Wednesday 20 September 2017

Orlando massacre: Police ended siege as killer said he had a suicide vest

'Dozens of lives' were saved when police demolished a wall and clubbers escaped

Emotional family members of the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting leave a family reunification center set up at the Beardall Senior Center,
Emotional family members of the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting leave a family reunification center set up at the Beardall Senior Center,
Julissa Leal displays a cellphone image of her missing brother, Frank Hernandez, as she speaks with the media outside a family reunification center

Harriet Alexander

Police ended the three-hour siege at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando after Omar Mateen told them he was wearing a suicide vest, officers said yesterday as they disclosed fresh details of America's worst mass shooting.

Mateen (29) was in contact with a 911 emergency call operator three times by telephone, as well as talking to crisis negotiators while he was holed up in a lavatory with several hostages.

Luis Vielma in his Hogwart’s tie, as tweeted by JK Rowling
Luis Vielma in his Hogwart’s tie, as tweeted by JK Rowling

During his last contact, he claimed to be wearing a bomb vest and police decided to batter down a wall with a BearCat armoured vehicle, freeing trapped hostages and killing Mateen as he emerged to make his last stand.

Latin Night was winding down at the gay club when Mateen entered at 2.02am local time on Sunday and fired 110 rounds of ammunition.

It is thought that is when the majority of the fatalities and casualties were shot.

An off-duty policeman working in as a security guard at the club then exchanged fire with Mateen and other officers were quickly on the scene, enabling dozens of clubbers to escape.

People gather in the Castro District for a vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club, in San Francisco, California,
People gather in the Castro District for a vigil for the victims of the Orlando attack against a gay night club, in San Francisco, California,

Seven minutes into the attack, Pulse posted a message on Facebook which read: "Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running."

Mateen, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and a handgun, appears to have continued shooting for 45 minutes.

Clubbers trapped in a toilet area were texting relatives until 2.51am, begging for help and saying "he's coming" before they too were killed.

Mateen then retreated to one of the club's toilets with four to five hostages, while around 15 to 20 more hid in another.

A Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) team moved in and took up a position in a lavatory opposite the one where Mateen was holed up. For the next two hours, negotiators and 911 operators tried to avoid further loss of life.

Orlando's police chief, John Mina, said Mateen "didn't ask for much. We were doing most of the asking". He described the gunman as "cool and calm", said the situation "stabilised" and that there were no more shots.

Read more: Gunman had been investigated and cleared by FBI on two occasions

During his final call to 911, Mateen pledged allegiance to Isil and told the negotiators he had a bomb vest and explosives.

He also claimed a connection to the Tsarnaev brothers, who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. It was then, shortly before 5am, that the talks "became a crisis for us", said Mr Mina.

"There was a timeline given (by Mateen) and we believed there was an imminent loss of life." The Swat crews were given the go-ahead to use explosives to breach the lavatory wall, but they did not penetrate far enough, so the BearCat was brought in to punch a 3ft-wide hole through the side of the building.

Dozens of clubgoers fled through the hole, said Chief Mina. "We believe we saved many, many lives," he added.

Eleven officers went into the building and there was one final gun battle with Mateen, who eventually emerged through the hole in the wall, where he was shot dead. His claim of having explosives had been a bluff.

Once Mateen had been killed, police began scouring the building for survivors among a mass of bodies on the dance floor and in other rooms.

"Raise your hand if you're alive," they shouted. Several survivors emerged from underneath the bodies, having played dead and deliberately hidden under corpses to fool the gunman.

At least 30 people were found alive, including those who had escaped when the wall was smashed down.

Explosives

A total of 49 people were killed, with a further 53 injured, including some with "multiple high-velocity gunshot wounds", although doctors at local hospitals said they were "very optimistic" that the death toll would not rise.

Among the dead was Luis Vielma (22), who worked at Universal Studios' 'Wizarding World of Harry Potter' attraction. JK Rowling, the 'Harry Potter' author, tweeted a picture of Vielma in a Hogwarts school tie, and said: "I can't stop crying."

Josh Boesch, who worked with Vielma, told the 'Orlando Sentinel': "He was always a friend that you could call. He was always open and available."

It took until 11pm on Sunday night for all the bodies to be removed, meaning that many families had to wait 24 hours to hear the terrible news that police had identified their loved ones.

Vigils were held in the US and around the world yesterday. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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