Approximately 20 people are dead inside Pulse, a gay nightclub, Orlando Police Chief John Mina said Sunday morning, just hours after a shooter opened fire in the club. At least 42 people have been transported for medical treatment, he said.
Police have shot and killed the gunman, Mina told reporters.
“It’s appears he was organized and well-prepared,” the chief said, adding that the shooter had an assault-type weapon, a handgun and “some type of (other) device on him.”
At least nine officers were involved in the shootout, Mina said. Several coroner vans were seen traveling toward the nightclub.
One officer suffered an eye injury when a bullet struck his Kevlar helmet, said Danny Banks, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Orlando bureau. The helmet saved the officer’s life, Banks said.
The shooter is not from the Orlando area, Mina said.
Orlando authorities said they consider the violence an act of domestic terror. The FBI is involved. While investigators are exploring all angles, they “have suggestions the individual has leanings towards (Islamic terrorism), but right now we can’t say definitely,” said Ron Hopper, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Orlando bureau.
Shooting, hostage situation
The shooting began around 2 a.m., and an officer who was working at the club responded, Mina said. The officer engaged in a shootout outside the club, after which the gunman ran into the club.
“That turned into a hostage situation,” Mina said.
Authorities were getting calls from people inside the club but away from the gunman, the chief said.
More police rushed to the scene and broke down a door with an armored vehicle, helping some 30 club-goers flee to safety, Mina said. At that point police shot and killed the gunman, he said.
CNN affiliate WKMG video captured clubgoers carrying injured people from the club.
“It’s just shocking,” said Christopher Hansen who was inside Pulse. He heard gunshots, “just one after another after another. It could have lasted a whole song,” he said.
“Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running,” the nightclub posted on its Facebook page shortly after the violence began.
Orlando police warned residents to stay away from the area, and urged people not to call their offices. They declined to provide the number of casualties, saying details will be available later. Bomb sniffing dogs are on the scene.
‘Just bang, bang, bang!’
Pulse describes itself as “the hottest gay bar” in the heart of Orlando. Hours before the shooting, the club urged party-goers to attend its “Latin flavor” event Saturday night.
Jovial, well-dressed crowds heeded the call in an event that turned into a nightmare.
“It was just, bang, bang, bang!” party-goer Hansen said of the gunfire.
Ricardo Negron Almodovar said he was in the club when the shooting started about 2 a.m. He barely escaped.
“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,” he posted on the club’s Facebook page.
“I am safely home and hoping everyone gets home safely as well.”
Anthony Torres, who was at the club with friends, said he heard shots as he hurriedly drove off.
“The shots did not sound like a regular handgun. It sounded like it was shooting repetitively and it wouldn’t stop,” he said.
“So we knew what it was and we left there pretty quick. It was over 70 cop cars that were arriving there … It happened so quick that people got separated from each other.”
Tearful relatives waited outside the club as lights from police cars flashed in the background. Some implored the media to help them get word on their loved ones.
‘Just a lot of people screaming’
The sound of gunshots echoed beyond the club.
Jose Torres was clocking in to work at a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street when he heard them.
“It was something that I never heard before,” Torres said. “I had to run inside the store, and I saw just a lot of people screaming, crying. Just screaming and coming out running like crazy.”
Torres said he ducked into the Dunkin’ Donuts and called 911 as several people dashed out of the club, bleeding. Police and SWAT teams rushed to the scene.
“They don’t let nobody in or out,” he said. “The SWAT team is inside there.”
FBI agents were also assisting at the scene, agency spokeswoman Amy Pittman said.
Authorities have conducted a controlled explosion near the nightclub, according to Orlando police.
Tom Fuentes, a CNN law enforcement analyst, said controlled explosions are used to breach a door or when a subject is barricaded in a room and police want to use a stun grenade to temporarily freeze their central nervous system.
Hospitals on lockdown
Authorities urged caution as police officers hovered nearby with weapons and dogs.
A few miles away, the Orlando Regional Medical Center was placed on lockdown, the hospital said in a statement. Only essential workers are being allowed access into the building.
Relatives looking for loved ones were instructed to go to the medical center’s north tower with identification. Hospital staff will escort family members with IDs to a family meeting area.
Arnold Palmer Hospital and Winnie Palmer Hospital were also placed on lockdown out of an abundance of caution, officials said.
The mass shooting occurred only a few miles from Orlando’s Plaza Live theater where 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie, who had appeared on NBC’s “The Voice,” was gunned down Friday night.