A long line of crosses became small windows into 49 lives lost.
Puerto Rican flags flapped from nearly half, representing the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting a week ago Sunday who had ties to the island, a U.S. commonwealth.
Portraits taped to the front of each white cross showed the victims – mostly gay, Latino men in their 20s and 30s.
As people during the past few days walked the row of crosses, which were built and delivered to Orlando by a retired carpenter from Illinois, some read the victims’ names aloud. Others knelt at the foot of each cross in prayer.
Nearly everybody walked the full line of crosses, stretching for a city block. To stop before the end, many said, felt disrespectful, perhaps similar to not reading every name etched into stone at war memorials.
“This is a war that happened in our backyard,” said Gama Garcia, 26, a nursing student who does clinical rotations at Orlando Regional Medical Center, which tended to victims after the attack, the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Katrina Manalastas, 30, spent about half a minute at each cross, snapping photos on her phone. She took a break about halfway through the sprawling memorial, overwhelmed, and spent a little extra time at the cross honoring her friend Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32, whose funeral she had just attended.
At the end, she scrolled through 13 rows of pictures – 49 lives memorialized in half-inch-by-half-inch photos on her phone. Manalastas said she wanted to remember each victim’s face, not just the number 49.
Nearby, Alberto Capo crumpled to his knees in tears.
“No, no, no,” he repeated, staring at a picture of his nephew Luis Omar Ocasio Capo, 20, who died in the massacre.
His nephew’s dream was to become as famous as he possibly could, Alberto Capo said, and, yet, he had an extremely humble heart. He befriended a homeless man who lived near him, often delivering food and once giving him the hoodie off his back.
“To me,” Capo said, “he was perfect.”
As he stood up, drying his eyes on a T-shirt bearing his nephew’s name, a tall woman with blond hair walked by. She did a double take, noticing that the name on Capo’s shirt matched the one on the cross.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
She wrote “Love!” in cursive on the cross, dropped a sunflower and told Capo she was so sorry. He nodded.
Capo lives in Cleveland and planned to drive home Friday night, but wanted to spend his final hours in Orlando at the cross. Before he left, he whispered goodbye to his nephew: “Bye, Papi.”
The memorial, at times, became a classroom for learning how to respond to tragedy. As a little boy walked toward the last cross, he stopped counting and looked confused.
“49?” he asked. “I thought 50.”
His older brother shook his head, explaining that putting the death toll at 50 would include “the bad guy,” adding that “the bad guy doesn’t count.”
Their mother rested one hand on each of her boys’ shoulders and scrunched her eyebrows together.
“He was very, very bad,” she told them, referring to gunman Omar Mateen, “but he counts.”
The horizontal slat of each cross bore the victims’ names in big, capital letters, but loved ones added nicknames. There was “Wonder Woman,” “nugget” and “El bebe” – the baby. To some, Luis Omar Ocasio Capo was simply “Ommy.”
Messages from strangers and friends covered the crosses:
“Disaster family loves you.”
“I will miss you, your smile, jokes and little dance moves. I love you so much nugget. Love, ladybug.”
“I promise to be here for your family. Rest easy.”
On the back of each cross, there was a note in matching handwriting: “Greg Zanis Loves You.”
Zanis, 65, started building and delivering crosses to scenes of mass shootings years ago to cope with his own suffering. In the winter of 1996, he found his father-in-law lying in a pool of blood, he said, and the killing wrecked his life. He lost 50 pounds and struggled to find meaning in things.
A few months later, a 6-year-old was killed in Illinois and her mother asked Zanis if he would build a cross for $25. He refused the money, he said, but built her the cross.
Before long, crosses started popping up across Illinois and then the country. Zanis said he’s made nearly 15,000 crosses and can hardly keep track of all the crime scenes he’s visited.
After the 2005 school shooting on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, he built crosses using scraps from a collapsed barn; he used parts of a deck for the crosses he took to Tucson after the 2011 shooting that killed six people and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; the next year, after the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., he relied on pieces of an old fence.
In 1999, Zanis showed up to the scene of the Columbine High School shooting with 15 crosses, including two for the killers. The decision, which Zanis said was meant to empathize with the killers’ parents, who he imagined must be suffering immensely, sparked outrage, especially among some of the victims’ families.
Out of respect, he stopped making crosses for killers, he said, but sometimes still leaves behind a small wooden heart for their families.
After he heard about the Orlando shooting, which happened at a gay nightclub, Zanis, a Christian, said he started to get calls from longtime friends curious if he planned to build crosses this time. Of course, he told them. Some spoke negatively of homosexuality, which Zanis said infuriated him.
“That was all the more reason for me to go to Orlando,” he said.
After he set up the crosses, he met with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and dozens of victims’ families. Before driving home Friday, Zanis collected as many cell phone numbers as possible.
He plans to call the victims’ families before officials decide to remove the memorial.
The crosses, he’ll tell the families, are yours.