Constable: Orlando shooting shows power of final words to loved ones
Amid the barrage of bullets, pools of blood and screams of horror, dozens of text messages made their way safely out of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando early last Sunday. A few cellphone calls, too. Stunned loved ones on the receiving end weren't sure what to think, but their feelings must have included horror, helplessness, heartache and love.
On May 13, 1987, Bill and Marion Clay of Libertyville were jarred out of bed at 3 a.m. by a phone call from their youngest daughter, Nancy, who was trapped on the 20th floor of a burning building in Chicago.
"She told me that she was very concerned about her welfare and that she possibly could die. She was very lucid and knew what was going on," her father told me later that day. "There was nothing I could do at all. She said, 'Dad, I have to hang up. The smoke is getting terrible and I'll call you back.' And that's the last I heard."
A 31-year-old production manager for an advertising company, Nancy Clay was working through the night on a project when the fire started. She used her office phone to call the fire department first. Then she felt the need to call her parents in the moment before she died of smoke inhalation.
In 1996, mountain climber Rob Hall became trapped near the summit of Mount Everest. Aware that he was freezing, rescue was impossible and he was about to die on that mountain, he used a radio to talk with his pregnant wife back home in New Zealand. "I love you," he said. "Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don't worry too much."
On Sept. 11, 2001, as hijackers planned to crash United Flight 93 in Washington, D.C., Wheaton College alum Todd Beamer picked up an onboard phone and talked to a suburban phone operator, Lisa Jefferson. Beamer didn't call his pregnant wife, Lisa, who was home with toddler sons Drew and David. He had hoped to spare her the drama until he could recap the story in person. Instead, he explained the situation to the phone operator, prayed with her and then closed with the phrase, "Let's roll!" before storming the cockpit with other passengers on the plane that would crash in a Pennsylvania field, killing all onboard.
"He told me if he didn't make it, would I please call her (his wife) and let her know how much he loved her and his family," Jefferson said.
In today's world, the link between loved ones during last moments is heartbreakingly common.
"He's in the bathroom with us," read one of the final text messages from Orlando shooting victim Eddie Justice to his mother. The 30-year-old's first text after the shooting started was just to say he loved his "mommy." Then he told her that a shooter was loose in the Pulse nightclub.
"He's coming," he texted from a bathroom where he was hiding. "I'm gonna die."
His mother texted back that police were on the scene.
"He's a terror," Johnson texted back before he was killed.
"Please come get us now, Please, they shooting," read a 2 a.m. text from Akyra Murray, 18, to her parents.
With her parents waiting outside the club, the teen called. "Mom, I've been shot in the arm. Help me please, I'm scared, I am bleeding so bad."
Her parents told reporters that they try to remember how their daughter was having fun until the shooting took her life, and that she had helped direct police and save the lives of her cousins and a friend.
"I been shot at club … dying I love you," read another text from 37-year-old Jeff Rodriquez to his little brother. "Dead bodies on top of me."
His brother, Santos, thought it was a joke and texted back "LMAO." Now, he's hoping his critically injured brother, who was shot three times, recovers.
People save those last texts. A Tumblr page called thelastmessagereceived.tumblr.com has received more than 10,000 submissions, but some of those are the results of breakups or other circumstances far less traumatic than death. There are stories of Civil War soldiers and wounded warriors from other wars writing letters home from the battlefields where they were dying, or scratching messages onto rocks.
The agony of not being able to rescue or even comfort a loved one facing death can linger. So can good feelings. Most texts from people with severe injuries or terminal illnesses include a simple "I love you." In a British newspaper poll, 74 percent of respondents predicted that they'd spend their last moment texting loved ones to express love.
The knowledge of being included in someone's final thoughts can be comforting.
"I just felt so glad to have had the chance to reach him, hear his voice, to tell him I loved him," Jan Arnold, widow of mountain-climber Hall, told reporters after her husband's death. "We effectively were holding hands across the airwaves. At the time, because I already knew rescue from the south summit is impossible, I didn't fight the terrible dawning realization that I had to let go."