The Commercial Appeal
50 die, 53 hurt in club tragedy
Shooter an IS supporter
ORLANDO — The 911 call came early Sunday, as the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history began.
The caller was a 29-year-old man, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group. He praised Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, after killing 50 people inside a packed Orlando, Florida, nightclub, engaged police in a gun battle outside and died in a hail of gunfire.
Federal authorities identified the shooter as Omar Mateen, a New York-born resident of Fort Pierce, Florida, who worked for the security firm G4S.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said 53 people were wounded at Pulse Orlando, a popular gay club just south of downtown.
“Tonight our community witnessed a horrific crime ... that will have a lasting effect on our community,” Dyer said. “We will not be defined by a hateful shooter. We will be defined by how we love each other.”
President Barack Obama called the massacre “an act of terror and an attack of hate.”
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said the tragedy began unfolding at 2:02 a.m., when three police officers engaged the suspect in a gun battle outside the club. A hostage situation then took place inside, and a SWAT team was called in, Mina said. Police received updates from patrons trapped in the club, and decided to storm the club at about 5 a.m.
“Our biggest concern was further loss of life,” he said. “We exchanged gunfire with the suspect, and he was dead at the scene.”
Eleven officers were involved in the final shootout, Mina said.
Mina said the gunman was armed with an assault rifle, a handgun and an unidentified device. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Mateen bought guns
legally within the last few days.
Mina said one officer was wounded and at least 30 people were rescued.
City Commissioner Patty Sheehan said the club had an armed officer at the door when the assault began, but that “there is only so much you can do.”
The suspect’s father, Mir Seddique Mateen, told NBC News on Sunday that he was shocked by the news, but that his son had expressed anti-gay sentiments recently. The father said the attack “had nothing to do with religion.”
G4S issued a statement expressing shock and sadness at the “unspeakable tragedy.” The firm said Mateen had been employed since Sept. 10, 2007, and that G4S was cooperating fully with the investigation.
Supporters of the Islamic State group lauded the attack on social media. The militants’ news agency, Amaq, said the attack was carried out by an Islamic State fighter. It was not clear, however, if Islamic State leaders had any prior knowledge of the attack.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Orange County. “You don’t want this to happen anywhere in the world,” he said. “It’s devastating when you see how many people lost their lives and the impact on the families.”
Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, thanked law enforcement officials for their efforts and cautioned against any rush to judgment because the alleged killer was a Muslim, according to media reports.
“No one could have expected this, no one could have prepared for it, it could have happened anywhere,” Musri said at a news conference. He said the city and Muslim community “are heartbroken.”
Club owner Barbara Poma said she was “devastated” and expressed condolences to all who lost loved one.
Many of the casualties were rushed to Orlando Regional Medical Center, which was placed on lockdown. The process of identifying the victims and notifying families was underway, and a city website was slowly compiling the names of the victims.
Thirty-nine of the dead were killed at the club, and 11 people died at hospitals, Dyer said.
Most of the 53 people hospitalized were in critical condition, and a surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center said the death toll was likely to climb.
Jose Honorato was desperately awaiting news about his brother Miguel, 30, who was at the club with three friends. The friends were safe, but Jose struggled to determine if Miguel was at one of several hospitals treating the wounded or was one of the bodies lying dead in the club.
“My brother’s wife called me looking for him after she heard the news,” he said. “I called his cell phone and he would not answer.”
Adeliz Lopez said she just learned her cousin, Ilka, is in critical condition after being shot eight times. Ilka went to Pulse for Latin Night, but what was supposed to be a fun evening of dancing ended in a nightmare, she said.
“I’m devastated,” Lopez said. “There is so much hate in people’s heart.”
Authorities were looking into whether the gunman acted alone, said Danny Banks, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The shooting spree came just one day after “The Voice” star Christina Grimmie was shot and killed after a concert Friday night at the Plaza Live Theater in Orlando. That gunman, identified as Kevin James Loibl, 27, of St. Petersburg, Florida, fatally shot himself after the attack.