This story was reported by Laura Figueroa, Víctor Manuel Ramos and Henry Pierson Curtis. It was written by Figueroa.
They ran, they crawled, they cried.
In a desperate attempt to escape the barrage of bullets sprayed from a gunman’s AR-15 rifle, some scrambled for cover behind the bar inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Others sought protection in bathroom stalls. In seconds, an evening of dancing, laughing and mingling inside a nightspot catering to the area’s gay community became a horrific fight for survival as gunman Omar Mateen, 29, fired off round after round, turning the popular club into a blood-splattered killing field.
When it was over at dawn Sunday, the level of carnage left behind from one man’s military-grade weapon was hard to fathom: 50 dead, 53 wounded and authorities counting the massacre as the deadliest in the nation’s history.
Mateen, felled by a police officer’s bullet, lay dead in the club along with those he killed and maimed.
Just before Mateen entered the club at about 2 a.m., most of those inside were winding down after dancing to the rhythmic beats of bachata, merengue and salsa as part of the venue’s popular Latin Night. When the first gunshots pierced the air, many patrons mistook the loud bursts for part of the music blaring from club speakers overhead, or maybe fireworks.
Ray Rivera, the club’s DJ, told reporters he sought protection from behind his booth as the gunfire intensified.
“All of a sudden I heard a sound that sounded like firecrackers, I thought someone was playing a joke and then I kind of lowered the music, stopped for a second and then it went again, so at that point I hid behind the little DJ booth that I had,” Rivera said. “Then it started going real fast, like it was constant.”
Clubgoer Rob Rick said “everybody was drinking their last sip” when Mateen started firing.
Rick said he got on the ground and crawled toward the DJ booth. A bouncer knocked down a partition separating the club from an area for employees, Rick said, allowing him and others to escape out the back.
Before somehow escaping the club, Jackie Smith said, she saw two friends gunned down.
“He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance,” Smith said.
On the club’s Facebook page, a chilling warning was posted.
“Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”
Outside Orlando Regional Medical Center on Sunday night, most of the relatives who had just visited with injured family members were not ready to talk. The few willing to speak expressed relief that their loved ones were spared.
Gloria Vargas, a Miami resident, said in Spanish that her daughter, Michele, 27, was among the first shot by Mateen because she was near the entrance. She was hit in the ribs and the small intestine, Vargas said.
Her daughter was intubated and unable to speak but wrote to Vargas that she pretended to be dead. The gunman waited to see whether she would move. When she didn’t, he moved on to shoot others, Vargas said her daughter wrote.
“She said everything happened really fast after that,” Vargas said. “Initially I was filled with frustration and anguish but then comes anger, because these are good young people, many of them college students . . . who weren’t bothering anyone. It’s difficult to understand why fanatic people would pick on them.”
Mina Justice said her son Eddie texted from inside a bathroom where he and several others hid out.
“He’s coming,” her son’s text read. And then another, laying plain the terror unfolding.
“He has us, and he’s in here with us.”
It was the last conversation Justice would have with her son, she told reporters outside the club Sunday, as she showed them the string of text messages. Justice said she had no idea whether her son made it out alive.
Anthony Rivera, 39, counted himself among the lucky ones, having learned that his friend, Felipe Marrero, survived the shooting.
“Thank God he’s alive,” Rivera told Newsday outside of a meeting organized for relatives in Orlando. “He was shot from the back and the bullet went through and came out the other side,” leaving his friend in critical but stable condition.
Rivera saw Marrero at the nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center and said his friend was intubated and couldn’t speak, but was conscious.
“We just have to wait for this nightmare to be over,” Rivera said. “Our society is very sick and some people are filled with hate. I don’t know why.”