Survivors, first responders recount night of terror at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub

Posted at 4:06 PM, Jun 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-17 18:06:28-04

By Ray Sanchez


This is an account of what happened at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub on June 12. It is based on numerous interviews with survivors and first responders.

It was almost closing time. More than 300 revelers packed the patio and two large indoor sections of Orlando’s popular Pulse nightclub.

Under blinking strobes, dancers gyrated and swayed to salsa and hip-hop beats. It was almost 2 a.m. — time for last call. Shot boys were serving the final $5 skybombs.

Omar Mateen entered from the back of the building. He carried a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic assault-style rifle and a Glock 9mm pistol. He headed to the most crowded part of the club, the main bar area.

That’s where the slaughter began.

All around, hugs, laughter and last calls gave way to terror. The loud music and the darkness of the dance floor added to the confusion.

The rat-tat-tat of the rifle fire became more frequent. Glass shattered. People were running and screaming, trampling the wounded. They were dropping everywhere. The air was thick with the scent of burnt gunpowder and blood.

Pulse billed itself as the hottest gay club in Orlando. Now it is home to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

He went room to room, spraying bullets

The nervous whisper was heard again and again.

Shh, shh. Be quiet.

The staccato of semiautomatic fire had replaced the pounding musical beat. Club-goers tearfully prayed together under their breath.

They cowered in bathroom stalls. Blood oozed from the crush of bodies. Others crouched behind tables as bullets whizzed above their heads. They took cover in storage rooms. It was hard to be still. One woman survived by covering herself with bodies.

Mateen seemed at ease as he sprayed the cavernous club with bullets, muzzle flashes illuminating his face. He moved around like a man familiar with the place.

Despite an apparent aversion toward gays, Mateen had been seen at Pulse dozens of times over the years. Now, he went room to room, occasionally standing over the wounded to administer the coup de grace.

People poured out of the club onto the patio. The gunman took aim on the outdoor area. He stalked some of his victims.

A young woman emerged from the club, covered in blood. Mateen unloaded his rifle from a distance until she collapsed.

Samuel Maldonado took cover behind a table, next to a young woman who was screaming in fear. He jumped on her and covered her mouth to stifle her cries as the shooter inched closer.

Mateen reloaded but then suddenly turned around. He headed back inside the club. The shooting resumed.

Pieces of the floor exploded like shrapnel

The shots grew louder. They were getting closer. Under the barrage, pieces of the floor exploded like shrapnel.

After exchanging fire with an off-duty cop working security at the club and other officers who arrived on scene, Mateen retreated and barricaded himself in one of the bathrooms.

Norman Casiano had crawled into the bathroom and wedged himself into a handicap stall with more than a dozen people. He tried to dial 911 from his cell but got a busy signal. He dialed his mother but the call was disconnected. That night, more than 600 calls were made to the Orlando police and fire departments.

A man collapsed outside the stall door, in a pool of his own blood.

“Please don’t let this be where I go,” Casiano prayed.

He froze, certain the shooter was inches away. A figure loomed outside the stall.

There was the sound of a sinister laugh. Casiano was reminded of a movie villain. The laugh didn’t seem human; it was the sound of “pure evil.”

Mateen didn’t utter a word.

Another bloodcurdling chuckle. Then a bullet tore through the stall door.

“Please, please, please don’t shoot!” some pleaded.

“Please don’t do this. Let us go! We haven’t seen your face. We don’t know anything. Don’t do this!”

Unmoved, Mateen pointed his pistol over the stall and squeezed the trigger. Casiano was hit twice and fell over. Others around him were already dead.

Satisfied with the silence, Mateen left.

Trapped with a killer

It was Patience Carter’s first trip to Florida. Hours earlier, Pulse came up in a Google search of Orlando nightclubs. Now Carter and her friends were cowering in a bathroom stall. Mateen’s feet could be seen under the door.

For many, the bathrooms became a refuge from the killer.

In one bathroom, a hostage shot cell phone video while huddled inside a stall with more than a dozen others. The power was off. It was hot. Some of the wounded choked on their blood. A single cup of water was passed around to prevent dehydration. One hostage remained on the phone with police.

At one point, the gunman ordered some hostages out of the bathroom, only to shoot them when they ran outside.

Close to three hours passed.

At one point, Carter and others heard Mateen make one of three 911 calls, saying he carried out the killing spree “because he wants America to stop bombing his country.” Mateen’s parents are from Afghanistan. He was born in New York. He spoke of the need to stop the bombing in Syria and threatened more bloodshed.

Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS and claimed solidarity with the Boston bombers and other terrorists. He threatened to strap “bomb vests” on the hostages. He took the cell phones of some and warned others not to text anyone.

About two hours after he started the massacre, Mateen texted his wife, Noor Salman, asking if she’d seen the news. She responded with a text saying that she loved him. Salman tried calling her husband several times during the standoff but he didn’t answer.

While holed up in the bathroom, Mateen asked if there were African-Americans hiding in the stall.

Carter was afraid to speak up.

Someone else answered that there were six or seven.

“I don’t have a problem with black people,” Mateen said. “This is about my country. You guys have suffered enough.”

‘If you’re alive, raise your hand’

Outside, uninjured club-goers and bystanders tended to the wounded who had escaped, carrying them to safety and lifting them onto the back of a pickup truck. A triage area was set up at a nearby firehouse, the gunshot victims laid on the floor next to a fire engine.

Some angry survivors cursed at police officers, demanding that they storm the nightclub. Police waited three hours to assess the situation and prepare. As the hours passed, officers helped take out the wounded inside the club.

At 5:01 a.m., they set off a controlled explosion and used an armored vehicle to breach the walls.

Nearby residents felt their homes shake.

Carter heard three blasts, then the voices of officers telling people to move away from the walls. A broken pipe flooded the bathroom, the water mixing with pools of blood.

Officers met Mateen in the hallways between the bathrooms. He was shot and killed.

The first officers inside stepped gingerly over the sprawl of bloody bodies, calling out, “If you’re alive, raise your hand.”

All around, unanswered cell phones chirped incessantly — the heartbreaking sound of loved ones desperate for news.

Pulse’s TVs were still playing. The lights were blinking. And among the bodies, freshly poured drinks and food sat untouched.

CNN’s Madison Park, Catherine Shoichet, Tom Foreman, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Anderson Cooper contributed to this story.