Police cars and fire trucks outside Pulse, an Orlando nightclub where a suspected gunman left multiple people dead and injured. (Orlando Police Department/Handout via Reuters)
A gunman opened fire inside a crowded gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 50 people and injuring dozens more in a rampage that turned into a deadly hostage situation.
Authorities in Orlando said that 50 people were killed in what authorities are calling an act of domestic terrorism, and many others were injured in the violence at Pulse, a popular gay bar and dance club. Police had initially thought about 20 people were killed in the attack, but authorities said later on Sunday morning that the toll was significantly higher.
Officials said the shooter was shot and killed by police officers in a shootout. It was not immediately clear if the 50 people killed included the gunman.
The suspected gunman was identified by relatives and law enforcement officials as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old from Fort Pierce, Fla. 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.
Police have not identified a possible motive, and details about Mateen’s background were scarce on Sunday morning. His family is from Afghanistan, while Mateen is believed to have been born in the United States.
“It appears he was organized and well-prepared,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina said at a Sunday-morning news conference, noting that the shooter had an “assault-type” weapon and a handgun.
At least 42 people were transported to various hospitals, Mina said, adding that one officer was wounded.
“This is an incident … that we certainly classify as a domestic terror incident,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said at the news conference. The FBI is involved in the investigation, authorities said.
“We had a crime that will have a lasting effect on our community,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. “We need to stand strong, we need to be supportive of the victims and their families.”
Officials said Sunday they found “an assault-type rifle and a handgun” at the scene. In addition, a law enforcement official said Mateen was previously known to authorities, but said he was not under investigation.
The White House said President Obama was briefed on the incident Sunday.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the victims,” the White House said in a statement. “The President asked to receive regular updates as the FBI, and other federal officials, work with the Orlando Police to gather more information, and directed that the federal government provide any assistance necessary to pursue the investigation and support the community.”
Police said that during the shootout with the gunman, one Orlando police officer was shot and saved by his Kevlar helmet.
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, which had more than 300 people inside as the shooting began.
“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.
About three hours after the initial reports of gunfire, the SWAT team launched a rescue operation and killed the gunman, authorities said.
“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.”
Jon Alamo told the Associated Press that he was near the back of the club when the gunman appeared near the front of the building.
“I heard 20, 40, 50 shots,” Alamo said. “The music stopped.”
Rob Rick said the violence erupted as the night was winding down.
“Everybody was drinking their last sip,” he said.
Rick told the AP that he estimated more than 100 people were still inside when the shooting began. He hit the ground and crawled toward a DJ booth, he said. Some people managed to escape out of the back of the club after a bouncer knocked down a partition between the club area and a restricted area leading to an exit, he noted.
Mina Justice told the AP that her son, Eddie, texted her when the rampage began and asked her to call police.
From the AP:
He told her he ran into a bathroom with other club patrons to hide.
He then texted her: “He’s coming.”
“The next text said: ‘He has us, and he’s in here with us,'” she said. “That was the last conversation.”
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.