ORLANDO, Fla. — A man who called 911 to proclaim allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group, and who had been investigated in the past for possible terrorist ties, stormed a gay nightclub here Sunday morning, wielding an assault rifle and a pistol, and carried out the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, leaving 50 people dead and 53 wounded.
The attacker, identified by law enforcement officials as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old who was born in New York, turned what had been a celebratory night of dancing to salsa and merengue music at the crowded Pulse nightclub into a panicked scene of unimaginable slaughter, the floors slicked with blood, the dead and the injured piled atop one another. Terrified people poured onto the darkened streets of the surrounding neighborhood, some carried wounded victims to safety, and police vehicles were pressed into service as makeshift ambulances to rush people to hospitals.
Joel Figueroa and his friends “were dancing by the hip-hop area when I heard shots, bam, bam, bam,” he said, adding: “Everybody was screaming and running toward the front door.”
Pulse, which calls itself “Orlando’s Latin Hotspot,” was holding its weekly “Upscale Latin Saturdays” party. The shooting began around 2 a.m., and some patrons thought at first that the booming reports they heard were firecrackers or part of the loud, thumping dance music.
Some people who were trapped inside hid where they could, calling 911 or posting messages to social media, pleading for help. The club posted a stark message on its Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Hundreds of people gathered in the glare of flashing red lights on the fringes of the law enforcement cordon around the nightclub, and later at area hospitals, hoping desperately for some word on the fates of their relatives and friends.
More than 12 hours after the attack, anguished relatives paced between Orlando Regional Medical Center and a nearby hotel as they waited for word. They were told that so many were gunned down that victims would be tagged as anonymous until the hospital was able to identify them.
“We are here suffering, knowing nothing,” said Baron Serrano, whose brother, Juan Rivera, 36, had been celebrating a friend’s birthday with his husband and was now unaccounted for. “I cannot understand why they can’t tell me anything, because my brother is a very well-known person here in Orlando. He is a hairstylist, and everybody knows him.”
A tally of victims whose relatives had been notified began slowly building on a city website; by 6 p.m., it had six names. Among them was Juan Ramon Guerrero, a 22-year-old man of Dominican descent who had gone to the club with his boyfriend, Christopher Leinonen, who goes by the name Drew, because they wanted to listen to salsa. A friend, Brandon Wolf, watched people carry Guerrero outside, his body riddled with gunshot wounds.
But no one knew what had become of Leinonen. His mother, Christine, anxious because of health problems, had woken at 3 a.m. to news of the shooting, and learned from Wolf that her son had been inside.
A three-hour standoff followed the initial assault, with people inside effectively held hostage until around 5 a.m., when law enforcement officials led by a SWAT team raided the club, using an armored vehicle and explosives designed to disorient and distract. Over a dozen police officers and sheriff’s deputies engaged in a shootout with Mateen, leaving him dead and one officer wounded, his life saved by a Kevlar helmet that deflected a bullet.
At least 30 people inside were rescued, and even the hardened police veterans who took the building and combed through it, aiding the living and identifying the dead, were shaken by what they saw, said John Mina, the Orlando police chief. “Just to look into the eyes of our officers told the whole story,” he said.
It was the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, and the deadliest attack on a gay target in the nation’s history, though officials said it was not clear whether some victims had been accidentally shot by law enforcement officers.
The toll of 50 dead is larger than the number of murders in Orlando over the previous three years. Of an estimated 320 people in the club, nearly one-third were shot. The casualties far exceeded those in the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed, and the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, where 26 people died.
“In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another,” President Barack Obama said in a special address from the White House. “We will not give in to fear or turn against each other. Instead, we will stand united as Americans to protect our people and defend our nation, and to take action against those who threaten us.”
As he had done after several previous mass shootings, the president said the shooting demonstrated the need for what he called “common-sense” gun measures.
“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub,” Obama said. “We have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
The shooting quickly made its way into a presidential campaign. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, who has accused Obama of weakness on radical Islam and has called for barring Muslim immigrants, suggested on Twitter that the president should resign.
“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he wrote. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, released a statement saying: “We need to redouble our efforts to defend our country from threats at home and abroad. That means defeating international terror groups, working with allies and partners to go after them wherever they are, countering their attempts to recruit people here and everywhere, and hardening our defenses at home.”
Fears of violence led to heightened security at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender events and gathering places around the country. Law enforcement officials in Santa Monica, California, confirmed the arrest on Sunday of a heavily armed man who said he was in the area for West Hollywood’s gay pride parade. The authorities, however, said they did not know of any connection between the California arrest and the Orlando shooting.