ORLANDO — The gunman who opened fire inside a crowded nightclub here early Sunday morning, launching a rampage that killed 50 people and injured 53 others in the deadliest shooting spree in the country’s history, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before the attack, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
In a rampage that President Obama said the FBI was investigating as an act of terrorism, this gunman fired a barrage of bullets inside Pulse, a popular gay bar and dance club, forcing people to drop to the floor and rush out through a back entrance during the club’s “Latin night.”
After the first round of gunshots, police said the shooter held hostages for about three hours until officers stormed inside to rescue people and killed him in a shootout, though many details remained unclear about the standoff and the final confrontation.
Witnesses and others said the shooting left a gruesome scene behind, with the bloodshed 20 minutes away from Disney evoking the carnage seen in war zones. One doctor at a nearby hospital said that victims came in with their bodies riddled with gunshots, while others “had their calves and forearms blown off.”
While many waited for much of Sunday for information on whether their loved ones were among the dead in Orlando, concerns reverberated outward of broader dangers posed to the LGBT community. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said a heavily-armed man there was arrested while going to a gay pride parade, while police in Washington increased security ahead of a Capital Pride Festival in the nation’s capital.
“We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” Obama said during remarks at the White House. “And as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”
The gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, made a 911 call before the attack identifying himself and declared allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, according to U.S. law enforcement officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the ongoing investigation. Mateen, whose family is from Afghanistan, also cited the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon during that call.
Details about Mateen’s background began to emerge slowly on Sunday. Much like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston attack, Mateen had been the focus of an FBI investigation before launching an attack.
Ron Hopper of the FBI said that Mateen had twice been investigated by the bureau and that in both cases, he was interviewed before the probes were concluded. In 2013, Hopper said agents investigated Mateen after he made “inflammatory comments to coworkers alleging possible ties to terrorists.” Mateen was interviewed twice and, when investigators were unable to verify the details of his comments, the FBI closed the probe, Hopper said.
Mateen was investigated again in 2014 by the FBI. This time, they looked into potential ties connecting Mateen to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria. Like Mateen, Abusalha lived in Fort Pierce, Fla.
“We determined that contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or a threat at that time,” Hopper said.
Mateen’s pledge on the 911 call echoes what happened after the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., last December. Just after a husband and wife killed 14 people last December in an attack there, one of the shooters went on Facebook and pledged her allegiance to the emir of the Islamic State, a militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL. Officials later said the posting was made on behalf of both attackers.
The Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency said in a message Sunday that the Orlando shooting “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter.” The same news agency had released a message showing the Islamic State claiming some credit for the San Bernardino attack two days after that occurred, while Amaq posted a statement from the group asserting responsibility for the Brussels attacks in March within hours.
The Islamic State has repeatedly executed gay people and then released videos showing these gruesome executions.
Hopper said Sunday that the FBI was still working to determine a motive. He said officials had not found any indications of outside help or another suspect, and added that they were confident there were no additional threats.
Mateen’s ex-wife said in an interview Sunday that he beat her repeatedly during their brief marriage, and said that Mateen, who was Muslim, was not very religious and gave no indications that he was devoted to radical Islam.
Mina said it appeared the gunman was armed with “a handgun and an AR-15-type assault rifle” and had additional rounds on him. “It appears he was organized and well-prepared,” Mina said.
Mateen legally bought the two guns believed to be used in the attack legally within “the last few days,” Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Sunday.
An AR-15 is the civilian variant of the military M-16 rifle. It is one of the most popular weapons in the United States and can be customized with a variety of accessories including different grips and sights. A standard magazine for it carries about 30 bullets.
Authorities did not initially outline what exactly occurred in the club after the first shots were fired at about 2 a.m. and before police stormed the building. Some information did begin to slowly emerge during the day. Police had said in the morning that 20 people were killed before saying later that the toll was significantly higher. Until Sunday, the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech — which saw 32 people killed and 30 others injured — was the country’s worst mass shooting.
Police did not immediately offer details on the three-hour standoff, but a senior U.S. law enforcement official said officers were being cautious as an active-shooter scene turned into a hostage negotiation. When the gunman was inside during the hostage standoff, he was on the phone with police and no gunshots were heard, the official said.
“That is when you do wait,” the official said. “It was appropriate.”
But ultimately, police chose to go in and end the standoff because of concerns about treating the injured inside. Officials at nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center said at least nine of the people killed in the attack died at the hospital or were dead by the time they arrived.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said that the toll from this latest mass slaughter could have been even greater, saying that a SWAT team “rescued at least 30 possible victims and brought them to safety.” Police said they were not able to say if all of the people killed or injured were shot during the initial burst of gunfire or during the shootout with 11 police officers three hours later.
“It’s absolutely terrible,” Mina said during a news briefing. “Fifty victims in one location, one shooting, is absolutely one of the worst tragedies we’ve seen.”
By Sunday afternoon, city officials had begun gradually releasing the names of victims who were killed after their relatives were informed.
In the aftermath of the shooting, officials said many things remained unknown, including:
Details about a possible motivation for the gunman and more about his background.
The final death toll.
Identities of the people killed and injured.
A clearer timeline of what happened inside the club and when all of the victims were injured.
A number of federal agencies were participating in a massive law enforcement response to the shooting in Orlando, authorities said. On Sunday afternoon, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who had been scheduled to attend a meeting in Beijing on cyber-security, said she was returning to Washington so she could monitor the ongoing investigation.
