Hero. It's a four-letter word that packs a lot of punch yet carries more political baggage than probably any other in the English language.
In real life, heroes are sometimes complicated. But sometimes they are as clear-cut as Imran Yousuf, one of the heroes of the Pulse shooting in Orlando. To call Yousuf a friend of LGBT people would be like saying Superman has a passing affinity for Lois Lane. A Hindu by faith and a former U.S. Marine who fought in Afghanistan, Yousuf was working as a doorman — a bouncer, in fact — when the murderous rampage at Pulse began in the early-morning hours of June 12.
In September, the American Military Partner Association honored Yousuf for saving the lives of 70 people who — were it not for his decisive and brave actions — would likely have fallen prey to a deranged gunman's terrorist spree.
During a recent interview with The Advocate, it became clear that Yousuf's humility is much a part of his DNA as is his bare-bones, "just-the-facts" way of recounting the story of that horrific night. He never boasted of how many people he saved. He left it to the reporter to find that information on his own.
"I do feel honored and humbled by this," Yousuf said following AMPA's gala event in San Diego, where more than 200 people converged from all corners of the country to help honor him. There, Yousuf's presence helped the organization raise funds in support of its mission to support sexually and gender-diverse members of the armed forces.
"We weren't quite sure what to expect having our gala for the first time on the West Coast, but the California folks showed up in force," said AMPA's president, Ashley Broadway-Mack, who said the presence of Imran Yousuf, whom she calls by his middle name, Raj, was part of the reason many came.
"I mean. there's no way to describe it," Broadway-Mack continued. "Raj is a total rock star. What he did is truly, truly heroic. I'll be honest with you; I had him on a pedestal and you never know what to expect with someone you have on a pedestal. That could have easily been me at the nightclub. I would hope that someone would save me and that I would save someone else."
"And yet, when you meet him, he's such a down-to-earth guy," she added. "He's someone you'd just want to hang out with, watch football with, go tailgate with."
In his interview with The Advocate, Yousuf invoked the memory of the only other Pulse staff security member on duty that fateful night. Fellow bouncer Kimberly "KJ" Morris was 37 when she moved to Florida from Hawaii to be with her grandmother just weeks before the tragedy that took 49 lives at Pulse.
"We became close friends," Yousuf said. "We were the only ones working as Pulse's own staff security that night. I kept texting her after and wasn't getting a reply."
There would be no reply.
"[I had] come to find out," he continued, "her name popped up on one of the lists of people whose lives were taken."
As a six-year combat veteran whose had lost friends and comrades-in-arms in Afghanistan, Yousef said he was better suited than others to cope with and grieve for the loss of a friend he considered very close.
"I was able to kind of be there for some of the other people [who] don't know how to do that because they never had to," he said.
Shortly after the shooting spree, The New York Times spoke with Orlando Police Chief John Mina. According to Mina's account, "The shooting began inside the club," the paper reported, "and continued outside when an officer working at Pulse attempted to confront him. The gunman then ran back into the club, resumed shooting and took hostages." At 5 a.m., the police decided to attempt a rescue, detonating two explosives to distract the gunman and to help clear the club.
“With that advantage,” the chief said, nine officers moved into the club to confront the gunman. In the ensuing shootout, one of the officers was slightly wounded, saved by his Kevlar helmet.
“We rescued about 30 people,” Mina said. During the rescue and shootout, officers with the SWAT team — using an armored vehicle — entered the club and hurried people to safety. Many of them had sought shelter in various sections of the sprawling club.
Although it took nine brave officers in Kevlar helmets and other SWAT gear, two explosives an armored vehicle, and several hours to save 30 people, Yousuf managed to save himself and about 70 others with a sharp mind, a painfully close but out-of-reach exit door, his voice, and not much else.
Through streaming tears back in June, he told CBS News, "I wish I could have saved more to be honest. There are a lot of people that are dead ... there are a lot of people that are dead."
Yousuf recalled his thoughts that night when he realized the sounds he heard as he wrapped up his last-call walkthrough of the club. He was near the back of the bar when, just as he had many times during firefights in Afghanistan, he heard the unmistakable sounds of high-caliber weaponry. This time the weapon was an AR-15 assault rifle. This time he was at a gay bar thath was not far from Disney World.
"Time slowed down," Yousuf trecalled. "The only difference was that I was surprised for a minute, because I knew this wasn't a battleground. I heard that sound, that 'bap-bap-bap.' I know what follows that sound. I know what happens next."
That's when his survival instincts kicked in.
"But I wasn't the only one who had to survive," he said. "Everyone sardine-packed into a back corridor where I was, and then they froze."
Yousuf then realized that he and the dozens of people seeking refuge from the sudden blasts of gunfire coming from the front of Pulse nightclub were, at best, seconds away from becoming sitting ducks in a nightmarish shooting gallery. Worse, none but Yousuf seemed to realize that the panic-stricken congregation was blocking its best path to safety.
"You could see in people's eyes that they had kind of given up. Part of them was saying, 'Well, this is the end right here,'" he recalled. "An instinct inside of me kicked in that said, 'Well, if you're going to get killed anyway, you might as well make an effort. There's definitely a door over there. If I can somehow get to it, I can kick it open, and maybe some of us can get out.'"
That's when Yousuf pounced. He broke through the crowd, exposed himself to the gunman's sights, and swung wide the door to open air and safety, yelling, "Go! go! go!" Some nightclub patrons, presumably in shock, crouched onto the ground just as soon as they were outside the threshold of the club's back doorway.
"Some just ducked at the corner," he said. "I said, 'No, get up! Keep moving! Go!'"
Yousuf's characteristically mild voice ticks up a modest and clearly more authoritative notch as he recalls how emphatic he became when he realized a that a handful of the people with whom he had just escaped death had gone down so close to the finish line. "Anyone I saw getting down, I said, 'No, no; get up. Keep moving."