Updated: 7 days ago
JUNE 12TH, 2016
The weekend had already started on a tragic note, with the death on Saturday morning of a former contestant on The Voice. Christina Grimmie had been shot the night before as she signed autographs following a performance at an Orlando theater, and the city was struggling to come to terms with this violent crime.
Saturday night was Latin Night at Pulse, one of the city's best-known gay clubs, and the place was packed with patrons both gay and straight, young and not-so-young, from the U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and elsewhere, having a good time, dancing salsa and bachata.
Just before the shooting began, 28-year-old Ashley Summers and her friends went to their bartender, Kate, at Pulse’s back bar to order one more round — a vodka, soda and lime for Ms. Summers; a vodka and Red Bull for one friend; and a specialty drink for the other.
One of Ms. Summers’s friends was polishing the credit card receipt with all sorts of pleasantries for the bartender — “sexy kitten,” “muah,” “you the best” — when the popping started. For 15 seconds, through the pulsing of the salsa music, they thought it might have been firecrackers, Ms. Summers said in an interview. But they eventually figured out it was gunshots. Ms. Summers said a friend pulled her to the ground. They felt glass shattering over their heads. They were near a back exit and crawled out. Concerned about what might be behind the seven-foot-high white privacy fence out back, they turned left, into a storage area. But they heard more gunshots coming from that direction, so they went back out onto the patio and used some furniture to vault over the fence. They dashed to safety.
“At that point it was shock, it was disbelief, it was fear, but it was urgency,” said Ms. Summers, a ballroom dance instructor. “There was knowing that we had to get out of there.”
At 2:02 a.m., according to an FBI timeline, Orlando police received reports that multiple shots had been fired at Pulse.
The first bursts of gunfire were captured on video by 25-year-old Amanda Alvear, the footage uploaded to Snapchat. In the video, she is recording herself and others as they dance to the last song of the evening at the popular gay club. Then she turns the camera toward her own face. She is staring into the lens as the first few shots are heard. They do not seem to faze her. But as they continue, unrelenting, roughly 20 rounds, the video abruptly ends. She was listed among the dead on Monday.
An off-duty officer was working there and "engaged in a gun battle" with the shooter, said Orlando Police Chief John Mina. They exchanged gunfire. The security guard was then joined by an unknown number of police officers, the first to arrive on the scene. "The suspect, at some point, went back inside the club, where more shots were fired," Mina said. Additional officers had arrived at 2:04 a.m. and entered Pulse four minutes later, exchanging fire with the attacker. During these early rounds of gunfire, the police said, many patrons were able to escape. But the assailant retreated deeper into the club, eventually barricading himself in the bathroom, where some patrons had gone to hide.
When the shots erupted, Norman Casiano dropped to his knees and crawled to what was apparently a different bathroom, seeking safety in a stall where many people were already crammed together. He tried to call 911, then his mother, shouting, “Mom mom mom mom!” into the phone before the call dropped.
Mr. Casiano said the gunman did not say anything, but laughed as people begged him not to shoot and assured him that they did not know who he was and had not seen his face.
“All I heard was a laugh,” Mr. Casiano said. “He laughed like an evil laugh, something that’s just going to be imprinted in my head forever.” It was, he said, “a laugh of like, ‘Ha, I did it.’”
When the gunman left the bathroom, Mr. Casiano tried to urge others to leave, he said, and was able to slip away and escape. He said he was in a hospital bed by about 3 a.m., two hours before the siege ended.
Orlando’s escape took much longer. Hiding with his friend, he could hear the gunman drawing closer, the sound of each round getting louder.
At 2:09 a.m., a warning appeared on the club's Facebook page: "Everyone get out of pulse and keep running."
Many did. But not everyone could.
As soon as Angel Colon heard the gunshots, he and his friends ran for their lives. But Colon was shot three times. He fell and was trampled. All around him, he heard shots and cries for help.
"I could just see him shooting at everyone and I can hear the [shots getting] closer, and I look over and he shoots the girl next to me," he said. "And I'm just there laying down and I'm thinking, 'I'm next. I'm dead.' "
"Just all hell broke loose, people running for the door, jumping over the gates," said Ray Rivera, also known as DJ Infinite, who'd been playing music that night in the patio area. He took cover behind his booth, shielded two others and was able to flee to safety.
Some wounded clubgoers played dead on the dance floor. Others barricaded themselves inside bathroom stalls and, not wanting to speak, texted loved ones for help. The gunman paced around the rear of the club, laughing and shooting at bodies already on the ground.
A SWAT team was called at 2:18 a.m.
At 2:35 a.m., about half an hour after the shooting began, the shooter made one of several 911 calls, according to the FBI.
"I wanna let you know, I'm in Orlando and I did the shootings," the gunman told the operator during this 50-second call, according to a transcript released by the FBI.
"What's your name?" the operator asked.
