New details emerged Monday about the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the decision by police to ram the building with an armored vehicle to rescue the hostages held by gunman Omar Mateen, who had been in contact with police by phone during a three-hour standoff.
Mateen had made comments suggesting that he would kill hostages he held in a restroom, Orlando Police Chief John Mina said in a news briefing.
“There was a timeline given and we believed that there was imminent loss of life that we needed to prevent,” Mina said. “It’s a tough decision to make knowing that people’s lives will be placed in danger by that, our officers’ lives would be placed in danger.”
Mateen attacked the club at 2 a.m. A uniformed off-duty Orlando police officer who was working at the club exchanged gunfire with Mateen. More officers arrived and entered the club, pulling people to safety and engaging Mateen in a gun battle. Mateen retreated to a club restroom. Although details provided by Mina were sketchy, it appears that some of the patrons of the club were already in the bathroom and at that point became hostages of the gunman. Fifteen to 20 people were hiding in a restroom on the other side of the club.
The hostage standoff lasted three hours. Mateen and authorities spoke by phone. It was during this period that Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
“He really wasn’t asking for a whole lot, and we were doing most of the asking,” Mina said.
As 5 a.m. approached, fearing further loss of life, Mina said he decided to make a move to rescue the hostages. Police used a BearCat armored vehicle to bust a hole in an exterior wall leading into the second restroom, the one on the opposite side of the club from where Mateen had holed up, Mina said. The people inside that second restroom escaped through the hole. Then Mateen emerged from the hole and engaged in a brief gun battle, with 11 police officers and three sheriff’s deputies exchanging fire with him.
At 5:53 a.m., Orlando police posted a bulletin: “Pulse Shooting: The shooter inside the club is dead.”
The attack had begun around closing time at Pulse. Last call had come and gone. Saturday night had become Sunday morning. But the dance floor remained crowded, with hundreds of sweaty men and women packed into one of Orlando’s most popular gay nightclubs, a low-slung building at the corner of W. Esther St. and S. Orange Ave.
“Reggaeton – Bachata – Merengue – Salsa” an advertisement on Pulse’s Twitter account had promised. This was “Latin Night.”
The club’s DJ, Ray Rivera, suddenly heard a sound, a pop-pop-pop. Firecrackers? He lowered the music and then heard it again. This was gunfire.
“I turned the music off and basically everyone was just running out,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “It was just complete chaos.” He took cover behind the DJ booth. Several patrons joined him, everyone staying low. When there was a pause in the shooting – maybe the killer was reloading – Rivera said, “Come on, let’s go,” and he and the others fled through a rear exit.
One of the club patrons, Chris Hansen, who’d just moved to Florida a couple of months earlier, thought the popping sound was part of the music. “It went with the beat almost,” he said later.
A man with a long gun, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, was shooting people. It was Mateen, 29, an American who had purchased the rifle and a handgun in the past week. He had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
At 2:09 a.m., someone posted a frantic message to Pulse’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
What happened early Sunday morning in Orlando was the latest example of soft-target terrorism, the wholesale slaughter of civilians in locations with minimal security and many potential victims. This one had elements of what happened last fall in Paris – another attack on people having fun at a music venue on a weekend night.
The lucky ones were near an exit or somehow found a way to flee in those first seconds. But the club was designed for congregation, not escapes. Alex Choy, a former club employee, told the Miami Herald that the club has two main rooms, one for performances and drag shows to the left of the front door, and a larger dance room to the right that links to an outdoor patio. “It’s a very, very small space,” he said. “If there was any type of shooting, it wouldn’t take much to get everyone. Very close range.”
Hansen, the club-goer who had mistaken the gunfire for music, told the Associated Press that he escaped through the back of the venue by crawling on his elbows and knees.
“When I got across the street there was blood everywhere,” he said. “I was helping somebody because he was laying down and I wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive. I took my bandana off, I shoved it in this hole, the bullet hole that was in his back.
“After everybody was out, the shooting was still going and the cops were still yelling, ‘Go! Go! Clear the area, clear the area!’ ” he added.
“I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” he said. “So I just dropped down. I just said, ‘Please, please, please, I want to make it out.’ And when I did, I saw people shot. I saw blood. You hope and pray you don’t get shot.”
Within minutes of the shooting, police vehicles and a SWAT team descended on the club. At the same time, patrons began documenting the horror on their social media accounts. Some were still inside – trapped, but giving real-time updates on the mayhem.
After news of the violence spread, friends and family members began the desperate search for news of their loved ones. Standing outside the dance club early Sunday morning, Mina Justice told the Associated Press that she was trying to contact her son, Eddie, and feared the worst.
He had texted her earlier, she said, telling her that he ran into a restroom with others to hide from the gunman.
“He’s coming,” her son’s text said. That was at 2:39 a.m.
Then the young man wrote: “I’m gonna die.”
Eddie Justice was confirmed as one of the casualties by Orlando authorities early Monday morning.
Someone named Jeff Xcentric Lords posted to his Facebook page that he’d been shot: “losing blood, love u all . . .” he wrote. His status, too, remained unclear Sunday.
One man, who gave his name only as Orlando when he spoke at a prayer vigil Sunday night, said he hid in the bathroom for three hours and at one point played dead.
“Every time I heard a shot I prayed it wasn’t taking a friend of mine,” he said.
Tony Torres, another patron, escaped the club, and started taking videos outside. One of his Facebook videos showed at least a dozen police cars, sirens wailing, lights flashing, with a helicopter overhead shining a spotlight on the crime scene. “Get back!” police can be heard shouting. Torres said, “We barely made it out. That is crazy.”
A Snapchat video obtained by WESH-TV recorded more than 20 shots fired in just nine seconds, while a man said, “Oh my god, people are getting shot, dude,” as a woman screamed in the background.
A woman identified as Christine Leinonen by the Associated Press raced to the scene at 4 a.m., trying to find her son, Christopher, 32, who she said had been in the club. He remained missing.
“These are nonsensical killings of our children,” she said, sobbing, according to the Associated Press. “They’re killing our babies!”
At 5 a.m., police made their move, freed the hostages and killed Mateen in the last of the night’s gun battles. One officer was shot in the helmet, but the Kevlar material saved his life, Mina said.
News reports remained sketchy in the initial hours after the massacre as police worked a complicated and potentially dangerous crime scene. They didn’t know how many bodies they were dealing with. About 20, police thought initially. It was much worse than that. By late morning the death toll had risen to 49, not counting the slain gunman, with 53 others wounded, many of them fighting for their lives. Of the dead, 39 were killed inside the club, two outside and the rest died at hospitals or on the way there.
The bodies lay in the club for much of Sunday while authorities investigated and, outside, distraught families waited for news.
By Monday morning, 48 of the 49 people slain by Mateen had been identified, but many of the next of kin had yet to be notified.
Mina told reporters Sunday that even longtime police officers and members of the SWAT team struggled to wrap their minds around the bloodbath. “Just to look into the eyes of our officers told the whole story,” he said. “You could tell that they were all shaken by this incident, by what they saw inside the club.”
The Washington Post’s Hayley Tsukayama in Orlando and Lateshia Beachum in Washington contributed to this report.