The gunman who opened fire inside a crowded nightclub here early Sunday morning, launching a rampage that killed 50 people and injured 53 others in the deadliest shooting spree in the country’s history, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before the attack, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
Authorities in Orlando said Sunday that the siege at Pulse, a popular gay bar and dance club, was quickly deemed an act of domestic terrorism. Police said that after a first round of gunshots at 2 a.m., the shooter took hostages for about three hours, until officers who went inside to rescue these people killed the gunman in a shootout. It was not immediately clear if the death toll included the gunman.
The gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, apparently made a 911 call before the attack identifying himself and pledging allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, according to U.S. law enforcement officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Mateen also made a reference to the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon during this call, officials said. Mateen was investigated by the FBI in 2014, but what triggered the probe and its scope were not immediately clear, officials said. The probe was closed the same year.
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Police had said earlier Sunday that 20 people were killed before saying that the toll was significantly higher. Until Sunday, the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech - which saw 32 people killed and 30 others injured - was the country’s worst mass shooting.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said that the toll from this latest mass slaughter could have been even greater, saying that a SWAT team “rescued at least 30 possible victims and brought them to safety.” Police said they were not able to say if all of the people killed or injured were shot during the initial burst of gunfire at 2 a.m. or during the shootout with police three hours later.
“It’s absolutely terrible,” Mina said during a news briefing. “Fifty victims in one location, one shooting, is absolutely one of the worst tragedies we’ve seen.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, officials said many things remained unknown, including:
▪ A possible motivation for the gunman and more about his background.
▪ The final death toll.
▪ Identities of all of the people killed and injured.
▪ A clearer timeline of what happened inside the club and when all of the victims were injured.
While authorities have not publicly identified the gunman, law enforcement officials and relatives on Sunday identified him.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was briefed Sunday and told that local law enforcement officials said the gunman had “declared his allegiance to ISIS.”
A U.S. official said that Department of Homeland Security reports being circulated to government authorities are “referring to local law enforcement reports saying the shooter pledged loyalty to ISIS and was heard praying in another language in the nightclub.”
Just after a husband and wife killed 14 people last December in a terror attack in San Bernardino, California, one of the shooters went on Facebook and pledged her allegiance to the emir of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Officials later said the posting was made on behalf of both attackers.
Ron Hopper of the FBI, the bureau leading the investigation, said Sunday they were still working to determine a motive. Hopper said officials were confident there were no additional threats.
Mateen’s ex-wife said that he was abusive, saying in an interview Sunday that he beat her repeatedly during their marriage. She said that during their brief marriage, Mateen, who was Muslim, was not very religious and gave no indications that he was devoted to radical Islam. (Mateen was from Fort Pierce, which is also where Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria, had lived in Florida.)
Mina said it appeared the gunman was armed with “a handgun and an AR-15-type assault rifle” and had additional rounds on him.
“We’re dealing with something we never imagined and is unimaginable,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (D) said during a news briefing Sunday.
Dyer said he had issued a state of emergency in the city and asked Gov. Rick Scott (R) to issue a similar order for the state. Scott said he was traveling to Orlando to meet with officials there.
Details about Mateen’s background and a possible motive were scarce on Sunday morning. His family is from Afghanistan, while Mateen is believed to have been born in the United States.
One relative said that Mateen’s family was in shock after being told on Sunday morning about his involvement. This relative said Mateen’s family was very sorry about what had happened.
“It appears he was organized and well-prepared,” Mina said at an earlier press conference.
“This is an incident that we certainly classify as a domestic terror incident,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said at the news conference. The FBI is involved in the investigation, authorities said.
“We had a crime that will have a lasting effect on our community,” Dyer said. “We need to stand strong, we need to be supportive of the victims and their families.”
An AR-15 is the civilian variant of the military M-16 rifle. It is one of the most popular weapons in the United States and can be customized with a variety of accessories including different grips and sights. A standard magazine for it carries about 30 bullets.
Pope Francis expressed deep “horror and condemnation” of the shooting on Sunday, according to the Associated Press. The White House said President Barack Obama was briefed on the incident Sunday.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the victims,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secreaty, said in a statement. “The President 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 that during the shootout with the gunman, one Orlando police officer was shot and saved by his Kevlar helmet.
Numerous people injured were taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center, which was locked down Sunday morning along with two other hospitals. OneBlood, a foundation with blood collection centers throughout the southeast, put out a call for donors after the shooting.
While many people sharing the call on social media reported that OneBlood is allowing all gay men who to donate - going against Food and Drug Administration guidelines - a spokesman for the foundation said that’s not true and that it was adhering to longstanding federal restriction on gay men from donating blood. (While the Food and Drug Administration recently updated its guidelines to allow men who have not had sex with another man within a year’s time to donate blood, the spokesman said OneBlood’s system hasn’t been updated to allow that yet.)
The horrific incident began as Saturday gave way to Sunday at the crowded club. Around 2 a.m., Pulse Orlando posted an urgent message on Facebook: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Within minutes of the shooting, police vehicles and a SWAT team descended on the club, which had more than 300 people inside as the shooting began.
“I was there,” Ricardo J. Negron posted on the club’s Facebook page several hours later. “Shooter opened fire @ around 2:00am. People on the dance floor and bar got down on the floor and some of us who were near the bar and back exit managed to go out through the outdoor area and just ran. I am safely home and hoping everyone gets home safely as well.”
An officer working at the club exchanged fire with the gunman, authorities said. It was then, according to police, that the incident developed into “a hostage situation.”
Authorities said the man was armed with an “suspicious device,” in addition to his guns, Mina, the police chief, told reporters.
About three hours after the initial reports of gunfire, the SWAT team launched a rescue operation and killed the gunman, authorities said.
“The decision was made to rescue hostages that were in there,” Mina said.
Police later reported that a sound heard at the club was a “controlled explosion.”
Jon Alamo told the Associated Press that he was near the back of the club when the gunman appeared near the front of the building.
“I heard 20, 40, 50 shots,” Alamo said. “The music stopped.”
Several neighbors from the quiet neighborhood around the club stood in clumps on the street on Sunday morning, hugging and consoling each other as many teared up as they came to terms with the idea that the shooting happened on their doorstep.
Joshua and Mary Zika live less than a block from the nightclub, and say they’ve never had any problems with the club before. “It might sound weird to have a nightclub in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Mary Zika said.
They say they didn’t hear any shots or notice anything out of the ordinary, because helicopters are often heard in the area due to the nearby hospital. Instead, they found out about it from the news, reading and watching in disbelief as they realized this had happened just outside their door.
Both said they were particularly appalled that the shooter had appeared to target this particular population.
“We’re proud of our gay community in Orlando,” Mary Zika said.
Rob Rick said the violence erupted as the night was winding down.
“Everybody was drinking their last sip,” he said.
Rick told the AP that he estimated more than 100 people were still inside when the shooting began. He hit the ground and crawled toward a DJ booth, he said. Some people managed to escape out of the back of the club after a bouncer knocked down a partition between the club area and a restricted area leading to an exit, he noted.
Mina Justice told the AP that her son, Eddie, texted her when the rampage began and asked her to call police.
From the AP:
“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.’”
The early-Sunday rampage followed the fatal shooting Friday night of a pop singer who was killed while signing autographs following a performance at an Orlando concert venue. Christina Grimmie, a 22-year-old singer who was a finalist on NBC’s show “The Voice,” died hours after being shot by a gunman who then shot himself, police said.