A Florida man who had twice been investigated for possible links to terrorism was the assault-rifle wielding gunman who stormed a popular gay nightclub, killing 50 people and wounding 53 more in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
The FBI confirmed Sunday that Omar Mateen, 29, was the attacker who took Club Pulse hostage early Sunday, engaging in a gun battle with more than a dozen officers before he was felled by police bullets.
The stunning spasm of gun violence roiled a nation already grappling with a string of mass shootings and the threat from Islamic extremism. A somber President Obama called the attack “an act of terror and an act of hate” against the gay community.
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On social media, elected leaders and ordinary citizens expressed outrage and grief. In Orlando, thousands lined up at blood banks to donate to the wounded and authorities began to release the names of the dead. And across the nation, vigils were planned for late Sunday, including ones in Miami Beach and Wilton Manors.
“This is probably the most difficult day in the history of Orlando,” the city’s mayor, Buddy Dyer, told reporters Sunday afternoon. “We will not be defined by a hateful shooter.”
For law enforcement, the probe shifted into high gear on Sunday afternoon. The FBI, which is spearheading the investigation, must now uncover what motivated Mateen — a state-registered firearm holder and security guard who lived in the Fort Pierce area — to unleash so much carnage.
From the start, agents have suspected Mateen may have been at least inspired by notorious Islamic State terrorist group that has targeted gays, Christians and other groups while taking hold of large swaths of territory in the Middle East.
A law-enforcement source told The Miami Herald that Mateen called 911 from the club to express support for Islamic State terrorist group. At a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Orlando FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper would not confirm media reports that Mateen “pledged” allegiance to the militant group. But he did say that Mateen had twice come under FBI scrutiny.
Once in 2013, Mateen was alleged to have made “inflammatory comments” regarding terrorism. But a “physical surveillance,” records checks and two interviews with Mateen led to no charges, Hopper said.
“We were unable to verify the substance of his comments,” Hopper said.
Then in 2014, Mateen was again investigated for a possible relationship with American suicide bomber Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who killed himself in Syria in 2014. But the probe also did not turn up concrete evidence, he said.
Mateen had no criminal history in Florida. He was able to purchase both weapons legally, according to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“He is not a prohibited person, so he can legally walk into a gun dealership and acquire and purchase firearms. He did so. And he did so within the last week or so,” ATF Assistant Special Agent In Charge Trevor Velinor said Sunday in Orlando.
On Sunday afternoon, an ISIS-affiliated Twitter account claimed responsibility for the attack.
But his father, Mir Seddique, told NBC News that he believed the shooting “has nothing to do with religion” but instead was outrage sparked after his son, during a family trip, saw two men kissing at Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami a few months ago.
“We are saying we are apologized for the whole incident,” he told NBC News. “We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock like the whole country.”
Rep. Alan Grayson, speaking to reporters Sunday, said he believed the shooting was a “hate crime.”
Born in New York to parents from Afghanistan, Mateen is a U.S. citizen who hails from the Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie area, which is about 118 miles from Orlando.
State records show that he was a licensed Florida security guard, and also held a state firearms license. The media was also showing photos purportedly of Mateen – taken from a MySpace social media account – wearing New York Police T-shirts, the kind easily bought by tourists.
State records show he was briefly married to a woman named Sitora Yusufiy in 2009; they have since divorced. His ex-wife told the Washington Post that he became mentally unstable. “He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished or something like that,” she told the newspaper.
The scene of the violence was Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, a popular gay nightspot where hundreds of were partying on Latin night early Sunday. Police said Mateen opened fire around 2 a.m., taking scores of people hostage just before closing time as people were downing their final drinks.
He carried an AR-15 rifle and a handgun, authorities said.
Malcolm Barraza, of Kendall, was in Orlando for work and was winding down his night of dancing when the shots erupted.
“It had a sound to it. You knew it. We heard the screams. Everybody ducked to the floor immediately and it was complete chaos at that point,” Barraza told the Miami Herald.
The lights snapped off. A bouncer knocked down a partition between the club area and an area in the back where only workers are allowed. People inside were able to then escape through the back of the club.
Just after 2 a.m., the club posted on its own Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Barraza and five of his friends managed to escape. “I ran to my car. I had fabric in my car. I just started tying up all the wounded that I saw. People were being carried out bloody and everything,” he said.
Paramedics and heavily armed police officers rushed to the nightclub. He remained inside for hours until, just before 6 a.m., police made the strategic decision to storm the club.
Eleven Orlando officers opened fire, along with three Orange County deputies. Mateen was killed in the intense firefight. One Orlando officer was shot in the head – his Kevlar helmet saved his life; the department later tweeted a photo of the bullet-scarred helmet.
Meanwhile, medical personnel in Orlando working frantically to help the critically wounded. Six trauma surgeons, including a pediatric surgeon were rushed to local hospital as doctors were calling for people around Florida to donate blood to their local blood banks.
“We have spent the morning operating on a number of victims,” Dr. Michael Cheatham, from the Orlando Regional Medical Center, told reporters. “We continue to operate on them.”
By 3:00 p.m., the hospital confirmed that 44 adults had been admitted to the hospital with gunshot wounds. Nine died in the hospital, one was discharged and all patients were identified.
As the news spread, thousands flocked to blood banks to either donate blood or pass out water and supplies to those in line.
Chris Brooks, 31, who grew up in Orlando, drove more than an hour from Merritt Island. He uses blood thinners, so he wasn’t sure if he could donate blood, so he was helping to pass out water and supplies.
“I feel that it’s my time to give something back to the world,” he said.
Ruth Schultz, a local business owner, didn’t even bother to put a closed sign on her boutique, Got Karma. Instead, she went straight to a local blood bank to donate blood.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” she said as she looked at about 1,000 people in line to donate blood. “It’s just a beautiful thing.”
Before noon Sunday, politicians on all sides —including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — had elevated the shooting into a campaign issue with statements and tweets.
“This was also an act of hate. The gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub during Pride Month,” Clinton said in a statement. “To the LGBT community: please know that you have millions of allies across our country. I am one of them.”
Trump, whose divisive campaign has been marked by harsh rhetoric about Muslims and Islamic extremism, patted himself on the back. He tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!
Meanwhile, leaders in religious and gay communities were urging calm.
“We are heartbroken. We are sad. It’s not time for sensationalized news, or a rush to judgment,” Imam Muhammad Musri, of the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando, told reporters outside the crime scene. “We need to look at this issue of mass shooting because we have had one too many today.”
Equality Florida, the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization set up a GoFundMe to support the victims of the shooting. In seven hours, more than 13,000 people had donated more than $500,000.
“We are heartbroken and angry that senseless violence has once again destroyed lives in our state and in our country,” organization officials said in a statement on the page.
The shooting came one day after another high-profile shooting in Orlando.
On Friday, YouTube sensation and former Voice contestant Christina Grimmie, 22, was shot and killed after her concert in Orlando by a 27-year-old St. Petersburg man who later killed himself. Police said they believed the shooter came specifically to attack Grimmie.
Herald writer Emily Cochrane contributed to this report.