHAPIRO: There are going to be people listening somewhere in America who will hear that and say, what are you, crazy?

MELTZER: No, I'm not crazy. I'm just not going to subscribe to fear. We're a strong community. You know, we're gay men. We don't - we live in a world where we get a lot of hate. We take a lot of hate. And we know how the world feels about us. And we're strong people because we live in a world that wasn't made for us. And if tomorrow somebody took over this country and said, we're going to kill all the gays, I will be the first one in that square saying, shoot me with my big flag all over the place because I would rather die for what I stand for. You can kill me. I'm an idea, I'm timeless.

SHAPIRO: Eddie Meltzer, thank you so much for...

MELTZER: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: ...Talking with us and for what you've done for this city in the last couple days.

MELTZER: Thank you so much.

(MUSIC OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Eddie Meltzer left the Pulse Nightclub a few minutes before the shooting began Sunday morning. He volunteered to be a liaison between Spanish-speaking family members of victims and law enforcement. He'll begin a new career as a nurse this fall. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.