"My name is I pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State."
At 2:48 a.m., the gunman — whose name was Omar Mir Seddique Mateen — spoke with crisis negotiators from the Orlando police. He had a second conversation with them at 3:03 a.m. and a third at 3:24 a.m. At this time, he was holding hostages in the bathroom.
Orlando said he listened as the gunman warned his hostages not to text anyone, took their cellphones, called 911 to calmly pledge his allegiance to the Islamic State, spoke about a need to stop American bombing in Syria and threatened greater bloodshed if the police moved in.
Orlando described moments of surreal quiet as the siege went on and the killer fiddled with his weapon and used the sink and the hand dryer. Mr. Mateen checked on the bodies around him, Orlando said. At one point, Orlando switched positions and played dead, and he felt something poking him. He believed it was the gunman, checking to see if he was dead.
Around 5 a.m., the police blew a hole in the wall, enabling some of the hostages to escape, and officers engaged in a fatal final confrontation with the assailant.
Much of Orlando’s account corresponds with new information released by the police on Monday, other witness accounts and video evidence, which combined to paint a chilling picture of the hostage crisis that unfolded after the attack.
Mateen identified himself as "an Islamic soldier," according to the FBI, and threatened to detonate explosives, including a car bomb and a suicide vest — the kind "used in France," he said, referring to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Searches inside and outside the club failed to turn up these items, investigators said.
Mateen is also believed to have spent time online during his siege of the club, checking Facebook and searching for "Pulse Orlando" and "shooting." He called a friend. He texted his wife.
At 3:58 a.m., the Orlando Police Department's Twitter account warned residents to stay away from the area.
At 4:21 a.m., police cleared a way for some people trapped inside the club to escape by dislodging an air conditioning unit from a Pulse dressing room window. As clubgoers were being rescued, they told police the shooter had threatened to put bomb vests on four people within 15 minutes.
As 5 a.m. approached, those inside had been trapped for nearly three hours, some wounded and bleeding, calling police from their cellphones and pleading for help.
Police used explosives to try to breach the exterior cinder block wall of a bathroom where a dozen or so people were hiding, near another bathroom where Mateen had holed up with several hostages.
As Mr. Casiano, 25, and the others huddled together, a wounded man staggered into the bathroom and dropped to the floor. They urged him to try to stay quiet. At one point, as the gunman approached, Mr. Casiano said, he could hear shells clattering to the floor and the gun reloading. Then Mr. Mateen entered the bathroom.
“Just firing, firing, firing,” Mr. Casiano said in an interview at his parents’ apartment, about two hours after he was released from the hospital on Monday afternoon.
He was hit once in the back and felt a hot pulse of pain tear into him, as if his leg had been severed. He ended up being shot twice in the back, both bullets passing through his body, he said.
As he and his friend positioned themselves on the toilet, Orlando said, he also braced one foot against the stall door.
Around this time, Mina Justice was asleep at home when she received a text from her 30-year-old son, Eddie Justice, she told reporters. He was also hiding in a bathroom at the club.
“Mommy I love you,” the first message read. It came in at 2:06 a.m. “In club they shooting.”
Only two minutes later, he wrote, “I’m gonna die.”
Another 30 minutes would pass before he sent a text begging for help.
“Call them mommy,” he pleaded.
“Hurry,” he wrote. “He’s in the bathroom with us.”
“He got mad and hung up,” Orlando said. He never heard Mr. Mateen mention gay people — he spoke only about the Islamic State and Syria, and about the damage he still intended to do.
The gunman made several calls, and at one point, Orlando said, he told whoever was on the other line that there were people in the club with bombing vests as well as three snipers outside, ready to take out officers if they advanced on the club.
“Our negotiators were talking with him, and there were no shots at that time,” Chief Mina said. “But there was talk about bomb vests, about explosives, throughout, and there were statements made about imminent loss of life.”
Near the end of the siege, Mr. Mateen began to shoot the hostages in the bathroom, Orlando said.
By some miracle, he said, he once again avoided detection, but a person in the neighboring stall was not so lucky. A man who had just been shot crawled under the stall, grasping at both Orlando’s and his companion’s legs, pulling them down — and exposing their hiding spot. They played dead, “my face against the toilet bowl,” he said.
"I could see his feet, like scooting back, scooting back, scooting back, as he heard the police outside," said Patience Carter, one of the hostages with Mateen.
At 5:02 a.m., a SWAT team and the Orange County Sheriff's Office Hazardous Device Team "began to breach [the bathroom] wall with explosive charge and armored vehicle to make entry," according to the FBI.
"And the last thing that I heard before the police said, you know, 'Move away from the walls' — because, obviously, they were about to bust through again — [the shooter] said, 'Hey, you,' to someone on the floor inside the bathroom," Carter said. "And shot them. Shot another person, and then shot another person who happened to be directly behind me."
