Two loud pops went off at the popular Pulse nightclub.
Most patrons thought it was part of the soundtrack on the DJ’s set list. Maybe it was a fire cracker, some assumed as they shrugged off the noise.
It would turn out to be the first shots of the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
It was 2:02 a.m., near closing time at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The music was still pumping with about 300 to 350 people inside, many of them hanging out with friends, meeting people and dancing. It was dark and loud like any nightclub. And it was Latin Night, which is the most popular day of the week at Pulse.
Andy Moss and his best friend were standing next to one of the doors of the club, having been there for about an hour and half. Initially they heard the loud bangs, which they thought was part of the music. But then he heard screams.
“We both looked at each other. What the hell is going on?”
Also in the building, Luis Burbano had been at the bar when the sound seemed jarring to him.
“Four shots — bop, bop, bop, bop — but for some reason, it was different,” he said.
It took a moment to sink in.
“No one put two and two together until the fifth and sixth [shot]. Between 10 and 20, that’s when everything really started getting real.” That’s when everyone in the room “did a domino effect, all to the floor,” Burbano said.
The spray of gunfire rang out in quick succession. One witness shot a video inside the club for nine seconds that had the sound of 12 gunfire shots.
People dropped to the floor, some let out bloodcurdling screams as they found bodies crumpled on the ground. Clubgoers scattered in different directions to find cover, separating friends in the chaos and panic. Patrons inside the club started texting their parents, their loved ones and pleaded for help: “They’re shooting.”
Christopher Hansen had been getting a drink at the bar when he heard the gunshots almost as if they were timed to the beat of the music. He “just saw bodies going down.” The barrage of the gunshots “could have lasted a whole song,” Hansen said.
He hit the ground on his fours to crawl to safety.
Early Sunday morning, Omar Mateen, 29, carried an assault rifle and a pistol into the packed Pulse club. He knew how to handle a gun, as he worked as an armed security guard and had a concealed carry permit.
He drove up to the club in a rental car and parked it right outside Pulse, according to police.
He started firing. When confronted by an armed officer working in security at the club and two officers, Mateen exchanged gunfire and holed up further into the nightclub. He began taking hostages.
By 2:09 a.m., it was clear what was happening. The nightclub posted on its Facebook page: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”
But many people were trapped in the nightclub, desperately looking for a way out.
Around 2:22 a.m., Mateen called 911. He told authorities that he pledged his allegiance to ISIS and also mentioned the Boston Marathon bombers.
Trying to escape
As Mateen made his declarations, clubgoers crouched in what hiding places they could find and made life-or-death decisions.
One person hid in the bathroom and said she survived by covering herself with bodies. A bartender was shot three times, but bolted out the door while bleeding heavily. Some entertainers hid in the dressing room and were only able to escape the building by crawling out when police removed the air conditioning unit.
Luis Burbano and his best friend ran to an employee access door after they realized the gunshots were “getting closer and louder and louder.” They dashed into a small side exit with about 20 to 30 other people crammed into the narrow “cabinet-looking” door. Burbano said he didn’t turn back to look at the gunman.
“I didn’t even want to look back. Why? To look at them, that’d be the last thing I would see, the last memory I have.”
A text message exchange emerged from a person who had been trapped inside the bathroom.
The individual texted: Mommy I love you
In the club they shooting
Trapp in the bathroom
Im gonna die
The mother responded: Calling them now.
U still there?
Answer your phone.
The person replied: Call them mommy
Im still in the bathroom
Im going to die
The texter went silent and was later listed as among those killed, according to CNN affiliate WESH.
Bloody, battered, but still helping each other
In desperate times, survivors found ways to help each other.
Ray Rivera, a DJ playing at Pulse late Saturday into Sunday, had been playing hip hop and reggae on the patio when he noticed everyone barrelling out from the club. He realized that a gunman was shooting in the club. Then two people – a man and a woman — dashed under his DJ booth to hide.
“The guy took off and the girl was down there panicking and I told her she needed to be quiet and as soon as there was a break in the shots, I pushed her and said, “Let’s go.'”
“I heard the shots getting closer and closer and at that point, I said, ‘It’s time to go.’ Everybody was — once it started happening — everybody kind of bailed and looked for a way out.”
Rivera and the woman bolted to safety.
Clubgoers, drenched in sweat and blood, carried the injured to safety, rendered first aid to each other and formed tourniquets using their shirts.
Joshua McGill, who was inside the club, helped a victim, who was riddled with multiple gunshot wounds, limp to safety. He didn’t know the man, but when they reached safety, they embraced each other.
McGill told him: “God’s got this. You’ll be OK.”
The unanswered phone calls
For three harrowing hours, the gunman took hostages as hundreds of police officers gathered outside the nightclub.
Around 5 a.m., the SWAT team triggered a controlled explosion and rammed an armored vehicle through the door.
The siege was captured by David Ward, who lives next door to Pulse. He overheard the police yelling, “Go, go, go.” A flurry of gunfire lasted for about ten to 12 seconds, he said.
About an hour after the siege, Orlando Police confirmed that the shooter was dead.
Throughout the ordeal, Ward saw survivors dashing through his yard.
“I noticed people running away through the yard, then they’d run back when they realize friends weren’t there.”
Survivors who couldn’t find their friends were distraught, including Andy Moss, who’s been calling his best friend’s cell phone, trying to reach him. They were separated in the chaos of the shooting.
“There’s no bullet that could ever break a friendship that you have with somebody,” he said.
Police entered the nightclub to find an eerie scene with 50 people dead, including the gunman. Amid the carnage, they called out: “If you are alive, raise your hand.”
One employee who had hid under the glass bar staggered out with the other survivors.
As officers walked through the scene of the massacre, they could hear the sound of the victims’ cell phones ringing as family members and friends called for their loved ones.
They started the long process of identifying the dead.
By Madison Park and Chandrika Narayan
CNN Executive Producer Christina Ginn and Jessica Schneider contributed to this story.