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  • Writer's picturePulse Families and Survivors for Justice

Pulse Nightclub: The Coke "Machine" and Unpermitted Fencing Blocked What Was Designated an Exit

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

In the immediate aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, local news stations reported a "Coke machine" was toppled over behind the nightclub and blocked an exit.

A helicopter flew over the scene of the massacre and recorded a large metal box with the red Coca-Cola logo painted on the side from the air. This aerial footage can be seen below:

WESH News reported text messages that were exchanged between Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes and Fire Chief Roderick Williams, which stated that at least one exit was blocked by the "Coke machine."

These text messages can be read below, with the most important one stating: "Code enforcement is here showed me a picture where the club owner had blocked an exit with a coke machine he has pictures."

text message public records Orlando
Text messages released by the City of Orlando, showing text messages sent between Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes and Orlando Fire Chief Roderick Williams.

What was thought by WESH, Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes, and even some survivors to have been a "vending machine" or "Coke machine" was actually a branded beverage cooler. One of the photos taken by code enforcement (Eddie Crespo) that Tammy Hughes referenced in text message can be seen below. It shows the Coca Cola cooler laying on the ground in the back of the Pulse Nightclub.

Coke machine at Pulse
Photo of the "coke machine" taken by Orlando Code enforcement and sent to Tammy Hughes (obtained through public records requests)

In their reporting, WESH mistakenly claimed that the Coke machine did not block an exit. Their reporters made this false assumption by looking solely at the building plans provided by the City of Orlando, which showed that there was a door on the outside of the building that went to a storage closet. This phantom door was not accessible by club patrons, the unpermitted building plans showed. WESH did not interview any survivors on this topic, nor did they interview Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes. However, the bigger problem is this: the City of Orlando released unpermitted building plans to the media, law enforcement, and the public for analysis without letting them know that those plans were not 100% accurate.

This layout can be seen below, which are the building plans that the City of Orlando provided to the FBI and media after the shooting. According to public records, they were not located in the City's official permitting platform, rather they were hidden in employee Timothy Johnson's inbox from an email dated May 20, 2010. These floor plans were never permitted or approved by the City of Orlando, nor was a building inspection of the renovations documented in these building plans ever done.

The door in question is marked with a red arrow. The place where the Coke cooler was located in photos and police body cam video is marked with a red box, blocking egress (an exit).

Building plans of the Pulse Nightclub, which were not permitted and were given to the FBI and media. These plans were located in Timothy Johnson's inbox dated May 20, 2010 and were not permitted.

Photos taken of Pulse after the shooting by the FBI show that this door was not there. This door simply did not exist and was walled over. The only designated exit according to the building plans was supposed to be the open space in the rear of the building, which was completely blocked by unpermitted fencing and the Coke cooler.

FBI photo of blocked exit
Photo taken by the FBI of the back of the Pulse Nightclub. The hole in the wall is the air conditioning unit that was removed so that people trapped in the dressing room could escape. There is no door to a storage closet.

A survivor who was trapped in this "service alley" with over a dozen other survivors took this photo, showing exactly where the Coke cooler was located.

Coke machine Pulse June 12, 2016
Photo shared by a survivor who was trapped in this "service alley" on the north side of the building while trying to escape the shooting. This photo shows exactly where the "Coke machine" was located. According to a former employee, it also shows a piece of plywood over where survivors escaped since the designated exit route was blocked.

This photo was taken by the FBI after the shooting from the opposite end of the service alley, allowing the viewer to see exactly where the Coke cooler was located.

Pulse Nightclub "service alley"
Photo taken by the FBI, documenting the "service alley" or "narrow hallway" that was supposed to be an exit route for those fleeing the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016.

The service alley—filled with boxes, trash cans, and other items—trapped victims/survivors' without a clear path to escape. Eventually, survivors made their way through an opening in the fence, allowing those trapped to run out the side of the property and into the parking lot of the neighboring window tinting business.

This caused additional trauma from being trapped and facing death, as some survivors were forced to hold an exit door shut so that the people trapped within this space could escape.

This entire situation was chronicled by those who were brave enough to tell their experience of trying to escape a death trap rife with code violations that trapped them and prevented them from escaping the nightclub property while the shooter was spraying bullets throughout the club killing people.

Two exit doors from the Pulse Nightclub led into this crowded, narrow hallway, as shown in the layout below. These doors are circled in green and we know from survivor testimony that at least one of these was held shut in order to save those trapped, preventing more people from escaping gunfire and further crowing the enclosed alleyway.