When the wall was broken, hostages began to emerge — and so did Mateen.
"The suspect came out of that hole himself, armed with a handgun and a long gun," Orlando's police chief said. Mateen began firing at police, and they fired back. An officer was hit in the gun battle but was saved from serious injury by his Kevlar helmet.
At 5:15 a.m., police reported the shooter was down.
A police tweet confirmed Mateen's death at 5:53 a.m., just before sunrise Sunday morning.
"Pulse Shooting: The shooter inside the club is dead."
The 29-year-old gunman was a U.S. citizen, born in New York in 1986. His parents moved to New York from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and eventually, the family relocated to Port St. Lucie, Fla. Mateen's last known residence was in Fort Pierce, in St. Lucie County — about a two-hour drive from Orlando.
Investigators said Mateen legally purchased the two weapons he used at Pulse, a Sig Sauer MCX assault-style rifle and a handgun, in Port St. Lucie in the week before the attack. A third weapon was found in his vehicle.
According to public records, Mateen had possessed a valid firearm license since September 2011. He was also licensed to be a security officer, working most recently for the global security company G4S, where he'd been employed since 2007.
FBI Director James Comey said Mateen had been investigated in 2013 and again in 2014. In May 2013, Mateen claimed to have ties to both al-Qaida and Hezbollah, sparking a 10-month inquiry that sought anything tying him to more substantial threats. He was placed on a watch list when the investigation began, and taken off when it was closed in March 2014.
In July 2014, FBI agents again looked at Mateen as they investigated anyone with possible ties to Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a U.S. citizen from Florida who blew himself up in a 2014 suicide attack in Syria. "No ties of consequence" were found, Comey said.
Mateen was married twice and had a 3-year-old son. The gunman's father, Seddique Mir Mateen, condemned the attack. "I apologize for what my son did. I don't know why he did it," he told NBC News. "He is dead, so I can't ask him. I wish I knew."
The elder Mateen said his son had become angered recently at the sight of two men kissing. But multiple media outlets reported that some Pulse regulars recognized Mateen and said he had frequented the nightclub as a patron. At least two men said they interacted with Mateen on gay dating apps. But "the FBI has found no evidence so far to support claims by those who say Mateen had gay lovers or communicated on gay dating apps," according to the Los Angeles Times.
Mateen's first marriage ended in divorce. His ex-wife, Sitora Yusifiy, said he was an abusive husband. A grand jury is looking into what his second wife, Noor Salman, might have known about her husband's plans to target Pulse and whether she should face charges in connection with the attack. Mateen texted Salman as the attack was underway.
Mateen's motivations remain unclear. Although he claimed allegiance to ISIS, he also said during his 911 conversations that the Tsarnaev brothers, who attacked the Boston Marathon in 2012 (but did not affiliate themselves with ISIS), were his "homeboys," the FBI said.
His father has insisted the attack had "nothing to do with religion."
"Around 2:00 [a.m.] or so, we got word that there were some shootings," Dr. Gary Parrish, medical director of the emergency department at the Orlando Regional Medical Center, told reporters on June 14. "But we didn't know quite what was about to hit us."
Patients suffering wounds to the chest, pelvis, extremities and abdomen began flooding into the emergency room shortly after 2 a.m., said Dr. Chadwick Smith, a surgeon at the hospital.
The wounded were brought in by the "truckloads and ambulance loads," doctors said. So much blood was lost that the hospital exhausted its entire medical supply. More had to be brought in from nearby hospitals.
Operating rooms, Smith said, were cleaned hastily between surgeries, in about a minute — again and again and again.
Vigils around the country and the world have honored the memory of the victims. On Friday, Florida's governor and Cabinet members placed 49 state flags for the victims on the lawn of Florida's historic capitol in Tallahassee.
Meanwhile, gun sales increased in the days following the massacre. A Florida congressional candidate announced a contest on Facebook to give away an AR-15 rifle, similar to the weapon Mateen used, on July 4.
On Thursday, 11 days after the attack, Pulse's owner hosted a "Latin Night" street party for employees, patrons and friends, with music blaring and a dance floor in a restaurant parking lot. A thousand people showed up. "It's not a party, really, but I feel happy to see everyone," said one Pulse patron, who'd survived after hiding in a bathroom during the June 12 attack. "We needed this."
The section of Orlando's Orange Avenue near Pulse has reopened for business and traffic, though the club itself remains closed for now. "We can't feel normal yet after what happened," a Pulse employee told the Orlando Sentinel. But life is returning to a scarred city.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys painted radically different pictures of Noor Salman, the shooter's widow, over the course of her trial: on the one hand, helping her husband prepare for the attack and on the other, an abused woman who "married a monster."
She faced charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization. She was also charged with obstruction of justice for misleading federal agents, according to her indictment. She faced life in prison if convicted.