Omar Mateen opened fire on Orlando, Florida's, Pulse Nightclub on Sunday, killing at least 49 people and injuring at least 53

By Char Adams
Updated June 14, 2016 10:10 AM
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The owner of the Orlando nightclub where at least 49 people were gunned down on Sunday is determined to “keep the heartbeat alive.”

In her first interview since the deadly attack, Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse nightclub, told Today‘s Matt Lauer of the heartbreaking moments she first learned Omar Mateen had opened fire on her beloved club.

“It was supposed to be a safe place,” she said of the club. “It was the most surreal phone call I’ve ever received. When my manager called me and told me – he was just yelling into the phone – he just kept saying, ‘we have a shooter. We have a shooter.’ ”

She continued: “I just kept screaming, ‘What?’ Finally, it sunk in. You can’t wrap your head around that. You just can’t.”

Mateen opened fire at the club around 2 a.m., killing and injuring dozens before dying in a shootout with authorities. He previously declared his allegiance to ISIS, and the terrorist group has since claimed responsibility for the attack.

After the attack, Poma issued a statement on the club’s website, writing that she is “devastated about the horrific events.”

“From the beginning, Pulse has served as a place of love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community,” she wrote. “I want to express my profound sadness and condolences to all who have lost loved ones.”

Poma was not in the club during the attack, and she told Lauer that she “can’t stop imagining” what it was like for those inside – “I don’t think I’ll ever stop that,” she said.

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Poma said she opened the club more than a decade ago to honor her brother, John, who died after contracting HIV.

“I was looking for a place – for a platform – a place to reach out to our gay community in Orlando,” she said.

She said she and her co-workers had become family over the years, but now the place she hoped would be a place of celebration has become a place of mourning.

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“We are family. Something that’s been important to me since day one is that we weren’t just a place to work,” she said. “We worked together toward one certain goal, a certain mission and we have to do it together, and now we mourn together.”

Now, Poma is determined to carry on that mission, she said, and honor the victims of the attack in the process.

“We just welcome those families into our family and we just have to move forward to find a way to keep their hearts beating and keep our spirit alive,” Poma said.

“We’re not going to let someone take this away from us.”