With two of the nightclub's exit doors leading into this enclosed narrow hallway, the shooter coming in through the main front door, and another exit door leading to the fenced-in patio, there was only one exit to safety: the double doors in the Adonis Room on the building's southwest side. However, even this exit had a stripper stage and other furniture surrounding it. Survivors who ran into the bathrooms stated this prevented them from running out those doors. The furniture and stages present in the Adonis Room are not shown on the building plans.

To date, WESH has not corrected its story on this ordeal, which states that the Coke "machine" blocked a storage closet door (that didn't even exist). It only existed on the nightclub's unpermitted building plans from 2010. You can see this in the FBI photo above taken in the direct aftermath of the shooting. You can also still see this at the Pulse Nightclub property when you visit the interim memorial. The door simply was not there at the time of the shooting.

Another person who claims to have helped save the lives of the survivors trapped in this "service alley" spoke out publicly after the shooting. Imran Yousuf was a bouncer said he was doing his last rounds for the evening when the shooting broke out.

Here is a video clip of Imran Yousuf discussing how fleeing victims became trapped and "sardine-packed" in this narrow, fenced-in service "alley" that two exit doors from the nightclub led to. Victims were trapped in this space, hindering others from escaping out of two of the nightclub's exterior doors, during the first few minutes of the shooting when every second counted.

The Police Foundation's after-incident review, entitled Rescue, Response, and Resilience, documented what happened in this fenced-in alleyway. The police report states: "One of the Pulse security officers kicked a hole in the fence, which allowed approximately 20 patrons to escape into the parking lot of a neighboring business to the north." This excerpt is highlighted below.

Excerpt taken from page 7 of the Police Foundation's "RESCUE, RESPONSE, AND RESILIENCE A critical incident review of the Orlando public safety response to the attack on the Pulse nightclub."

This was also documented in the Orlando Police Department's Homicide Unit's Supplemental Report for Case Number 2016-242039, which was written by Detective Chris Haas to create a timeline of events for the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub. On page 4, he describes what happened within the first minute of shooting:

"During this time frame, dozens of patrons inside the club ran out into the parking lot and away from the scene. Surveillance footage from inside the club showed patrons exiting the double doors on the south side of the club, through the parlor and out the main entrance, through the patio on the east side, and into a fenced in hallway on the north side. Footage showed how one of the Pulse security employees, believed to be Neal Whitleton, was able to kick a hole in the fence allowing approximately 20 patrons to escape into the parking lot of the neighboring business to the north, Pro Tint and Detailing (I 900 S. Orange Avenue)."

This excerpt is shown below:

Nearly two years after the shooting, the City and the Pomas' attorney, Gus Benitez, claimed that no exits were blocked and that the records were wrong. This was before they released body cam footage and the records we have today/

To date, there has been no criminal investigation.

Furthermore, the City of Orlando called off an inspection of the Pulse Nightclub building that was going to be done after the shooting by Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes to formally document the code violations at the Pulse Nightclub. The email states, "...once the scene is safe I will have Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes evaluate [sic] the facility to ensure that it was in compliance with all applicable codes."

Inspection Email Tammy Hughes and Roderick Williams
Email released by the City of Orlando showing that Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes was to do an inspection of the Pulse Nightclub building after the shooting to document code violations.

We learned through a public records request that this inspection was called off and there was no final evaluation.

The City responded by stating, "The evaluation was not completed as the Pulse location was considered an open/active crime scene and subsequently a vacant building. The Fire Department's policy does not require the inspection of vacant buildings." This can be seen below:

Public records request #20-2038 with the City of Orlando.

We know from police body cam footage and from the Orlando Police Department's own internal investigation that law enforcement used this Coke "machine" as cover while approaching a building that they had no layout of and moved it themselves from the gateway in an effort to locate hostages who were trapped in a dressing room which had no windows or doors to the outside. Police had to move the Coke beverage cooler to gain entry to the Northwest side of the Pulse Nightclub building to locate victims.

Despite this being documented by the City, attorneys in the Office of the Mayor released a "Q&A" (Question and Answer) document to their own City Council members to field questions from reporters.

Excerpt from the City of Orlando's Q&A document showing that they were quick to make up excuses for the Pulse Nightclub, putting forth made-up scenarios by posing a series of questions that they themselves had the answers to.

Through this document, City attorneys spun a false narrative that did not happen while in possession of evidence that this is not what happened. City attorneys through this document stated, the Coke "machine"... "could have been knocked over when the OPD breached the wall... at which time victims had already exited the building."

Why did City attorneys in the Office of the Mayor put out this false narrative that the Coke machine "could have been" knocked over when the OPD breached the wall?

