A Florida security guard twice investigated by the FBI for possible links to terrorism was the assault-rifle wielding gunman who opened fire on hundreds of unsuspecting people inside a popular gay nightclub before dawn Sunday, killing at least 49 and wounding 53 more in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
The FBI confirmed that Omar Mateen, 29, was the attacker who took Pulse nightclub hostage for several hours, engaging in a gun battle with more than a dozen officers before he was felled by police bullets.
The tragedy that unfolded throughout the day evoked the carnage and chaos that has punctuated recent terrorist attacks in Southern California, Paris and Boston — friends and rescuers carrying out bloodied victims, heavily armed police and tactical vehicles patrolling streets, and thousands gathering to mourn victims in tearful candlelight vigils.
For Terry DeCarlo, who arrived at Pulse at 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning, the scene was “right out of a movie.” Police had blocked the street to the club, where DeCarlo and others gathered, desperate to learn what had happened to the hundreds of patrons inside.
“It was surreal. I felt helpless,” said DeCarlo, director of The Center, a community resource for the LGBT community. “I kept thinking, if this is a bad dream, I need to wake up.”
A somber President Obama spoke to the nation in the afternoon, his sixth mass shooting address in the last year, and called the attack “an act of terror and an act of hate”. On mainstream and social media, there was an outpouring of outrage and grief from the LGBT community, ordinary citizens and presidential candidates.
In Orlando, thousands of people lined up for hours in the midday sun to do the one thing they knew would help, donate blood. And as hospitals and public officials released the names of the dead, grief-stricken Americans needing to mourn together packed gatherings from Orlando to Miami Beach and Wilton Manors.
Outside the Islamic Center of Orlando on Sunday night, about 100 people gathered, clutching small white candles pushed through Dixie cups. The sign outside the center read, “We strongly condemn the shooting #orlandostrong” and “Our prayers are with the family of the victims.”
Naunam Ansari, wearing a yellow reflective vest so he could help direct worshipers in the parking lot, choked up as he began the vigil. “It's a sad, sad day for our community,” he said.
He added that someone had asked him if he was afraid of backlash.
“I didn't hesitate in saying no,” he said. “They weren’t from Orlando, they haven't seen how our community comes together in times of tragedy. We won't let misguided hate get in the way of that.”
At the epicenter of the deadly mass shooting, in a city synonymous with the American ideal of family vacations, Mayor Buddy Dyer pledged to fight back against the stain of violence that had been painted on his community.
“This is probably the most difficult day in the history of Orlando,” Dyer told reporters Sunday afternoon. “We will not be defined by a hateful shooter.”
For law enforcement, the investigation shifted into high gear on Sunday afternoon. The FBI, which is spearheading the probe, 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 the notorious Islamic State terrorist group, which has targeted gays, Christians and other groups while taking hold of large swaths of territory in the Middle East. Gruesome images, released as propaganda by the group, have shown purportedly gay men being tossed from rooftops and then stoned to death before throngs of onlookers.
On Sunday afternoon, an Islamic State-affiliated Twitter account claimed responsibility for the attack. But as of yet, no direct operational links to the radical Islamic terrorist group had been announced by the FBI.
The shooter’s father, Mir Seddique, told NBC News that he believed the shooting “has nothing to do with religion” but instead was sparked by outrage 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,” Seddique told NBC News. “We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock like the whole country.”
According to a law-enforcement source who spoke with The Miami Herald, Mateen called 911 from the club to express support for IS. 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” to co-workers 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, the FBI again investigated Mateen for a possible relationship with American suicide bomber Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who killed himself in Syria in 2014. But the probe did not turn up concrete evidence, Hopper said.
Mateen had no criminal history in Florida and worked as a security guard with the company G4S.
One co-worker told the Miami Herald Mateen was fluent in the language of hate, often using slurs to describe African-Americans and gays.
“He was always on the edge, always hyper and agitated,” Daniel Gilroy said. “He would never have more than three or four sentences without using the word n****r or queer or dike. It was always about violence. It was always the F-bomb.”
Mateen was able to purchase both weapons legally days before the shooting, 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.
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 lived in the Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie area, about 118 miles southeast of 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 people were partying to the theme, Latin night, early Sunday. Police said Mateen opened fire around 2 a.m., taking scores of club goers hostage just before closing time and just as people were downing their final drinks.
Mateen carried an AR-15 assault rifle and a 9mm semi-automatic handgun, police said.
Malcolm Barraza, of Kendall, said he was in Orlando for work and winding down his night of dancing at Pulse when gunfire erupted.
“It had a sound to it. You knew it,” Barraza told the Herald. “We heard the screams. Everybody ducked to the floor immediately and it was complete chaos at that point.”
The lights switched off, he said, and a bouncer knocked down a partition separating the club area from a space in the back where only employees were allowed — providing people inside with an escape route.
Just after 2 a.m., the club posted an ominous message on its Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Barraza and five of his friends managed to escape. “I ran to my car,” he said. “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.”
Paramedics and heavily armed police in tactical gear rushed to the nightclub. Mateen, the shooter, remained inside for hours until, just before 6 a.m., police teams stormed 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 posted a photo of the bullet-scarred helmet on Twitter.
Dyer, the Orlando mayor, said in the fog of the attack’s aftermath officers mistakenly thought the gunman had strapped explosives to the dead victims and that the club was booby-trapped. A bomb robot sent back images of a battery part next to a body. The Associated Press reported that Dyer said that prevented paramedics from entering the club until it was determined the image was of something that fell out of an exit sign or a smoke detector.
The robot was sent in after SWAT team members put explosive charges on a wall and an armored vehicle knocked the wall down in an effort to rescue hostages.
The injured were rushed to hospitals throughout Orlando, where medical personnel worked frantically to help the critically wounded. Six trauma surgeons, including a pediatric specialist, were rushed to local hospitals as doctors called on people throughout Florida to donate blood.
“We have spent the morning operating on a number of victims,” Dr. Michael Cheatham of the Orlando Regional Medical Center told reporters. “We continue to operate on them.”
Of the 49 victims who died from the shooting, 39 were killed at the club and 11 people died at hospitals. One hospital patient was discharged, and all patients were identified.
As news spread of the carnage and the need to replenish blood supplies, thousands of people flocked to blood banks to either donate plasma or hand out water and supplies to those waiting 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 staff writers Daniel Chang, Mary Ellen Klas, Emily Cochrane, Nicholas Nehamas and McClatchy correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report.