Forty-nine people have died and another 53 were injured when a gunman opened fire and seized hostages at a gay nightclub in Florida, police said Sunday, making it the worst mass shooting in recent US history.
The gunman was identified as Omar Mateen, 30, a US citizen born to Afghan parents, married and a father to a three-year-old boy. According to US news outlets, Mateen worked as a private security guard with a large US company.
“We have cleared the building, and it is with great sadness that I share we have not 20 but 50 casualties in addition to the shooter,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told a news briefing, raising the death toll from 20 previously. “There are another 53 that are hospitalized.”
“There’s blood everywhere,” he said.
Authorities were investigating it as an act of terrorism.
President Barack Obama said the massacre was an “act of terror” and an “act of hate,” but that it was premature to ascribe a definitive motive. “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another. We will not give in to fear and turn against each other,” he said.
Families and friends were awaiting word outside the Orlando Regional Medical Center to learn whether their loved ones were among the dead or wounded.
— Julian Röpcke (@JulianRoepcke) June 12, 2016
Fatriana Evans frequents the Pulse nightclub and was outside when shots were fired.
“It sounded like fireworks — pop, pop, pop — and then everybody scatters,” Evans said.
Jackie Smith was inside the club and said two friends next to her were shot. She said she hasn’t gotten updates on their conditions. She came out of the hospital and burst into tears in the arms of friends.
“Some guy walked in and started shooting everybody. He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance. I just tried to get out of there,” she said.
Authorities were checking whether Mateen, from Port St. Lucie in Florida, had ties to Islamic terrorism.
The FBI said there were “suggestions” Mateen had “leanings” toward Islamic terror. Authorities said he had no criminal history but had been on the FBI’s radar after his name came up in an investigation some years ago.
Speaking to NBC news, Mateen’s father, named as Mir Siddique, said the act was not linked to religion but possibly homophobia.
“We are saying we are apologizing for the whole incident. We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock like the whole country,” NBC news said, reading out his statement.
“This had nothing to do with religion,” he added according to NBC news, adding that his son “got very angry when he saw two men kissing in downtown Miami a couple of months ago.”
Wielding an AR-15-type assault rifle and a handgun, Mateen is suspected of opening fire at club-goers in Orlando, about a two-hour drive from Port St. Lucie, killing some 50 and wounding 53 others before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers. Mateen also took hostages during the attack.
Police Chief John Mina said the shooter had some sort of “suspicious device.” He said the suspect exchanged gunfire with an officer working at the club around 2 a.m., then went back inside and took hostages among more than 300 people inside.
Around 5 a.m., authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the hostages, and the suspect then died in a gunfight with those officers.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks said during a news conference that the mass shooting is being investigated as an act of terrorism. He says authorities are looking into whether this was an act of domestic or international terror, and if the shooter was a lone wolf.
“This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as domestic terror incident,” said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper said there’s no further threat to Orlando or the surrounding area.
When asked if the gunman had a connection to radical Islamic terrorism, Hopper said, “we do have suggestions that individual has leanings towards that.”
The White House said in a statement that Obama was “asked to receive regular updates as the FBI, and other federal officials, work with the Orlando Police to gather more information, and directed that the federal government provide any assistance necessary to pursue the investigation and support the community.”
Police said the gunman was well prepared and organized and wasn’t from the Orlando area, the New York Times reported.
Police had said previously on Twitter that there was a “controlled explosion” at the scene of the shooting at Pulse Orlando. Mina said that noise was caused by a device intended to distract the shooter.
Mina Justice was outside the club early Sunday trying to contact her 30-year-old son Eddie, who texted her when the shooting happened and asked her to call police. He told her he ran into a bathroom with other club patrons to hide. He then texted her: “He’s coming.”
“The next text said: ‘He has us, and he’s in here with us,'” she said. “That was the last conversation.”
Dozens of police vehicles, including a SWAT team, swarmed the area around the club. At least two police pickup trucks were seen taking what appeared to be shooting victims to the Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Pulse Orlando posted on its own Facebook page around 2 a.m.: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.” Just before 6 a.m., the club posted an update: “As soon as we have any information we will update everyone. Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event. Thank you for your thoughts and love.”
The incident follows the fatal shooting late Friday of 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie, who was killed after her concert in Orlando by a 27-year-old Florida man who later killed himself. Grimmie was a YouTube sensation and former contestant on “The Voice.”
Jon Alamo said he was at the back of one of the club’s rooms when a man holding a weapon came into the front of the room.
“I heard 20, 40, 50 shots,” Alamo said. “The music stopped.”
Club-goer Rob Rick said it happened around 2 a.m., just before closing time.
“Everybody was drinking their last sip,” he said.
He estimated more than 100 people were still inside when he heard shots, got on the ground and crawled toward a DJ booth. 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.
Christopher Hansen said he was in the VIP lounge when he started hearing gunshots. He continued to hear shooting even after he emerged, where police were telling people to back away from the club. He saw injured people being tended to across the street.
“I was thinking, are you kidding me? So I just dropped down. I just said please, please, please, I want to make it out,” he said. “And when I did, I saw people shot. I saw blood. You hope and pray you don’t get shot.”