It was Latin Night at Pulse nightclub, always one of the most popular dates on the club’s calendar. Just like any other Saturday night the music was booming as hundreds of young revellers danced into the early hours.
So when gunman Omar Mateen entered the club at 2.02am and began firing off rounds from his AR-15 assault rifle, few believed the noises to be anything out of the ordinary.
“You’re sitting there having a great time at a club and you hear what sounds like fireworks and balloons popping, and you assume it’s part of the show,” one clubgoer who escaped the carnage told reporters.
“And then you hear people start screaming, the sound doesn’t stop and people start falling, you realise it’s not a show any more. People were screaming and falling and the shots wouldn’t stop. You realise it’s not the celebration you thought it was.”
Many other survivors, such as Carson Wells, Christopher Hansen and Luis Burbano, were also all slow to comprehend what the sounds meant, or the horror that was already beginning to unfold all around them.
Wells, who was partying with a group of friends in a back room at the club when Mateen burst in, said: “It felt like it was part of the DJ mix that was playing, just part of the music.
“When I realised it wasn’t I just ran out of the back. I didn’t look back.” He said three of his friends were hit by bullets but none suffered life-threatening injuries.
Prior to the initial flurry of gunfire inside, Mateen had tangled outside the club with an off-duty Orlando police department officer working a security detail, exchanging shots with him and two other officers who quickly arrived at the scene.
Mateen headed back into the club and opened fire. Within minutes, a chilling post appeared on the club’s Facebook page, reading: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.” Guests were stampeding for the only door, or smashing windows, or fleeing to the bathrooms for shelter if they could not reach the exit.
Hansen was drinking in the gay club’s VIP lounge when he heard a “boom… boom… boom” and thought at first that it was the beat of the music. Then he realised it was gunfire “just one after another after another. It could have lasted a whole song”, he said.
Around him, people were falling to the floor, after being hit by bullets. “I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So I just dropped down. I just said, ‘Please, please, please, I want to make it out’.”
Amid the panic there were acts of great heroism. Edward Sotomayor Jr, known to his friends as Eddi, pushed his boyfriend to safety out of the door in front of him as he was himself shot in the back. Sotomayor, 34, died at the hospital.
Another of the victims, Stanley Almodovar, 23, walked out of a bathroom and was struck by three shots to his abdomen. He died after pushing other people out of the way to try to save them, his grieving mother was later told by an eyewitness.
Ray Rivera, the club’s music performer known as DJ-Infinite, sheltered a male and female clubgoer in his booth on the patio outside as they scrambled out of the club to avoid the flying bullets.
“From my DJ booth all I could see was bodies lying on the floor,” Rivera said.
Rivera shielded the woman and helped her to escape when the shooting stopped. By then, Mateen was holed up in a bathroom with somewhere between five and eight hostages, law enforcement later said. Another 25 or so clubgoers were trapped and huddled together in another room against the back wall of the club, while the bodies of scores more lay around elsewhere in the club.
There were countless other tales of more minor yet no less significant acts of bravery, such as Hansen, who said he saw “people shot, blood everywhere” when he crawled across the floor and out of the club. One woman, he thought, had spilled red wine on herself, before realising it was her blood.
He said he helped a man who was bleeding from a shot to the back. “I took my bandana off and I put it in a knot and shoved it in his bullet hole in his back,” he said. He then dragged the man to safety.
“Cops were yelling ‘Go, go. Clear the area, clear the area’,” he added.
The man who hid in Rivera’s DJ booth was Jon Alamo, who said he sprinted outside through a partition wall knocked through by bouncers, and then into the street when he thought it was safe. He was in the back of one of the club’s party rooms when the gunman strode in.
“My first thought was ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ I was praying to God that I would live to see another day. I heard 20, 40, 50 shots. Then the music stopped,” he said. Alamo helped others outside who were wounded.
Meanwhile, Burbano had just finished his last drink and signed his bill when the shooting started. “The DJ was playing a typical set that incorporated what we thought was gunshots as part of the music, four shots, pop, pop, pop, pop,” he said.
Related: ‘Everyone get out and keep running’: how the Orlando attack unfolded
“By the time it got to 20 to 30 rounds we were already trying to exit the side exitway behind the stage. It was very narrow. There was about 20 to 30 people trying to push themselves through a very small door and there was a huge gaping hole in the fence that looked like people had punched it and kicked it down.
“We started to realise [the shots were] getting closer and louder and louder. There was about a 10-second break where we didn’t hear any more bullets going off and that’s when we made a jet for the door. I didn’t even want to look back. To look at them, that would be the last memory I would have. That’s something I didn’t want to remember.”
Outside, Burbano said he took off his shirt and using it as a tourniquet on a badly wounded man with a shattered forearm and large gash in his side. He said he saw the clubgoer collapse in front of him as they tried to flee. “I said, ‘What are you doing? Get up, just get up’ and I grabbed him not realising his forearm was split in two.”
“People were pushing and shoving each other to get out. It was like cows at a slaughterhouse,” another survivor told reporters.
The 27-year-old man, who did not want to be named, showed off a bloody scratch across his stomach where he said a bullet had grazed him. The man said he was standing at the bar, paying his bill when the shooting started. He was carried across the bar by the weight of others rushing to escape, he said, and ended up underneath a pile of people.
When he was able to look up, he said, he saw about 20 bodies apparently dead or badly wounded on the floor around him.
He said he joined others in a rush to the door and found himself in the parking lot, having lost his shoes and shirt in the scramble to escape, he added.
As the panicked clubgoers fled, an eerie calm began to settle inside the club as hundreds of law enforcement officers surrounded the building. At 5am, after unsuccessful attempts by hostage negotiators to contact Mateen, commanders decided to end the siege by force. They sent in an armoured Bearcat SWAT team vehicle to knock down a wall, simultaneously setting off two flash devices as a distraction.
As some 30 people scrambled to safety Mateen came out shooting, police said, and was immediately killed when several officers fired at him.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report
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