At about 2am on Sunday, June 12, around 300 party-goers at the gay nightclub known as the Pulse were wrapping up their night when Omar Mateen came along with an AR-15, and open fired on the crowd. In such tight quarters, the bullets could hardly miss. He shot at police. He took hostages.
When the gunfire finally stopped, he had killed 50 people and critically wounded dozens more. Thirty-nine were killed at the club, and 11 died at hospital, Mayor Buddy Dyer said. It has become the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Mateen, who law enforcement officials said had pledged allegiance to Islamic State in a 911 call around the time of the attack, died in a gun battle with SWAT team members.
Authorities immediately began investigating whether the assault was an act of terrorism. The gunman’s father recalled his son recently got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami and said that might be related to the assault.
Jon Alamo had been dancing at the Pulse for hours when he wandered into the club’s main room just in time to see the gunman. “My first thought was, oh my God, I’m going to die,” Alamo said. “I was praying to God that I would live to see another day.”
At least 53 people were hospitalized, most in critical condition. A surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center said the death toll was likely to climb.
The previous deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. was the 2007 attack at Virginia Tech, where a student killed 32 people before killing himself.
Mateen’s family was from Afghanistan, and he was born in New York. His family later moved to Florida, authorities said.
His ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, told reporters that her former husband was bipolar and “mentally unstable.”
Mateen was short-tempered and had a history with steroids, she said in remarks televised from Boulder, Colorado. She described him as religious but not radical. He wanted to be a police officer and applied to a police academy, but she had no details.
The couple was together for only four months, and the two had no contact for the last seven or eight years, she said.
A law enforcement official said the gunman made a 911 call from the club in which he professed allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The official was familiar with the investigation, but was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The extremist group did not officially claim responsibility for the attack, but the IS-run Aamaq news agency cited an unnamed source as saying the attack was carried out by an Islamic State fighter. Even if the attacker supported IS, it was unclear whether the group planned or knew of the attack beforehand.
Mateen was not unknown to law enforcement: In 2013, he was interviewed twice for comments he'd made to co-workers, said FBI agent Ronald Hopper, who called the interviews inconclusive. In 2014, Hopper said, officials found that Mateen had ties to an American suicide bomber, but the contact was minimal, and did not constitute a threat at the time.
Mateen purchased at least two firearms legally within the last week or so, according to Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance,” said Jackie Smith, who saw two friends next to her get shot. “I just tried to get out of there.”
At 2:09 a.m., Pulse posted on its Facebook page: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”
Mateen exchanged gunfire with 14 police officers at the club, and took hostages at one point. In addition to the assault rifle, the shooter also had a handgun and some sort of “suspicious device,” the police chief said. About 5 a.m., authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the remaining club-goers.
At first, officers mistakenly thought the gunman had strapped explosives to the dead after a bomb robot sent back images of a battery part next to a body. That prevented paramedics from going in until authorities determined the battery was something that fell out of an exit sign or a smoke detector.
President Barack Obama called the shooting an “act of terror” and an “act of hate” targeting a place of “solidarity and empowerment” for gays and lesbians. He urged Americans to decide whether this is the kind of “country we want to be.”
Across the country, police departments stepped up patrols in neighborhoods frequented by the LGBT community.