Disbelief at the nation’s latest mass shooting turned into frantic fear for two Metairie parents when they learned their son had been partying with friends inside the nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday.
For 24 hours, the family of Metairie native Leonel Melendez Jr. could do nothing but wait for word from authorities. They did not know whether he was one of the 49 killed or the dozens more wounded.
“They wouldn’t give us any information,” said Melendez’s brother Pica, 31.
Finally, after a long, sleepless night, the family learned the news Monday morning. Melendez had been shot in the head and leg and came close to dying twice, Pica Melendez said, but he was revived both times. He remains in a coma with head swelling at an intensive-care unit in an Orlando-area hospital.
“He’s in a coma. He’s not doing too well. But he’s alive,” Pica said.
Leonel Melendez, 38, the son of two Nicaraguan immigrants, attended Grace King High School in Metairie. After Hurricane Katrina, his brother said, he moved to the Orlando area.
Melendez has a 6-year-old daughter named Bella with a wife from whom he is separated. He works as an assistant manager at a Gucci store in a mall, and from what his family has gathered, he went out with co-workers to Pulse on Saturday night.
The family grew alarmed when a friend told Melendez’s sister Lauri that he had been inside the club when gunman Omar Mateen opened fire.
Family has always come first for Leonel Melendez, who returned to the New Orleans area as recently as Mardi Gras and calls his mother nearly every day. So loved ones feared the worst when he didn’t call or answer his brother’s text messages and when he didn’t show up for work Sunday.
Melendez’s mother, Aura, and other family members rushed to Orlando to try to find him after the shooting. In the hours since they learned he was in a coma, the family has “barely” been able to see him in the hospital, said his father, Leonel Melendez Sr.
Word of Melendez’s shooting prompted an outpouring of support on social media, where friends expressed shock but also relief that he had been located.
“I actually jumped up,” friend Jaymie Rotts said. “It’s a huge relief to know that he’s found and still breathing.”
Melendez lives for his daughter, according to friends. Just last week, he posted a beaming photo of himself on Facebook holding Bella and a kindergarten certificate and another award crowning her a “fashionista” for coming to class in the best outfits.
Melendez had planned to travel back to Metairie with Bella on Friday to attend his nephew’s first birthday party.
“Leonel is a family man who loves his mom, dad, brothers, sister and daughter. A man you will always see smiling,” Rotts said. “He’s definitely all about fashion and loves his little girl a lot.”
The news about the shooting has been made worse by fears about how the blue-collar family will pay costly medical bills, Pica Melendez said. Pica works at a Winn-Dixie, his father is a cab driver, and another brother, 34-year-old David, is a U.S. Army officer.
But some relief may come from an online fundraiser set up by Rotts that had raised thousands of dollars on Melendez’s behalf in just a few hours Monday.
Both Pica and Leonel Melendez Sr. were inside the family’s house on a tidy Metairie street as the phone kept ringing Monday with calls from relatives in Orlando.
Pica said doctors have told the family little about Melendez’s prognosis, but they know the road to recovery will be long.
Translating for his father as he spoke, Pica summed up the family’s unsettled state.
“He’s just worried about him,” Pica said. “He doesn’t know how it’s going to be with him.”
Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge. Follow Jim Mustian, @JimMustian.