Patience Carter, a New York college student on the first night of her Florida vacation, was getting ready to call Uber. The bartender at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub had just announced last call, and an evening that had been damn near magical — “the night that we dreamed … the most beautiful bonding experience any three girls could have on their first night out on vacation” was coming to an end.
But what a strange way Florida bars had to hustle customers out the door at closing. Firing off BB guns? “Wow. A club would do all this just to get people to leave their club?” Carter mused to herself. “I thought it was a BB gun at first, or the DJ playing some sort of sound of gunshots.”
The shots, though, were all too real — the first of hundreds that would echo through Pulse in the dark hours before dawn Sunday. After the last bullet was fired, Pulse would be reduced to a pockmarked ruin reeking of gunpowder and blood, and 49 of its customers to corpses, with dozens of others clinging to life in local hospitals.
“We just went from having the time of our lives to the worst night of our lives,” Carter said, “all within a matter of minutes.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Michael Belvedere, a longtime bartender at Pulse who also performs there as a drag queen, is four hours into a busy shift in the club’s Adonis Lounge when he hears gunshots. “Everyone thought it was music,” he told Billboard magazine.
Most customers — there were between 200 and 300 there for a special Latin Night — keep drinking and dancing. They have no idea that a gunfight has broken out between Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard from Fort Pierce, and an off-duty Orlando cop working security.
“The bullets went to the sound of the music, bang-bang,” said Chris Hanson, a Miami resident working at an Orlando summer camp making his first visit to Pulse.
The policeman is armed, but Mateen has a semi-automatic assault rifle and a pistol and the cop is badly outgunned. Bodies start to fall.
The Orlando Police Department issues an All Call Major Alert — all officers who can respond should do so. Within moments, more cops pour into the club’s main dance-floor area, returning fire. By now, customers are fleeing to the back, seeking refuge in the smaller Adonis Lounge or in an outdoor patio area.
Ray Rivera, a disc jockey known on Orlando dance floors as DJ Infinite, is spinning reggae music on the patio. He thinks somebody has set off a string of firecrackers inside the main lounge — until he sees a human wave spilling out and clambering desperately up the fence into the parking lot. Others are crawling under his DJ booth.
“Go! Go! Go!” he shouts as he shuts down the music. “I knew we couldn’t stay there. … I was hearing gunshots, and they were getting louder and louder — like he was coming toward me.”
“It was shot after shot after shot,” said Jason Gonzalez, a 33-year-old operations manager at Disney World. “It seemed like it would never end.”
Away from the main floor, where everybody can hear continuing shots but can’t see where they are coming from, no one is quite sure what is happening. During a pause, one woman in the Adonis Lounge jumps from her hiding place and announces, “This is fake, this isn’t real!” Almost immediately, the firing begins again, louder than ever.
Everyone runs for the rear of the room. Some escape out into the back alley, but eight people, including Michael Belvedere, crowd into a performers’ dressing room. Elsewhere around the club, refugees from the shooting are trying to barricade themselves inside bathrooms or hide in toilet stalls.
Shouts of “This way! This way!” mingle with the cries of the wounded and dying. Many patrons drop to the floor for cover, then crawl away over a carpet of shattered glass. In the murkily lit chaos, lots of them never even see the man who is trying to kill them.
“I never saw the face of the shooter,” said Angel Colon, 26, who was shot at least twice. I didn’t know if it was a male or a female; I didn’t even hear the shooter speak. So it wasn’t until I actually saw it on the television [that I knew] what it actually looked like.”
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, a 30-year-old accountant who lives in a fancy downtown Orlando condo, texts his mother, Mina: Mommy I love you. In club they shooting.
Trapp in bathroom. Call police. I’m going to die, Justice texts his mother. She calls 911.
The club’s Facebook page and Twitter account put out a stunning warning: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.” The horrified world outside, helplessly following the gunfight through social media, does the only thing it can: hit the retweet button. The warning will be relayed 10,000 times in the next 12 hours.
A second wave of cops — there are now 11 from the police department, three from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office — arrives, and the heavier fire they unleash forces Mateen farther inside the club. Police won’t even venture a guess yet about how many shots were exchanged. And they tread carefully in addressing one grim possibility: that in the dimly lit, chaotic gunfight, some of the Pulse victims may have actually been hit by friendly fire from police.
“That’s all part of the crime scene, and that will be determined,” said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings. “Every one of those law enforcement officers who fired a weapon, their weapons have been taken and seized for evidentiary purposes. And every round that they fired has to be accounted for … And all of that it going to take some time with the number of rounds that were fired.”
