The 911 operators in Orlando on June 12 did their best to promise salvation for the frightened voices on the other end of the line.
In some cases, they were right. Whispers turned to regular voices as victims thanked the operators for keeping them calm and guiding them to safety after Omar Mateen unleashed a barrage of gunfire in Pulse nightclub just after the 2 a.m. last call.
But for others, they were false promises. Worries of a bomb vest, of multiple shooters hiding alongside victims or explosive cars kept Orlando police from rescuing the last Pulse victims until just after 5 a.m. It’s unclear if any of the wounded died during that excruciating wait, but in the audio recently released from that night, the pain and fear is tangible.
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A judge ruled that the 911 calls should be released from that night but ruled those from the initial burst of shooting were too disturbing to be released as audio. The transcripts paint a picture of pain and panic. Nearly every call is punctuated with gunshots and tears.
The first caller, at 2:03 a.m., tells 911 “They are spraying bullets. They are shooting bullets right now. My life is important.”
The caller, hiding in a closet with eight other uninjured people, said the gunshots were consistent. They couldn’t lock the door, so they barricaded it with a chair.
“A lot of people are getting shot, you know what I mean? And I’m not trying to be one of them,” she said.
The entire transcript of another call at the same time is just a crying man saying “My legs, my legs” over and over again, punctuated with gunfire, screaming, crying and yelling before the call ends.
The rest of the calls, from those first few frantic minutes and the long hours to follow, were long enough to identify where the victims were hiding. Some even record the moment of rescue.
The first call from the office came from a man who was shot in the stomach. The operator, who introduced himself as Bill, walked the man through applying pressure to his wound, then had him hand the phone to someone who spoke “better English,” according to the transcripts.
The woman who answered the phone directed one of the four other people in the room to hold clothing up to the wound and push hard.
“Don’t let him die this way,” she said.
She told the operator police could climb a ladder in the kitchen and reach the private office they were hiding in. She said they were terrified of being cornered by the shooter.
“We’re gonna get you help,” she whispered to the injured man as she tried to keep him awake. “They’re coming. They’re coming.”
The operator commented that while he was on the line with her, he heard at least 30 shots.
“There were a lot more than 30 shots,” she replied.
A young man in a low voice spoke to 911 from the office as well. On his call, around 2:24 a.m., he anxiously questioned his decision to go clubbing that night.
“I wanna go home. I should have stayed home. I shouldn’t have came out tonight,” he said. “ I gotta go home and see my mom.”
He told the operator he was separated from his friends during the shooting, and he didn’t know where they were.
“I hope they’re alive, because if they’re not — I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”
At 2:32, Bill told the woman to put up her hands and open the door for police. She told her group, “If you are awake, please put your hands up.”
Moments later, police enter the office and rescue the group.
“Good job, ma’am,” 911 operator Bill Hammer said.
The large dressing room
The 20-year-old woman called at 2:35, whispering that she and eight other uninjured people were hiding in a dressing room. She, or someone else in the dressing room, had been one of the first calls that night.
She suggested pushing out the air conditioning unit in the wall at 3:22 a.m. to escape, but the operator told her SWAT wouldn’t recommend it. They were worried the noise would draw out Mateen.
Bill Hammer, her 911 operator, put the scared young woman on the phone with an Orlando police officer, who introduced herself as Jamie, at 3:33 a.m. to calm her down.
Jamie said the officers were in “a little bit of a stalemate” with the shooter and encouraged the trapped group to “Hold each others hand. Breathe together. Take deep breaths together.”
Hammer did his best to calm her down too, asking if she had a husband or children.
“No, I have a full life ahead of me,” she replied.
“Well you’re going to have a story to tell them one day, huh,” he said with a laugh.
“I really hope so,” she said.
“Oh you will, stay positive. You will. Everything is going to be OK. We’ve got everything under control,” he told her.
Around 4:18 a.m. the woman broke her silence. “Someone’s knocking on the window,” she said. Hammer confirmed the flashlights she saw and knocking she heard were officers who wanted to go through with her AC escape plan. She pushed the unit out the window, and Hammer waited on the line while she helped everyone else in the group out to the waiting arms of police.