City attorneys put forth this false narrative immediately to Orlando's own City Council to answer questions from reporters despite not knowing all of the evidence. However, they knew at that time that the Coke machine blocked an exit from text messages and a photo from Code Enforcement that Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes responded to. Later, they would inspect evidence that proved (1) where the Coke machine was located (interviews with police later documented through the OPD's Internal Investigation); (2) that it, indeed, blocked an exit; and (3) that responding officers used it for cover during the shooting and moved it themselves when people were still trapped inside in an effort to locate them (police body cam footage). They put out this false narrative without an inspection and before any investigations were completed. This was both irresponsible and a way for the City to take control of the narrative.

Below is footage taken from Officer Tagler's body cam, showing that the Coke cooler was blocking the back gate and exit. Officer Tagler and another officer even used it as cover to look into the hallway as first responders were trying desperately to locate those trapped inside the adjacent dressing room.

Below is additional body cam footage, showing officers struggling to get past the Coke machine to get into the alleyway to get to a ringing cell phone. The officers even thought someone was trapped inside of the cooler, with one asking, "Is there someone in this thing?" With the officers barely able to squeeze past the cooler to get in, it is clear that the cooler blocked the exit for survivors to get out. Someone's shoe is stuck between a mop bucket and a water jug. We did not receive these videos from the City of Orlando until 2023 and only through paid requests for public records.

The excerpt below is from the Orlando Police Department's own internal investigation. During an interview with Officer Timothy Stanley, he stated, "We had to move some uh, there was a Coke machine or something there that we had to haul away to be ready for a team to go in."

Timothy Stanley coke machine interview
Excerpt from interview with Orlando Police Officer Timothy Stanley done on June 17, 2016. He states that officers had to move the Coke "machine" to gain entry.

As Orlando Sentinel reporter Elyssa Cherney asked the City of Orlando's Public Information Officer Ashley Papagni, this was documented by the City. She reiterated what was stated in prior text messages in her quest for answers that were never given. "TJ [Timothy Johnson] will have to answer some tough questions why he did not for NFPA codes and allow this person to violate them." NFPA is an acronym for the National Fire Protection Association. Timothy Johnson at the time was the Division Manager of the City of Orlando's Permitting Services Division. Since the shooting and despite these issues at Pulse, he has since been promoted to Deputy Director of the Economic Development Department.

Email between reporter Elyssa Cherney with the Orlando Sentinel and Ashely Papagni, Public Information Officer with the City of Orlando regarding Pulse owners violating life safety codes.

As stated on their website, "NFPA 1, Fire Code, advances fire and life safety for the public and first responders as well as property protection by providing a comprehensive, integrated approach to fire code regulation and hazard management."

Thus, violating NFPA codes means violating life safety codes.

Today, the Office of the Mayor maintains the position that there were no "life safety" issues documented at the Pulse Nightclub. This is provably false, given the evidence shown above.

The code violations at the Pulse Nightclub were not thoroughly inspected and documented in the City's fire inspections of the building or by the Code Enforcement/Permitting Division. The City itself said some of the reports they had contained errors.

The Office of the Mayor also lied to other reporters, including Matt Zapotosky with the Washington Post. When Zapotosky inquired about the Coke machine and if it hindered officers' rescue efforts in any way, Heather Fagan (Deputy Chief of Staff) coached Cassandra Lafser (Public Information Officer) on how to respond. She stated, "Please respond with... I have forwarded your inquiry to the Fire Department as they oversee the inspections. However, I can tell you we have no indication that any exits were blocked so that would not hinder the ability of the officers."

However, the City of Orlando DID have an indication that the Coke "machine" blocked an exit and that it DID hinder the ability of the officers, who had to move it to locate trapped victims.

This appears purposeful because the City of Orlando called off the building inspection that would have documented code violations at the Pulse Nightclub (noted above).

Even after some code violations were reported to the City by the public, City workers responsible for code enforcement dismissed the reports and confused permitted work for the unpermitted work being reported. We write more about this in our article on Pulse Nightclub's unpermitted outdoor patio and fence.

FBI photographs, police body cam footage, and other survivor accounts have provided additional documentation of the life safety violations at the Pulse Nightclub. As far as we know, we are the only ones who have been keeping track of new information released to the public over the past 7 years. No one else has sought to investigate these issues and we still have outstanding requests for additional public records.

The only time the City created a list of violations at the Pulse Nightclub, which it kept from the public for years, was in preparation for potential litigation against the City of Orlando. It was also done by City Attorney Mayanne Downs and sent from her private email, not her government email. Private emails are typically not discoverable in public records requests unless they are sent to government emails. This is also discussed in our investigation of the unpermitted fence.

*** If you have any additional information about this "Coke machine" or beverage cooler, please email us at If you are a survivor who was trapped in this service alley, please share your personal story of escape with us via email so we can put it on the record.


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