“We stand with the people of Orlando, who have endured a terrible attack on their city,” Obama said during a statement he made at the White House after meeting with FBI Director James Comey.
Obama said it was too early to know “the precise motivations of the killer,” but he said the FBI would investigate any possible links the gunman had to terrorist groups.
During his remarks Sunday afternoon, Obama — echoing comments he has made during numerous other statements given after shooting rampages — said the bloodshed in Orlando served as a reminder of how easily people can obtain guns in the United States. Pope Francis also expressed deep “horror and condemnation” of the shooting on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.
Obama also signed a proclamation honoring the victims and ordering that American flags be flown at half-staff until sunset on Thursday.
“We’re dealing with something we never imagined and is unimaginable,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (D) said during a news briefing Sunday.
Dyer said he had issued a state of emergency in the city, while Gov. Rick Scott (R) said he was issuing a similar order for surrounding Orange County and called the shooting “clearly an act of terror.”
His father hosted a political television show in Afghanistan and, in one video, declared his candidacy for the Afghan presidency.
“I unequivocally condemn the horrific attack in Orlando, Florida, USA. Nothing can justify killing of civilians,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wrote on Twitter. “My sympathies and thoughts are with the families of the victims, the American people and the US government.”
One relative said that Mateen’s family was in shock after being told on Sunday morning about his involvement. This relative said Mateen’s family was very sorry about what had happened.
“We had a crime that will have a lasting effect on our community,” Dyer said. “We need to stand strong, we need to be supportive of the victims and their families.”
Police said that during the shootout with the gunman, one Orlando police officer was shot and saved by his Kevlar helmet.
Numerous people injured were taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center, which was locked down until Sunday afternoon. Outside the staging area for families at Orlando Regional on Sunday afternoon, there were about 45 people waiting outside in the 84-degree heat. The hospital was only letting two family members go inside at a time.
Occasionally, people came out with tears pouring down their faces. One woman was on the ground, moaning “no” over and over again until her family led her away. Many people waiting brought water bottles to share, as well as pizza, and there has been a lot of crying and hugging as people recognize newcomers to the crowd.
Joannette Martinez said her family first became worried when they couldn’t find her 24-year-old sister, Yilnary. It was Yilmary’s first time at the club, Joanette said, a celebration because her brother in law was in town.
“No one’s told us anything,” Martinez said as she sat outside on the sidewalk, her back to the hospital, after waiting for several hours.
At a staging area set up for families at a Hampton Inn & Suites close to that hospital, Jose Honorato was waiting with his seven siblings for any word about his younger brother Miguel.
“He was at the club with three friends. They made it out safely when the shooting started but they don’t know if he made it out,” Honorato said.
Honorato said he had called Miguel’s phone, but it just kept ringing until it eventually began going right to voicemail. He said relatives in this waiting area were tense as they had not been given information yet.
OneBlood, a foundation with blood collection centers throughout the southeast, put out a call for donors after the shooting.
While many people sharing the call on social media reported that OneBlood is allowing all gay men who to donate — going against Food and Drug Administration guidelines — a spokesman for the foundation said that’s not true and that it was adhering to longstanding federal restriction on gay men from donating blood. (While the Food and Drug Administration recently updated its guidelines to allow men who have not had sex with another man within a year’s time to donate blood, the spokesman said OneBlood’s system hasn’t been updated to allow that yet.)
The horrific incident began as Saturday gave way to Sunday at the crowded club. Around 2 a.m., Pulse Orlando posted an urgent message on Facebook: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Within minutes of the shooting, police vehicles and a SWAT team descended on the club.
“I was there,” Ricardo J. Negron posted on the club’s Facebook page several hours later. “Shooter opened fire @ around 2:00am. People on the dance floor and bar got down on the floor and some of us who were near the bar and back exit managed to go out through the outdoor area and just ran. I am safely home and hoping everyone gets home safely as well.”
An officer working at the club exchanged fire with the gunman, authorities said. It was then, according to police, that the incident developed into “a hostage situation.” Authorities said the man was armed with an “suspicious device,” in addition to his guns, Mina, the police chief, told reporters.
“The decision was made to rescue hostages that were in there,” Mina said.
Police later reported that a sound heard at the club was a “controlled explosion.”
Several neighbors from the quiet neighborhood around the club stood in clumps on the street on Sunday morning, hugging and consoling each other as many teared up as they came to terms with the idea that the shooting happened on their doorstep.
Joshua and Mary Zika live less than a block from the nightclub, and say they’ve never had any problems with the club before. “It might sound weird to have a nightclub in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Mary Zika said.
They say they didn’t hear any shots or notice anything out of the ordinary, because helicopters are often heard in the area due to the nearby hospital. Instead, they found out about it from the news, reading and watching in disbelief as they realized this had happened just outside their door.
Both said they were particularly appalled that the shooter had appeared to target this particular population.
“We’re proud of our gay community in Orlando,” Mary Zika said.
The early-Sunday rampage followed the fatal shooting Friday night of a pop singer who was killed while signing autographs following a performance at an Orlando concert venue.
Christina Grimmie, a 22-year-old singer who was a finalist on NBC’s show “The Voice,” died hours after being shot by a gunman who then shot himself, police said.
Goldman, Markon and Berman reported from Washington. Peter Holley, Souad Mekhennet, Ariana Eunjung Cha, Greg Miller, Joby Warrick, Tim Craig, Sarah Larimer and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.