One minute before the final assault, the Hialeah SWAT officers embraced, put their fists together and placed their trust in God to rescue the hostages and bring them to safety.
“As we embraced we lowered our heads and asked the Lord to light our way,” said Bárbaro Hernández, a member of the team. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but at that moment we only thought of rescuing the couple that had been kidnapped for hours.”
On Saturday, July 27, at about 1:30 a.m., the SWAT team entered the apartment and in a matter of seconds formed a human shield that prevented kidnapper Pedro Vargas’s shots from harming Sarrida and Zoeb Nek.
Vargas was shot to death.
Six weeks after the rescue, most of the SWAT team members who took part in the dangerous operation gave their first interview. For a couple of hours, they shared with El Nuevo Herald unpublished details of the mission that ended the worst tragedy in Hialeah, in which Vargas killed six of his neighbors.
On the afternoon of July 26, the SWAT team member, most of them of Cuban origin, had returned to their homes to rest after a morning police operation.
Suddenly, at about 6:30 p.m, they began to receive alerts about a man who was shooting and killing people at the building located at 1485 West 46th Street in Hialeah.
“After a long day, I got home and had already changed clothes… and suddenly I got an emergency message,” said Sgt. Andrés López-Cao. “I turned on my radio and listened to the operator asking for a response from all available officers. I immediately changed, kissed my wife and daughters and left.”
On the way to the scene another SWAT officer, Sgt. Luis García, crashed his Chevrolet Tahoe into another SUV. The police vehicle was totaled, but no officers available to work the accident — they were all at the scene of the shootings, García said.
“I had to urgently call my wife and when she arrived I put my bullet-proof vest and my rifles in her car and left immediately,” García said. “Despite everything I had to go to the shooting scene as soon as possible.”
The Hialeah SWAT commander, Hubert Ruiz, told El Nuevo Herald that one of the difficulties in locating Vargas was the architecture of the building, where the doors of most of the 90 apartments faced a central common patio that exposed the police and other neighbors to anyt gunfire.
“We had to comb the building very carefully,” said Ruiz, who became chief of the Hialeah SWAT team in December.
When the first Hialeah firefighters and police officers arrived on the scene, Vargas had already killed the building managers, Italo and Samira Pisciotti; Carlos Javier Gavilanes, a 33-year-old man who was entering the building across the street; and Patricio Simono, 65, and his family, Merly S. Niebles, 51, and her daughter, Priscilla, 17, who lived on the third floor.
The last time the police saw Vargas was when he exchanged shots with an officer while he was running up the stairs from the third floor.
A command center was set up a couple of blocks away, headed by Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velázquez. At that point Hialeah had already requested reinforcements the police departments of Miami-Dade, Hialeah Gardens, Sweetwater and Miami Beach.