Twitter is ablaze with terrified, half-coherent messages. @bjoewolf (Brandon Wolf) tweets: “Omg. Shooting at pulse. We hid in the bathroom. And we can’t find our friends.” For many of the terrified Pulse customers, reaching out through social media is the first thing they do after finding even the temporary refuge of a closet or restroom. “I was even Snapchatting in the bathroom,” Patience Carter said.
Mateen continues firing at police enough to keep them from advancing into the rear of the club. Even in the mayhem, police had two choices: rush Mateen — a dangerous tactic even for armed cops — or wait until a larger tactical team arrives, experts said. They wait. (Police later said that Mateen inflicted most of his casualties early in the night, when just a few officers were on the scene.)
Meanwhile, he roams the back rooms and hallways, rousting some hiding club-goers, occasionally shooting one, his macabre laugh echoing in the background. Some survivors find his delirious cackles even more disquieting than the gunshots.
“How could someone do what he was doing and laugh?” wonders Norman Casiano, who is at Pulse to celebrate his 26th birthday and is now holed up in a bathroom, listening to the madness outside. “It sounded like a horror movie, it didn’t sound real,” said Belvedere, the bartender. Survivors sometimes try to run from the club and a voice barks, “Get down, motherf----r, put your hands down.” Some hiding customers think it is the cops. But after another burst of shots, they realize it is the gunman.
Belvedere is tightly clutching a chair he plans to brain the gunman with if he enters the room. Behind him, seven other customers are slowly going to pieces. Some are crying, others praying, and one just keeps vomiting. Belvedere struggles to stay focused and sane. When the others try to talk to him about the carnage outside, he tersely orders them to shut up: “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear about how many bodies are out there.”
Mateen calls 911 about 30 minutes after the initial exchange of gunfire but hangs up. Then he calls again, initiating a cycle of phone conversations with police that will go on intermittently for the next three hours. In them, he pledges allegiance to the Islamic State, talks about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing carried out by Islamic radicals and mentions Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, the Fort Pierce man who in 2014 became the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria. (They knew one another, though it’s not clear how well.)
He also says the United States should stop bombing Syria and warns that there will be further killing if the police approach his stronghold. Otherwise, he isn’t making demands.
“He really wasn’t asking for a whole lot,” said Orlando Police Chief John Mina. “We were doing most of the asking.”
Law enforcement experts told the Miami Herald that there was never any reason to expect the negotiations to bear any fruit, except to buy the police time to rescue a few hostages in outlying areas while taking positions for a final assault.
For SWAT teams, the profiles of gunmen who take hostages run the spectrum, from those willing to surrender to others who have carefully planned the crime and don’t expect to survive, experts said. Mateen represented the extreme.
“He had already made up his mind he was going to die,” said C. Frank McClure, who negotiated more than 300 hostage situations for Atlanta police. “There is no question in my mind.”
McClure, 68, who once negotiated with a gunman who took over FBI offices in Atlanta in 1981, said Mateen represents a tiny fraction of the cases that police encounter. Most hostage takers “deep down inside want to live — they don’t want to die, no matter how tough they sound,” he said.
With Mateen, there is no indication he wants to survive.
Rather, officers find a man calm, collected — and dangerous.
In the end, “he was still willing to take risks,” said Antonio Sanchez, a former Opa-locka deputy chief who once commanded a SWAT team. “That creates a huge disadvantage” to police.
Eddie Justice’s texts take on a renewed urgency. Call them mommy. Now. He’s coming. I’m gonna die.
Mrs. Justice asks if anyone is hurt. His reply is a single, stark word: Lots.
Mateen pauses to make a phone call to an Orlando television station. “I am the shooter,” he says. “I did it for ISIS.”
Still here in the bathroom, Eddie Justice texts. He has us. They need to come get us.
Mrs. Justice tells her son police are inside the club. Hurry, he replies. He’s in the bathroom with us.
Moments tick by. He’s a terror, Eddie Justice suddenly texts, and there’s no need to ask who he’s talking about. Mrs. Justice asks if the gunman is still in the bathroom. Yes, Eddie replies, and his phone falls silent.
Mateen bursts into one stall in the bathroom and blasts away as the occupants scream and beg for their lives. He apparently doesn’t notice that survivors remain in another. In terror, they listen as he tinkers with his guns, uses the sink and dries his hands with an air blower. Sometimes he pokes at bodies to see if people are really dead or just pretending. His suspicions are well-grounded; a number of club-goers lie among the corpses for hours, feigning death.
