13 JUN 2016: A gunman wielding an assault-type rifle and a handgun opened fire inside a crowded gay nightclub early Sunday, killing at least 50 people before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers, police said. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

Authorities were investigating the attack on the Florida dance club as an act of terrorism. The gunman's father recalled that his son recently got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami and said that might be related to the assault.

The shooter called 911 shortly before the attack and referenced ISIS, FBI agent Ronald Hopper said.

At least 53 people were hospitalized, most in critical condition, officials said. A surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center said the death toll was likely to climb.

Witnesses described a chaotic scene at the ‘Latin Night’ when the gunfire began shortly before the club known as Pulse was to close.

“Some guy walked in and started shooting everybody. He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance,” said Jackie Smith, who had two friends next to her get shot. “I just tried to get out of there.”

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The suspect was identified as Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American citizen from Port St. Lucie, Florida, who had worked as a security guard. Mateen's ex-wife said his family was from Afghanistan but that her ex-husband was born in New York. His family later moved to Florida.

Mateen exchanged gunfire with 14 police officers at the club, which had more than 300 people inside.

At one point, he took hostages, Police Chief John Mina said. Around 5 am, authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the hostages.

Pulse posted on its own Facebook page around 2 am: Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running. Just before 6 am, the club posted an update: As soon as we have any information, we will update everyone. Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event. Thank you for your thoughts and love.

Legal weapons

In addition to the assault rifle, the shooter also had some sort of suspicious device, the police chief said

Mateen purchased at least two firearms legally within the last week or so, according to Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

State records show that Mateen had held a firearms license since at least 2011. It was set to expire in 2017.

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Interviewed by FBI

In 2013 Mateen had made inflammatory comments to co-workers, he was interviewed twice, Hopper said. He called those interviews inconclusive.

In 2014, Hopper said, officials found that Mateen had ties to an American suicide bomber. He described the contact as minimal, saying it did not constitute a threat at the time.

Mateen was a security guard with a company called G4S. In a 2012 newsletter, the firm identified him as working in West Palm Beach.

In a statement sent Sunday to the Palm Beach Post, the security company confirmed that he had been an employee since September 2007.

Authorities were looking into whether the attack was an act of domestic or international terrorism, and if the shooter acted alone, according to Danny Banks, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Authorities said they had secured a van owned by the suspect outside the club. Meanwhile, a SWAT truck and a bomb-disposal unit were on the scene of an address associated with Mateen in a residential neighbourhood of Fort Pierce, Florida, about 118 miles southeast of Orlando.

Shooting started

 

Club-goer Rob Rick said the shooting started just as everybody was finishing their drinks.

He estimated more than 100 people were still inside when he heard shots, got on the ground and crawled toward a DJ booth. A bouncer knocked down a partition between the club area and an area where only workers are allowed. People were then able to escape through the back of the club.

Christopher Hansen said he was in the VIP lounge when he heard gunshots. He continued to hear shooting even after he emerged and saw the wounded being tended across the street.

Relatives and friends, many in tears, gathered outside the hospital to learn the fate of loved ones and on Sunday there were long lines of people waiting to donate blood.

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Earlier killing in Orlando

The attack follows the fatal shooting late Friday of 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie, a YouTube sensation and former contestant on The Voice. She was killed after an Orlando concert by a 27-year-old man who later killed himself.

Vigilance and vigils

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, police departments across the country stepped up patrols in neighbourhoods frequented by the LGBT community.

In many cities, vigils were planned at LGBT community centres and other gathering spots to commemorate the victims in Orlando. In New York City, LGBT people and their allies converged on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in spontaneous reaction to the shooting. The Manhattan bar became a national symbol of gay rights after a 1969 police raid led to violent street riots.

In Los Angeles, after a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando the gay pride parade took place. However, Mayor Eric Garcetti said a heavily armed man who was headed to the pride parade had been arrested by Santa Monica police. James Wesley Howell, 20, of Indiana, armed with three assault rifles and chemicals used to make explosives. Police said they had found no evidence of a connection between the events.

Many gay bars added security measures, or considered doing so in the aftermath of the Orlando attack.

As a club owner this is our biggest fear, said Jesse Pandolfo, owner of WonderLust, which opened nearly a year ago in Jackson, Mississippi.

She said at least one armed security officer is on duty whenever the club is open - more if she expects a big crowd.

“We are family, and this is really hard for us to handle,” she said.

“It hits hard, really deeply, and it's scary and it's saddening.”

At eagleBOLT, a gay bar in Minneapolis, patrons watched big-screen TVs in silence as President Barack Obama denounced the Orlando shooting as an act of terror.

Political reaction

The President called the shooting an act of terror and an act of hate.

“The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live, he said. The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub - it is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”

He urged Americans to decide whether this is the kind of country they want to be.

Both presumptive presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reacted to the shooting.

Clinton offered a subdued response on Sunday morning, calling the attack “devastating news” on Twitter and sending thoughts to those affected. She tweeted the same message in Spanish. The attack took place during a Latin-themed night at the club.

In a later statement, she thanked first responders and law enforcement, “This was an act of terror,” she said, “we need to redouble our efforts to defend our country from threats at home and abroad” she also called for more stringent restrictions on guns.

“We need to keep guns like the ones used last night out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals,” she said, and repeated a call for stricter oversight of firearms, saying, “weapons of war have no place on our streets.”

Trump tweeted that he had predicted the attack and thanked supporters for giving him credit for his achievement.

“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance,” Trump tweeted on Sunday morning. “We must be smart!” He posted a similar statement on Facebook.

“Because our leaders are weak, I said this was going to happen – and it is only going to get worse,” Trump said.

He also called on President Obama to “immediately resign in disgrace!” because he did not say the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Obama called the assault “an act of terror,” but focused his remarks chiefly on the loss of lives.

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Florida Governor Rick Scott (2nd from left) and local officials in Orlando

Florida Governor Rick Scott rushed to Orlando, where he said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families and all those affected by this horrific tragedy. We are a strong and resilient state and we will devote every resource available to assist with the shooting in Orlando.”

 

 

 

 

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