The Orlando area woke up Sunday to the horrific news that a shootout had occurred at Pulse, a gay club just south of Downtown Orlando, where law enforcement said there were 50 dead and at least 53 injured. Because the club was holding a Latin night, many of the dead and injured are expected to be Latinos.
As of this writing, six victims have been identified, all of them Hispanic. And since half of the Hispanic population of Central Florida is Puerto Rican, the group is likely to figure, perhaps prominently, among the victims. The dead thus far are Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodóvar III, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capó, Juan Ramón Guerrero, Eric Iván Ortiz-Rivera and Peter O. González-Cruz.
The incident has been declared the worse shooting in American history – and certainly in Orlando, where just 24 hours earlier The Voice contestant Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by an assailant unknown to her at a theater east of Downtown Orlando. It was an Orlando weekend of unusual deadly violence.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Florida, a move that immediately opens up financial resources among law enforcement to be used in the investigation, which includes FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Orange County Sheriffs Office and the Orlando Police. The FBI identified the assailant as Omar Mateen, 29, of Port St. Lucie, about two hours from Orlando. He was killed in a gun battle with police inside the club, and is believed to have had terrorist ties.
Everybody Was Dancing
The shooting started about 2:05 a.m. Sunday just as the club, where over 300 people had gathered, was about to close. Many bar patrons at first thought it was part of the music or entertainment.
Francisco Hernández, 24, of Orlando was waiting outside the Orlando Police Department headquarters to hear word about his partner Paul Henry, 40, and told this account:
“I was dancing. We were all dancing in a little group. It was Latino night so they were playing reggaeton and hip-hop,” said Hernández crying as he told what occurred inside the club. “All of a sudden I heard four to five shots. Everybody just sort of toppled down and stayed on the floor. Then we heard more shots and everybody started running and ducking for cover. People opened up the exit doors leading to a hallway with thin paneling and everybody tried to knock it down. I fell and almost got trampled until I was able to stand up and run outside. I was looking for my boyfriend but I couldn’t go back.”
Hernández, who was born in Puerto Rico, was holding on to his partner’s drivers license to make sure it didn’t get lost. “We were together for about a month but knew each other as friends for about a year,” he said.
Meanwhile, Luis, 40, a Dominican who studied in Puerto Rico, was grazed by a passing bullet near his stomach and was covered with a blanket that Orlando Police gave him, he said, because he had given his shirt to another person to stanch a bleeding arm.
Trying to Pay His Tab
Luis, who lives in Kissimmee but didn’t want to give his full name, said he was paying his tab at the bar when shots rang out. Somehow he landed on the other side of the bar with two to three people on top of him, he recalled. “I was waiting to be shot or taken out. What else can I do?” Luis said.
He had just been to the movies with friends to see The Conjuring 2, a horror movie, when they decided to stop at Pulse off Orange Avenue because they were passing by, coming face to face with an all too real horror. He said his friend is fine but didn’t know the status other acquaintances at Pulse nightclub, which he hadn’t visited in three years.
Locked in the Bathroom
Two African-America women were walking toward Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC) to look for one of the women’s nephew who was at the club. The aunt, who said she was a member of the Justice-Logan family of Orlando, didn’t know if her nephew was “alive or dead.” The nephew called his mom after 2 a.m. to say he was holed up in the bathroom of the nightclub. According to the aunt, the mother could hear gunshots as her son was talking then the cell phone went silent. “I’ve been up since 3 a.m.,” the aunt said, trying to obtain information.
Blocks around Pulse nightclub were cordoned off as medical examiner vans and law enforcement took over the area. The nightclub is situated just blocks from ORMC, which is a Level 1 trauma center. Hospital officials said six trauma surgeons were called in during the night to tend to the injured.
The media set up camp at a Chipotle restaurant off Orange Avenue that couldn’t open for business because it is just a few blocks from the crime scene. There, law enforcement and elected officials briefed the press about every two to three hours.
The first press briefings comprised mostly law enforcement officials but by early afternoon city, state and federal elected officials were holding press conferences of their own before a press pool that had expanded to include national and international media.
Law enforcement spoke of a three-hour window – from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. – during which officers couldn’t enter the club because it was a hostage situation. At 5 a.m. police stormed the club and a gun battle ensued, killing the assailant Mateen. In addition to a handgun and a semiautomatic rifle with extra rounds, a “suspicious device” also was found with Mateen, according to the FBI, which declined to elaborate.
Minutes before the attack, Mateen called 911 to pledge his allegiance to Islamic State, according to law enforcement. It’s not clear how long Mateen may have been inside Pulse before he started shooting.
Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Orlando) said during an interview with public radio WMFE-90.7 FM that Mateen’s father said his son was incensed over seeing a gay couple kiss.