A man who survived the weekend massacre in Orlando said gunman Omar Mateen laughed as he shot dead a man in the bathroom at the Pulse gay club, after the victim failed to fit into the packed bathroom stall in which some 10 people were hiding.
The story is one of dozens of tales of horror to emerge from the aftermath of Sunday’s massacre at the Orlando nightclub, where 49 people were killed in a shooting spree by Mateen, as investigators continue to probe the killer’s motives.
Another eyewitness described how Mateen spoke about ending US airstrikes in Syria as he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but didn’t mention homosexuality, and at one point noted “I don’t have an issue with the blacks.”
“The scary part was that he didn’t say anything, and what’s scarier than that was when he shot the boy that was already shot, he laughed,” Norman Casiano, who escaped with four bullet wounds to the back, told ABC’s Orlando affiliate station. “And as he’s laughing as he fires through the whole front of the stall… And that’s when I got my first wound, my first two wounds.”
Casiano said that pleas for Mateen to stop only served to encourage the violence.
“As we’re yelling at him, please please don’t do this, you don’t want to do this, just spare us… I guess that enticed him more and he put his gun over the top of the stall and just… fired.”
A victim who identified himself to the New York Times only as “Orlando,” told the paper he played dead in the club bathroom where he was hiding with a friend for over three hours, “my face against the toilet bowl.” He felt something against his shirt, and believed it was Mateen checking whether he was alive.
When Mateen phoned the police to pledge his allegiance to the Islamic State, he stressed that the US must stop its bombing of Syria, but did not mention anything about gay people, said the eyewitness.
At one point, according to his account, he asked hostages: “Are you guys black?”
“He said, ‘I don’t have an issue with the blacks,’” he said.
Angel Colon told reporters Tuesday he was sure he would be killed as he lay on the floor with three bullets in his leg, which was shattered as desperate clubgoers trampled him he was unable to run to safety.
“All I could do was just lay down there while everyone was just running on top of me trying to get to where they had to be,” Colon recounted Tuesday, alongside the emergency medical personnel he credited for saving his life.
“And all I could hear was the shotgun one after another, and people screaming, people yelling for help,” he said, his voice quavering, describing seeing Mateen heading back in his direction.
“I was shot about three times in my leg, so I had fallen down. I tried to get back up, but everyone started running anywhere. I got trampled over, and I shattered and broke my bones on my left leg. So by this time I couldn’t walk at all,” he said.
He briefly thought he had escaped death, when the shooter turned his weapons on victims in another part of the club.
“He goes into the other room, and I can just hear more shotguns going on. I thought I was a little safe at this time because, you know, it’s giving everyone time to tackle him down or get him down,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I hear him come back, and he’s shooting everyone that’s already dead on the floor. Making sure they’re dead,” Colon said.
“I can hear the (gunshots) closer, and I look over and he shoots the girl next to me. And I’m just there laying down. I’m thinking, ‘I’m next. I’m dead’.”
The gunman shoots the already wounded Colon twice more, but somehow, the survivor said, “by the glory of God, he shoots towards my head but it hits my hand.
“Then he shoots me again and it hits the side of my hip,” he recalled.
Colon was careful not to give away the fact that, despite having a half-dozen bullets lodged in his body, he was not dead.
“I had no reaction. I was just prepared to just stay there laying down so he won’t know that I’m alive,” he said.
“And he’s just doing this for another five, ten minutes. He’s just shooting all over the place.”
A plurality of motives
The motive in the worst mass shooting in US history, which left 49 dead, has been debated since the attack, with terrorism, homophobia, closeted homosexual tendencies, and mental illness raised as factors driving Mateen.
The White House and the FBI said Mateen, an American-born Muslim, appears to be a “homegrown extremist” who had touted support not just for the Islamic State, but other radical groups that are its enemies, such as Hezbollah.
“So far, we see no indication that this was a plot directed from outside the United States, and we see no indication that he was part of any kind of network,” FBI Director James Comey said Monday. He said Mateen was clearly “radicalized,” at least in part via the internet.
Despite Mateen’s pledge of support to the Islamic State, other possible explanations emerged. His ex-wife said he suffered from mental illness. His Afghan-immigrant father suggested he may have acted out of anti-gay hatred, and said his son got angry recently about seeing two men kiss. But questions also emerged over whether Mateen was conflicted about his own sexuality.
Jim Van Horn, 71, said Mateen was a “regular” at the popular Pulse nightclub where he’d later take hostages and leave 49 dead.
“He was trying to pick up people. Men,” Van Horn told The Associated Press late Monday outside the Parliament House, another gay club.
Van Horn, a retired pharmacist, said he met Mateen once, and the younger man talked about his ex-wife. But Van Horn said his friends soon “told me they didn’t want me talking to him, because they thought he was a strange person.”
Van Horn acknowledged that he didn’t know Mateen well, but said he suspects that the massacre was less about Islamic extremism and more about a man conflicted about his sexuality.
“I think it’s possible that he was trying to deal with his inner demons, of trying to get rid of his anger of homosexuality,” said Van Horn, who lost three friends in the shooting. “It’s really confusing to me. Because you can’t change who you are. But if you pretend that you’re different, then you may shoot up a gay bar.”
The Orlando Sentinel and other news organizations quoted other regulars from Pulse who said they had seen Mateen there a number of times.
“Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent,” said Ty Smith, who remembered seeing Mateen inside at least a dozen times.
Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, told CNN on Tuesday that he acknowledged enjoying clubs and nightlife, but she’s not sure whether he had any homosexual tendencies.
“He confessed to me about his past … that he very much enjoyed going to clubs and the nightlife, and there was a lot of pictures of him. … I feel like it’s a side of him or a part of him that he lived, but probably didn’t want everybody to know about,” she said.
Asked whether she thinks her ex-husband was gay, Yusufiy said: “I don’t know. He never personally or physically made any indications while we were together of that. But he did feel very strongly about homosexuality.” She added that it’s possible he hid feelings about being gay.