Tehran, June 15 - Now back in the safety of the Iranian capital, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described for well-wishers the tale of his miraculous survival in the Orlando, Florida nightclub where a Muslim radical killed 49 people and injured 53 on Sunday.
Khamenei, still visibly distraught from the horror of the incident, escaped harm by hiding behind and under other patrons, and managed to hold another person between himself and the gunman long enough to escape the carnage. Friends and relatives in Iran described his actions as heroic.
The Supreme Leader, 76, was spirited back to Iran immediately following the shooting. He had traveled to Orlando to visit the various Disney theme parks and the Universal Studios resort, and in the course of his stay discovered that Pulse, an establishment catering mostly to an LGBT clientele, was celebrating Latin Night as part of Pride Week, and he decided to check out the scene, which is illegal back home in Iran.
However, recalled the Ayatollah, gunfire soon rang out and people scrambled. He managed to avoid being seen by Omar Mateen, the shooter, at one point even flinging a 25-year-old man into the path of the gunfire, an act he regards as heroic. "I soiled myself, but kept my wits about me," he said, breathing heavily as the moments came back. "Somehow I managed to conceal myself from the shooter. I managed to maintain a buffer between him and me of at least one person who was immodestly dressed, and therefore deserved to be shot. But it was close. I hightailed it out of there as best I could."
Khamenei had dismissed his bodyguards for the Pulse excursion, a move he now questions. "Nobody knew who I was there - I looked like any old hipster, so my personal security as Ayatollah wasn't really in doubt," he explained. "But I guess no one expected this. From now on, I'm not going anywhere without protection," he added, glancing at his wallet.
A spokesman for the Ayatollah said he lost several friends in the massacre, but was still in shock and urged visitors not to bring them up. "Please show sensitivity at this difficult time," the spokesman urged. "It will help with the healing process."
The incident marks the first time since 2011 that Khamenei has encountered such acute physical danger to his life. That year, he was one of seventeen hospitalized for heat stroke at the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade.
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