Police arrive with sirens blasting, grabbing automatic weapons from their cruisers and rushing toward the sound of automatic gunfire.
Hordes of young people pour out of a dimly lit nightclub, panicked and afraid, some carrying injured friends. An officer slumps to the ground after a bullet strikes his Kevlar helmet. He is alive, but dazed and bloodied.
“I probably got about 20 gunshot victims,” another officer can be heard saying. “They’re going to need a lot of people.”
“Come out with your hands up or you will die!” a man screams between blasts of gunfire.
The chaotic scenes — and the wrenching sounds that accompany them — could have been lifted from the climax of a harrowing action movie.
In fact, they come from 15 hours of body-camera footage published by the Orlando Sentinel this week after the paper filed a public records request with the city of Orlando.
The 30 videos offer an intimate and alarming window into the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016, which left 49 people dead and injured another 53 — making it the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
The Sentinel referred to the footage as “the most complete picture of what happened during the three-hour standoff.” The paper noted that none of the people who were killed that night are visible in the redacted footage.
The shooting began when a gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State opened fire inside the crowded gay bar and dance club, mowing down clubgoers at random. Some people were able to scramble out a back entrance, but many others were trapped inside.
The shooter — 29-year-old Omar Mateen — held others hostage during a three-hour siege that ended when police stormed the building and killed him.
“Witnesses described scenes of horrific carnage,” The Washington Post reported at the time. “Victims flooded local hospitals with gunshot wounds to their chests, legs and arms. Some had their calves and forearms blown off, doctors said. Police said the toll could have been even greater had a SWAT team not rescued 30 people and shepherded them to safety. Many of the victims were Latino; the club was celebrating ‘Latin Night.’”
Much of the chaos that unfolded at Pulse is visible in the body-camera footage, which captures the desperate effort to rescue survivors and take down Mateen.
The footage shows officers trying to help terrified survivors while simultaneously maintaining their own security by patting them down and looking for weapons.
“Hands up, both hands, put your hands up,” an officer can be heard telling one victim as he attempts to lead the man out of a bathroom to safety, according to the Sentinel. “Follow the sound of my voice. Come this way. Show me your [expletive] hands! … I need you to crawl this way. … Follow my light.”
In another scene, the newspaper reported, Belle Isle Police Officer Brandon Cornwell takes cover behind a bar as officers fire at Mateen and instruct him to come out “with his hands up.”
As the standoff continues, Cornwell can be heard saying a prayer.
“Lord Jesus, watch over me,” he said.
Cornwell is later heard telling another officer how close officers came to shooting Mateen on one occasion, according to the Sentinel.
“I couldn’t see the guy,” he said. “He came out of the left bathroom and we were stacked up, and the guys that were up front just started shooting right at him. And he went back into the bathroom. As soon as he came out, I saw like a dark-colored shirt … and about that time they started firing at him, but I couldn’t open up on him.”
And yet, even with clear shots, the footage makes clear that taking out the shooter was never a simple proposition for police, as Belle Isle Police Officer Jon-Paul Gargano told a woman he encountered sitting on a sidewalk near the nightclub.
“Y’all gonna [expletive] shoot his [expletive]?” the woman asked Gargano, according to the Sentinel.
“We can’t, ma’am,” he replied.
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“We can’t; there’s more victims in there. We start to shoot, we might shoot other people,” Gargano said before returning to the nightclub.
“[Expletive] go in there and shoot his [expletive], man,” she called after him.