Among them is a survivor of Mateen’s attack on the bathroom stall. Thirty-seven-year-old choreographer Geoffrey Rodriguez, though hit three times, is still alive. When the gunman walks way, Rodriguez manages to retrieve his cellphone to text his brother Santos: I’ve been shot at a club … dead bodies on top of me .. dead bodies everywhere .. I’m going to die. Tell mom and dad I love them .. I love you.
His brother gets the text, thinks it’s a joke … but then wakes up his parents anyway, just in case.
The Orlando Fire Department calls in the bomb squad. The Orlando police SWAT team arrives at the club and starts replacing the patrol officers on the front lines.
When Michael Belvedere first reaches the dressing room where he’s hiding, he begins texting farewell messages to friends. One, the club manager, calls him back and they stay on the phone, with the manager relaying instructions from the police.
Now, he senses, escape may be at hand. He can hear cops evacuating another dressing room across from his. Soon, the police call to ask for his precise location; after he guides them to it, the cops push a window-mounted AC unit through into the dressing room, where the hostages catch it.
Out in the street, police march the hostages single-file — hands on one another’s shoulders — through a parking lot to the safety of a nearby street. All around them, others are leaving the club, some badly shot up. Pickup trucks pull up quickly, loading the most badly injured, and whisk them away to a hospital a few blocks away.
Many of those who manage to get out of Pulse stick around to help with the steady stream of wounded patrons. Malcolm Barraza, a Kendall resident visiting Orlando who escaped in the first minutes after yanking a large refrigerator away from a wall and slipping out through the small hole behind it, looks at the chaos in the streets outside and decided to stay.
“People are screaming, people are bleeding, there are people everywhere,” he said. “At that point, what do you do? You know you don’t get in the car, you stay. You have to help these people.” He bandages wounds, lifts bullet-riddled bodies onto the beds of pickup trucks, messages friends and families of survivors, and tries hard not to look into the eyes of the dead.
Mateen walks into a bathroom where he’s holding hostages. “Are there any black people in here?” he asks. Replies an African-American man, “Yes, six or seven of us.”
“He said he didn’t have a problem with black people,” said Patience Carter, herself a black woman. “He said he was doing it to get America to stop bombing his country” — apparently a reference to Afghanistan, where his parents were born. (Mateen was born in New York.)
Then, changing tack, he warns that the cops are preparing to attack: “The police are going to come in, but it’s all right, we have the snipers outside.”
“Maybe he was deranged, but I thought he had help outside,” Carter said.
She isn’t the only survivor to think Mateen isn’t alone that night. Because some of the police who raced to the club are off-duty and out of uniform at the time, and the gunfight’s battle lines are so confusing, many people believe there are multiple gunmen. Later, police said they’re certain he had no help at the scene.
The conversations between Mateen and police negotiators turn increasingly threatening. “There was talk about bomb vests, about explosives throughout, and there were statements made about imminent loss of life,” said Chief Mina. “So that’s why I made the decision to make the entry.”
The siege’s final moments, like the first ones, are a blur of explosions, smoke and confusion. The cops shout “Move away from the walls!” as a warning to hostages, then set off two small blasts to distract Mateen. Moments later, a BearCat armored rescue vehicle rips a two-by-three-foot hole though a wall to allow police to burst inside.
Mateen, who hears noise from the police outside just before the final assault, begins backing into the bathroom full of hostages where Patience Carter is being held. “I’ve got plenty of bullets!” he screams. He whirls, shouts “Hey, you!” at hostages and fires, hitting at least three. Somebody squirms in front of Carter, shielding her.
“I don’t know who that person is,” she said Tuesday at a televised news conference. “If they’re somewhere watching. … Thank you. Thank you for saving my life, literally. If it wasn’t for that person shielding me, it would’ve been me shot, and I wouldn’t be sitting here today to talk about it.
The police scream “Put your weapon down! Put your weapon down!” Shots fly as water from blasted pipes erupts throughout the bathroom, pooling so deeply that hostages lying on the floor worry they’ll drown.
But it’s over. Mateen is dead, though the pain he inflicted will linger, maybe forever.
Mina Justice finally gets the word that she’s been dreading from police: Her son Eddie is dead.
Police bring the last body out of Pulse, finally quieting the chorus of cellphones, buzzing with calls from soon-to-be-heartbroken loved ones.
Contributing to this report: Audra D.S. Burch, Alex Harris and Joey Flechas.