via USA TODAY:
A heavily armed assailant opened fire in a packed nightclub early Sunday, killing 50 people in the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history, authorities said.
Mayor Buddy Dyer said 53 wounded in the attack at Pulse Orlando, a gay club just south of downtown. A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY the suspect has been identified as Omar Mateen of Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Police Chief John Mina said the tragedy began at 2:02 a.m., when three police officers engaged the suspect in a gun battle outside the club. A hostage situation then took place inside, and a SWAT team was called in, Mina said. Police received updates from patrons trapped in the club, and decided to storm the club at about 5 a.m.
“Our biggest concern was further loss of life,” Mina said. “We exchanged gunfire with the suspect, and he was dead at the scene.”
Mina initially estimated the death toll at more than 20 people. Hours later the true scale of the horror was revealed. Mina said one officer was wounded and at least 30 people were rescued.
“Tonight our community witnessed a horrific crime… that will have a lasting effect on our community,” a solemn Dyer said.
FBI Special Agent Ronald Hopper said the case was being investigated as a possible act of terrorism, either domestic or international. It was not clear if the shooter acted alone, he said, adding that authorities were trying to determine if there was a connection with radical Islam.
“We do have suggestions that the individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology,” Hopper said.
A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY investigators were reviewing the attacker’s possible utterances to determine if he had a terrorist ideology or affiliation. The official, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of discussing such information, characterized the attack as “certainly’’ terrorism. It was not immediately clear whether investigators were aware of the attacker prior to the assault.
Investigators were interviewing members of Mateen’s family Sunday in an attempt to learn what may have prompted the assault, tahe official said.
NBC News reported that the attacker’s father indicated that Mateen recently expressed anti-gay sentiments, but the official told USA TODAY investigators were still reviewing a range of possible motivations. The official also said investigators were reviewing Mateen’s recent travels and contacts to learn more about possible preparations for the attack
Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, thanked law enforcement officials for their efforts and cautioned any rush to judgment.
“No one could have expected this, no one could have prepared for it, it could have happened anywhere,” a clearly shaken Musri said at a news conference. “It’s like lightening.”
He said the city and Muslim community “are heartbroken.”
Mina said the gunman was armed with an assault rifle, a handgun and some sort of unidentified device. Officers from multiple agencies and dozens of emergency vehicles responded to the scene. Orange County Fire and Rescue called for gurneys to move victims from the club.
Many of the casualties were rushed to Orlando Regional Medical Center, which was placed on lockdown.
“We can confirm this is a mass casualty situation. Support from local/state/federal agencies,” Orlando police tweeted about four hours after events began to unfold. Then, a short time later: “Pulse Shooting: The shooter inside the club is dead.”
The White House said President Obama was getting updates on the case from Homeland Security.
Mina said there was no indication that there was more than one shooter. A bomb squad was at the scene, and police reported conducting a “controlled explosion.”
Hours after the shooting, police were still trying to piece together what happened.
“Anyone who was at Pulse nightclub and was a witness please come to the Orlando Police HQ,” the department tweeted. “Any information you have could aid investigators in this case.”
Orlando police officers gather outside of the Pulse nightclub after a shooting involving multiple fatalities June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. Gerardo Mora, Getty Images
FBI Director James Comey has said in recent months that authorities had about 1,000 open investigations into homegrown violent extremists. The overwhelming number of those cases, authorities said, were suspects with alleged ties to the Islamic State.
June is Gay Pride month across the nation, and Orlando recently wrapped up its annual week-long Gay Days festival. Up to 150,000 in the LGBT community attended area theme parks, gay nightclubs and special events. It remains one of the largest gay pride events in the world.
Saturday night into Sunday the club was celebrating Latin Night. Club patron Christopher Hansen told CNN he heard what could have been 20 or 30 shots, setting off a panic as people scrambled for cover or raced for the exits. He said he helped a couple people who were wounded.
“It’s just shocking,” said Hansen, who crawled to safety. “I just saw bodies going down.”
As the tragedy was unfolding, Pulse Orlando posted to its Facebook page: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”
Rosie Feba, a witness, told the Orlando Sentinel she and her girlfriend were in the club near closing time when, “she told me someone was shooting. Everyone was getting on the floor. I told her I didn’t think it was real, I thought it was just part of the music, until I saw fire coming out of his gun.”
Feba told the Sentinel she her girlfriend ran out of the club and helped a man who had been shot get outside.
The Orlando Fire Department called for its bomb squad and hazardous material team to the scene after 3 a.m. ET. Police K-9 dogs searched the area around nearby Orlando Regional Medical Center with an armed deputy in head-to-toe military gear
A loud bang was heard before 5 a.m., but Orlando Police tweeted that it was the controlled explosion by law enforcement.
Ali Kurnaz, 25, told USA TODAY he was working in his living room about a block from the nightclub when he heard gunfire.
“I could hear multiple rounds of gunfire to the point where it scared my cats,” Kurnaz said. “They came running from a different room.”
Kurnaz said he heard sirens as multiple police cars headed to the crime scene and helicopters flying over his neighborhood.
In some tweets appearing to come from inside Pulse nightclub short after the assault, people said they were hiding. Twitter users also said they heard multiple gunshots.
The shooting spree came just one day after The Voice star Christina Grimmie was shot and killed after a concert Friday night at the Plaza Live Theater in Orlando. That gunman, identified as Kevin James Loibl, 27, of St. Petersburg, Fla., fatally shot himself after the attack.