The return of Stonewall Pride Parade & Street Festival was split in two: before a tragic accident and after.
But even in those frightening moments when fun turned into fear the community’s pride stayed strong.
The party started on schedule at 3 p.m. on June 19. People started walking up one side of Wilton Drive and down the other. After missing last year due to the pandemic people were ready to be together and party. Stages lined the drive with drag queens and singers pumping up Pride. In front of Hunter’s airbrush legend Avi Ram was body painting people. Down by SunServe’s building people sang karaoke while others tried to soak people in the dunk tank. At the BodyTek tent people posed at a photo booth.
According to organizers more than 40,000 attended the festival beating the 2019 event.
“It beat our expectations,” said Jeff Sterling, the festival’s CEO.
Meanwhile restaurants filled up with people looking for a little shade and a lot of refreshments. Many set up food and drink stations outside along The Drive so people could hydrate with their beverage of choice.
Considering this was the biggest in-person Pride in South Florida since the COVID crisis, everything was going as well as could be expected, if not better.
Then at 7 p.m., as the parade was supposed to step off, there was no parade. What appeared to be a BSO helicopter was tightly circling over the staging area. No announcement was made but word of a truck plowing through the staging area started to spread.
Rev. Durrell Watkins of Sunshine Cathedral was there when the confusion started. “Just then we hear this strange sound like a car accelerating and then we hear crashing noises we see a truck plowing through trees and plants, there was a nursery across the street. Then we look down and see bodies that were struck. It was so fast and out of the blue, we’d seen it before we knew what we’d seen.”
It became apparent fairly quickly that this was an accident and not a coordinated attack on the event or the community and panic never gripped the crowd.
Watkins says what happened next was inspiring. “It was sad but it also happened at home, it happened in the community, in the gayborhood with all of us together and the people, they didn’t disperse. They stayed. It was a fine example of community.”
Sterling released a statement the day next expressing the organization's horror over the events that transpired.
“We are devastated by the tragic accident on June 19 at the start of the Stonewall Pride Parade at the Fort Lauderdale High School involving members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus,” he said. “Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of the deceased, the other individuals involved, and the Chorus family. As we await the result of the police investigation, we ask the community to come together and pay tribute to the life lost so tragically.”
At the other end of The Drive by The Manor thousands stayed packed in the streets, music thumped with deep bass, and Pride continued.
Dr. Requel Lopes of the World AIDS Museum in Fort Lauderdale was set to be Co-Grand Marshal of the parade, and told SFGN: “Even a few days later I can feel the weight of it. We have lost one of our own. We mourn together. We reflect together. My heart goes out to all that were affected especially the members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus. Let’s hold them all in our thoughts and prayers. A tragedy can be an uniter. We have experienced them all too often. And yet such things have brought us together in support of one another. The day began with a celebration of unity and love.”
She continued: “The joint celebration of Juneteenth and Pride was evident of our community’s ability to come together, providing a message of hope, resilience and love as one community. Regardless of our differences, we celebrated powerfully. We must continue to celebrate life, the legacy of those lost, as we have done so many times in the past – Juneteenth, Stonewall Riot, AIDS Crisis. We always came together. This is no different. It will take time. Be gentle with one another as each of us will mourn differently. We are One. We are Pride.”
In the aftermath many could be traumatized by the accident. SunServe is offering counseling saying “When traumatic events like this occur anxiety and depression can follow. If you or someone you know is dealing with a new or exacerbated mental health issue, please reach out to our Mental Health professionals.”