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‘It was just complete chaos’: Orlando massacre survivors on the desperate struggle to stay alive

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/06/2016 Peter Holley, Joel Achenbach

It was about 2 a.m., closing time at Pulse. Last call had come and gone. Saturday night had become Sunday morning. But the dance floor remained crowded, with hundreds of sweaty men and women packed into Orlando’s most popular gay nightclub, a low-slung building at the corner of W. Esther Street and S. Orange Avenue.

“Reggaeton – Bachata – Merengue – Salsa” an advertisement on Pulse’s Twitter account had promised. This was “Latin Night.”

The club’s DJ, Ray Rivera, suddenly heard a sound, a pop-pop-pop, and thought it sounded like firecrackers. He lowered the music and then heard it again. “I turned the music off and basically everyone was just running out,” he told the Orlando Sentinel. “It was just complete chaos.” He took cover behind the DJ booth, then fled out the back.

One of the club patrons, Chris Hansen, who’d just moved to Florida a couple of months earlier, thought the popping sound was part of the music. “It went with the beat almost,” he said later.

A man with a long gun, an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle, was shooting people. Witnesses described dead bodies littering the ground and people trampling over one another in their struggle to stay alive.

At 2:09 a.m., someone posted a frantic message to Pulse Orlando’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.”

What happened early Sunday morning Orlando was the latest example of soft-target terrorism, targeting civilians in locations with minimal security and many potential victims.

The lucky ones were near the exits. But the club was never designed for such a horrifying moment. Alex Choy, a former club employee, told the Miami Herald that the club has two main rooms, one for performances and drag shows to the left of the front door, and a larger dance room to the right that links to an outdoor patio. “It’s a very, very small space,” he said. “If there was any type of shooting, it wouldn’t take much to get everyone. Very close range.”

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Hansen, the club-goer who had mistaken the gunfire for music, told the AP that he escaped through the back of the venue by crawling on his elbows and knees.

“When I got across the street there was blood everywhere,” he said. “I was helping somebody because he was laying down and I wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive. I took my bandanna off, I shoved it in this hole, the bullet hole that was in his back.

“After everybody was out, the shooting was still going and the cops were still yelling, ‘Go! Go! Clear the area, clear the area!’” he added.

“I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said. “So I just dropped down. I just said, ‘Please, please, please, I want to make it out.’ And when I did, I saw people shot. I saw blood. You hope and pray you don’t get shot.”

An officer working at the club exchanged fire with the gunman, authorities said. It was then, according to police, that the incident developed into “a hostage situation.”

Within minutes of the shooting, police vehicles and a SWAT team descended on the club.

“I was there,” Ricardo J. Negron posted on the club’s Facebook page several hours later. “Shooter opened fire @ around 2:00am. People on the dance floor and bar got down on the floor and some of us who were near the bar and back exit managed to go out through the outdoor area and just ran. I am safely home and hoping everyone gets home safely as well.”

After news of the violence spread, friends and family members began the desperate search for news of their loved ones. Standing outside the dance club early Sunday morning, Mina Justice told the Associated Press that she was trying to contact her son, Eddie, and feared the worst.

He had texted her earlier, she said, telling her that he ran into a bathroom with others to hide from the gunman.

“He’s coming,” her son’s text said. That was at 2:39 a.m.

Then the young man wrote: “I’m gonna die.” It was unclear Sunday whether he was one of the casualties.

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12:  FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse Nightclub where Omar Mateen allegedly killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The mass shooting killed at least 50 people and injuring 53 other Orlando nightclub shooting: At least 49 dead

Another man, Jeff Xcentric Lords, posted on Facebook that he’d been shot. “losing blood, love u all…” he wrote. His status, too, remained unclear Sunday.

Tony Torres, another patron, ran outside and soon posted a video on Facebook showing at least a dozen police cars, sirens wailing, lights flashing, with a helicopter overhead shining a spotlight on the crime scene. “Get back!” police can be heard shouting. Torres can be heard saying, “We barely made it out. That is crazy.”

A Snapchat video obtained by WESH-TV recorded more than 20 shots fired in just 9 seconds, while a man, sounding inebriated, can be heard saying, “Oh my god, people are getting shot, dude” as a woman screams in the background.

A woman identified as Christine Leinonen raced to the scene at 4 a.m., trying to find her 32-year-old son, Christopher, who she said had been in the club. He remained missing.

“These are nonsensical killings of our children,” she said, sobbing. “They’re killing our babies!”

The nightmare lasted for three full hours, until 5 a.m., when SWAT teams stormed the club. Authorities said 11 police officers and three sheriff’s deputies engaged the gunman in a shootout.

At 5:53 a.m., Orlando Police posted a bulletin: “Pulse Shooting: The shooter inside the club is dead.”

News reports remained sketchy at first as police worked a complicated and potentially dangerous crime scene. They didn’t know how many bodies they were dealing with. About 20, police thought initially. It was much worse than that. The bodies lay there for much of Sunday while families waited for news.

By late morning the death toll had risen to 50, with another 53 people wounded, many of them fighting for their lives. Of the dead, 39 had died inside the club, two outside and the rest at hospitals or on the way there.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina told reporters that even veteran police officers and members of the SWAT team struggled to wrap their minds around the bloodbath. “Just to look into the eyes of our officers told the whole story,” he said. “You could tell that they were all shaken by this incident, by what they saw inside the club.”

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