ORLANDO, Fla. — With dozens of survivors of the massacre at a gay nightclub here still hospitalized, some of the wounded on Tuesday gave gripping accounts of terror and pain on a night that turned in an instant from joyous to deadly.
The survivors told of fleeing, hiding, using their phones to plead for help, watching friends die, and thinking that they would also die, as a man with an assault weapon and a handgun went through the Pulse nightclub, firing more shots than they could count. The slaughter early Sunday left 49 victims dead, in addition to the gunman, and 53 wounded — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
“The guilt of feeling lucky to be alive is heavy,” said Patience Carter, who was shot in the legs and saw her friend, Akyra Murray, killed. “I was begging God to take the soul out of my body because I didn’t want to feel any more pain, I didn’t want any more shots.”
More than 30 of the wounded remained in hospitals Tuesday, including at least six who were in critical condition. All of the dead had been identified, and most of the autopsies were completed.
As the injured and the doctors who treated them told their stories, the FBI continued looking into the actions of the gunman, Omar Mateen, 29, who died in a shootout with police, seeking evidence of a motive and any possible accomplices — in particular, whether his wife may have known he was planning the assault. The wife, Noor Zahi Salman, has told investigators that she once drove him to the nightclub, that she was with him when he bought ammunition, and that she tried to talk him out of mounting an attack, law enforcement officials said.
Mateen had voiced hatred of gays, minorities and Jews, and had claimed links to Islamist terrorist groups; during the siege at the nightclub, he declared allegiance to the Islamic State. But investigators were also looking into reports that he might have been gay himself.
In Washington, President Barack Obama on Tuesday reiterated that investigators had found no evidence that Mateen had actual contact with a larger terrorist group like the Islamic State.
“It is increasingly clear, however, that the killer took in extremist information and propaganda over the internet,” Obama said. He appears to have been an “angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalized,” the president said.
“These lone actors or small cells of terrorists are very hard to detect and very hard to prevent,” he said. “We are doing everything in our power to stop these kinds of attacks.”
Referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the president said: “I want to remind them that they are not alone. The American people and our allies, friends all over the world, stand with you and are thinking about you and are praying for you.”
There were about 320 people, most of them Latino, in Pulse shortly after 2 a.m. when Mateen entered with an assault weapon similar to an AR-15 and a semi-automatic handgun.
Angel Colon was exchanging goodbye hugs with friends when the shooting began, and like much of the panicked crowd he ran for the door. But three bullets hit his leg and he fell.
“I tried to get back up but everyone started running everywhere. I got trampled over, and I shattered and broke my bones in my left leg,” he said at Orlando Regional Medical Center, where he was being treated. “All I could do was just lay down while everyone was just running on top of me, trying to get to where they had to be.”
He heard more gunshots and screaming as the gunman apparently went to a back room and then returned.
“He’s shooting everyone that’s already dead on the floor, making sure they’re dead,” Colon said. “I look over, and he shoots the girl next to me. And I’m just there laying down, and I’m thinking ‘I’m next, I’m dead.’ So I don’t know how, but by the glory of God, he shoots toward my head but it hits my hand, and then he shoots me again and it hits the side of my hip. I had no reaction. I was just prepared to just stay there laying down so he won’t know that I’m alive.”
Then the killer traded gunfire with arriving police officers, retreating to another room. An officer entered, found Colon still alive, and dragged him through broken glass, cutting his back and legs, to the street and then to a nearby Wendy’s, where, he recalled, “there’s just bodies everywhere.”
“I wish I could remember his face or his name,” Colon said of the officer. “I’m grateful for him.”
Murray, 18, arrived in Orlando Saturday from Philadelphia with her friends, Carter and Tiara Parker, on a trip to celebrate her high school graduation, and they had just ordered an Uber car to take them back to their hotel when they heard a barrage of gunfire. Carter said that she and Parker fled the club, then realized Murray was not with them and ran back inside to get her.