Small dressing room
Next door, three uninjured people were hiding in a smaller dressing room. A whispering 23-year-old man called at 2:44 a.m., the terror audible in his voice.
“Please just get us out of here,” he pleaded. “I’m so scared.”
The operator told him to stay calm and stay quiet, but patience was difficult. At one point, the caller had to convince a friend not to run out the door and escape.
The operator told the man police were on their way and inside the building over and over, but it did little to calm his horror.
“Is this call recorded?” he asked. “I want my family to know that I love them”
The operator assured him they were “doing our best to get you to your family,” but the young man told him “I don’t think we’re gonna make it.”
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure you do,” the 911 operator said.
At 3:39 a.m., the young man started whispering “Oh my God” over and over. There’s a commotion on the line for a moment before he speaks in a regular voice for the first time. “Ok, the cops got us out,” he told the operator. “Thank you so much. I appreciate everything.”
In the corner of Pulse’s small bar room, near the emergency exit, a group of people hid in a unisex bathroom for hours.
At 4:31 a.m., the woman calling 911 was angry and scared.
“Why isn’t anyone coming to get us in the bathroom?” she asked. “There’s two people in here that are about to die and four already dead. Someone needs to come in here now.”
The operators assured her that help was on the way as quickly as possible.
Nearly 30 minutes later, the woman kept asking, “Where are they? I don’t understand. Everyone is getting worse.”
She spoke to someone in the bathroom using their name, “Stay with us” she said. The operator repeated that paramedics and police were making their way to the trapped group.
“When? Where? Can they split up?” the caller asked. “Can they send one person to us?”
The last minute of the call is redacted. It’s unclear when they were rescued or what happened to the injured people.
Most of the calls were from victims trapped in bathrooms. It wasn’t always clear which restroom the clubgoers were hiding in, and there was conflicting information about which room the shooter paced as he made his calls to a TV station, 911 and a hostage negotiator.
It’s clear that Omar Mateen walked back and fourth between bathrooms, at times shooting blindly into the stalls.
At 2:05, a young man told 911 he was hiding in a bathroom with people. “Everybody is hurt,” he said. Then, whispering to someone else hiding with him, “We’re not shot.”
Seconds later he repeated “They are in here, they are in here” and the transcript showed the sound of gunfire.
“I got shot,” he said.
The longest call for help was an hour and a half long. An unidentified man called from the men’s restroom at 3:49 a.m. and stayed on the line under police breached the walls with explosives and rescued the 15-person group. During that call he gave no indication that Mateen was in the room, although he said Mateen fired into the bathroom earlier, wounding some.
Throughout the night, a man from Tampa called and updated police with information from his sister, who was shot in the leg and ribs and texted him from her hiding spot in the women’s bathroom. She was texting with a friend she said was trapped in the men’s room with the shooter. Around 3 a.m., the friend in the room with the shooter texted her “he has his gun and he’s getting ready to shoot.”
Some of the earlier calls ended so quickly operators re-dialed immediately. Later in the night they stopped doing that out of fear of drawing Mateen’s attention to the victims.
In one 2:18 a.m. call back the operator asked, “Is everything alright?”
“No, no, no, no please, come to pulse P-U-L-S-E in Orlando” a girl whispered. There was shooting, she said, but she didn’t know how many people were behind the gunfire.
“I think it’s two,” she said. “I don’t know, but I’m in the bathroom with a bunch of people and he’s shooting and everybody is bleeding”
Seconds later, her whispers grew more panicked.
“He’s in the bathroom. Hurry up. Hurry up,” she begged. There’s confusion for a minutes while the operator tries to get more information out of the panicked girl, who said she thinks the shooter is Hispanic, then: “Hurry up. He’s loading up now.”
The rest of her call was distorted, to the obvious frustration of the operator. Then, 10 minutes after she called, the audio was redacted for three minutes.
Someone who was shot three times — in the stomach, chest and foot — called police from his hiding spot inside an unidentified bathroom. He told 911 they were hiding under a pile of bodies, and there were about 20 people crammed into the bathroom.
“They are dying. They are drying. We’re dying,” he said at 2:11 a.m.
“No, no, no. Don’t say that, OK? The paramedics are coming,” the operator said.
Police rescued the final bathroom full of people just after 5 a.m.