53 injured; Possible terror link
Orlando, Fla.—A gunman killed 50 people and wounded 53 in a crowded gay nightclub in Orlando early Sunday, officials said, in the worst mass shooting slaughter in American history, and law enforcement officials said it was an act of terrorism.
The gunman was Omar Mateen, an American citizen living in Port St. Lucie, Fla., federal law enforcement officials said.
The killer stormed the Pulse nightclub armed with an assault rifle and a handgun — investigators were still looking into the possibility that he had explosives, as well — at about 2 a.m., when more than 300 people were inside dancing and drinking, said John Mina, the Orlando police chief.
The gunman exchanged fire with an off-duty police officer working security at the club, then mowed down dozens of patrons, sending hundreds of others, some of them bleeding, fleeing down the darkened streets of the surrounding neighborhood’ reports New York Times.
The gunman holed up inside with dozens of people effectively held hostage, some of them hiding in a restroom frantically calling for help, until after 5 a.m., when the police, using an armoured vehicle and stun grenades, assaulted and killed him. The raid saved about 30 people, Chief Mina said.
Federal law enforcement officials said they had found no indication so far that the attacker was linked to any wider organization, though they and the police were investigating several possible terrorism angles, both overseas and in the United States. Past terrorist attacks, like the massacre in December in San Bernardino, Calif., were carried out in the name of Islam by people who were “self-radicalized,” apparently having no direct ties to any organization but inspired by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
The Islamic State in particular has encouraged “lone wolf” attacks in the West, specifically the United States, a point reinforced recently by the group’s spokesman in his annual pre-Ramadan speech. Noting that some supporters have lamented that they cannot strike at military targets, he took pains to explain why killing civilians in the land of the infidel is not just permitted but encouraged.
Terrorist groups have not claimed responsibility for the Orlando shooting as yet, but a social messaging account linked to the Islamic State gloated about the attack.
The toll of dead and injured far exceeded the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in 2007, and the 26 gunned down at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
Witnesses described a scene of chaos and confusion, saying it was hard at first to realize that the gunshots were not part of the loud, pulsing dance music.
“We were dancing by the hip-hop area when I heard shots, bam, bam, bam, and the only thing I could think of was to duck, but I ran out instead,” said Joel Figueroa, 19, of Orlando, who had been inside. “Everybody was screaming and running toward the front door. I didn’t get to see the shooter.”
He said a friend of his had been shot three times and taken to a hospital.
President Obama was briefed on the attack by Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, the White House said, and asked to receive regular updates on the investigation.
The gunman was shot by SWAT officers who stormed Pulse, one of the largest gay clubs in Orlando, at about 5 a.m. The officers were trying to rescue dozens of people who were being held hostage, Chief Mina said.
The shooting began inside the club, he said, and continued outside when an officer working at Pulse tried to confront him. The gunman then ran back into the club, resumed shooting and took hostages.
At 5 a.m., Chief Mina said, 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, the authorities 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 other sections of the sprawling club.
The survivors escaped under the cover of what the police called the two “discretionary explosions.”
The wounded were taken to three hospitals in the area. Most were taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center, the area’s chief trauma center, which is three blocks from the club.
On its Twitter feed, the Orlando Police Department asked other residents to “stay away from area” and said that it was seeking support from state and federal agencies. Later, employees in the area were asked to stay home if possible.
The club itself posted a message on its Facebook page about 3 a.m.: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
People streamed out of the club into a chaotic situation with little idea of where to go. “Cops were saying, ‘Go, go, clear the area,’” Christopher Hansen told an Orlando TV station. “You don’t know who’s what and who’s where.”
As the sun came up, video shot from a helicopter showed a situation that seemed to be under control, although windows on one side of the club appeared to be shot out.
Phone camera videos showed police cars, ambulances and other emergency vehicles outside the club on South Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando. Streets around the club were shut down for several blocks.
Dozens of officers, paramedics and firefighters from the Orlando police, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the F.B.I. and three fire departments were called to the scene.
“This will have a lasting effect on our community,” Chief Mina said. “We are a strong community.”
In the hours after the shooting, local television stations broadcast camera phone videos that captured the chaos at and near Pulse. One of the videos clearly captured the rescue attempt. Shots could be heard as men and women ran from the nightclub.
Orlando Regional Medical Center was placed on lockdown after receiving the first of the victims. “Only essential workers are being allowed access into the building,” the hospital said in a statement.
“Out of an abundance of caution, Arnold Palmer Hospital and Winnie Palmer Hospital have also been placed on lockdown,” the statement added.
On Pulse’s Facebook page, club officials promised to post updates as they came in: “As soon as we have any information, we will update everyone.” “Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event,” the nightclub’s post said. “Thank you for your thoughts and love.”
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Central Florida said it was offering grief counseling to victims and survivors.
Officials at Orlando Regional Medical Center asked members of the families of victims and missing people to gather at the north entrance, where they would be escorted inside.
Local television stations broadcast interviews with people outside the club and the hospital who were anxiously waiting to hear from people who they said were still inside.
The club, which calls itself “Orlando’s Latin Hotspot,” hosts an “Upscale Latin Saturdays” party on Saturday nights with three D.J.s and a midnight show.