By then, the way out was blocked, she said, and the three of them ran deeper into Pulse. Like a number of other people, including Angel Santiago Jr., they took shelter in a bathroom; several, including Carter and her friends, cowered in a large handicapped stall. She and Santiago told their stories to reporters Tuesday at Florida Hospital, where they were being treated.
“We just continued to hear gunfire, and I just remember thinking, ‘When is it going to stop?’” Santiago said. “It kept getting louder, closer, and I could actually start to smell, I don’t know, I guess it was gunpowder.”
Then the gunman entered, spraying the room with bullets, aiming primarily at the walls of the toilet stalls.
“He was shooting his machine gun, so we’re all scrambling around the bathroom, screaming at the top of our lungs,” Carter said. “People were getting hit by bullets, blood is everywhere.”
A bullet went through her right thigh, shattering the femur, and lodged in her left thigh; both of her friends were also hit. Lying on the floor in a spreading pool of blood, she looked under the divider into the next stall.
“I could see piles of bodies laying over the toilet seat and slumped over, and the bottom of the toilet was slumped over with handprints and blood,” she said. Turning her head in other directions, she saw more dead and wounded. “At that point, I was just like, `I really don’t think I’m going to get out of here.’”
Santiago was shot in the left foot and right knee, and the friend he was with was more seriously hurt. The gunman left the room, he said, and “we were just trying to be as quiet as possible because we didn’t want to attract him back to us.”
Unable to walk, Santiago dragged himself out of the bathroom, past prone and broken bodies, to the front room of the club, where he found police officers waiting. “I yelled, I said, ‘There are people shot, people who are killed in the bathroom, we need help,’” he recalled.
Mateen returned to the bathroom, and it was there, Carter said, that he called 911 to talk with the police, and she heard him pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. He said “that the reason why he’s doing this is because he wants America to stop bombing his country.”
Later, he addressed his victims directly, asking if any of them were black, explaining: “You know, I don’t have a problem with black people. This is about my country. You guys have suffered enough.”
He got angry when people’s cellphones beeped or rang, and demanded that people turn them over, she said, and he made comments like “we’ve got the snipers outside” indicating that he was not alone, or that he was talking with accomplices.
After a three-hour standoff, she heard explosions as the police started their final assault on the club, trying to blow a hole in an outer wall. His assault weapon had apparently jammed, she said, and he used the pistol to resume firing, shooting three people who lay on the floor. Someone — she did not know who — got between her and the gun, and was shot.
“It wasn’t for that person shielding me, I would have been shot, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Doctors at Orlando Regional Medical Center said they ordinarily would get some warning that wounded were coming, as well as information about the number of patients and their conditions. But not in this case, with a chaotic mass shooting scene just blocks away. Patients arrived in trucks and cars, and on foot, as well as in ambulances.
“We quickly got about five patients, and that was a lot for us, and we thought maybe that was going to be it,” said Dr. Kathryn Bondani. “And then they started lining up in the hallway.”
Forty-four patients were taken to the medical center, the region’s only trauma center, and nine of them died quickly. No other patients have died since that night.
Speaking of the six patients in critical condition, Dr. Michael Cheatham said, “I suspect that they will survive, but my concern is that they will have lasting harm from this, in terms of their functionality.”
On Monday night, thousands of people gathered on a grassy knoll in downtown Orlando for a candlelight vigil that was by turns defiant and melancholy.
“We have come together as a force here in Orlando that cannot be broken,” said Terry DeCarlo, executive director of the LGBT Center of Central Florida.
Mourners joined in the sports chant, “I believe that we will win.”
But moments later, during about 10 minutes of silence, tears flowed and embraces tightened as the crowd lifted candles into the air and a church bell tolled.
“Numb,” Elayane Merriwether, a 25-year-old bartender who lost a co-worker in the shooting, said of the city’s mood. “People just keep crying. People don’t know what to say to each other. I think a lot of people are still in shock.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported from Orlando, Fla., and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Eric Lichtblau from Washington, Mujib Mashal from Port St. Lucie, Fla., and John Eligon and Les Neuhaus from Orlando.