Did gunman have bombs or an accomplice? Captain says questions made SWAT team use caution
As the hours ground on and the death toll mounted, Orlando Torres wondered when the police would come to rescue him and others trapped by the gunman who had stormed the Pulse nightclub.
The 52-year-old would later recall thinking, “What’s taking them so long?”
The question has been asked by many in the days following the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Omar Mateen launched his attack on the gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., around 2 a.m. Sunday, yet the ordeal didn’t end until three hours later.
But police insist that during those three hours, they were rescuing clubgoers and employees and trying to assess whether the gunman’s boasts — he claimed to have an explosive vest — were real. In an interview, the commander of the Orlando Police Department SWAT team described the challenges they faced and how they made key decisions that morning.
“Officers were running inside and grabbing people and throwing them in pickup trucks” to be taken to hospitals, said Capt. Mark Canty of the SWAT team. “There was never a time we were sitting there twiddling our thumbs. My guys were doing things from the beginning. We weren’t just sitting idly by. We were doing what we needed to do to save lives.”
Canty happened to be awake when he got the call about what was happening at Pulse. He was on the phone with a lieutenant, discussing a carjacking the SWAT team had responded to the day before. The suspect had fled and holed up with two hostages in an apartment. Canty’s team rescued the hostages and arrested the carjacker.
But the scene Canty confronted when he arrived at the nightclub at 2:45 a.m. was far more complicated, as was the standoff that would play out over the next two hours. In the end, 50 would die, including the gunman, and an additional 53 would be wounded.
“This has been called an active-shooter situation, and it started off that way. But it became a barricaded person, and the tactics are different,” Canty said Friday. “We have to step back and position ourselves to contain him and assess what is the best way to enter the building.”
An off-duty police officer working as a security guard had traded gunfire with the shooter at the entrance to the club and called for backup.
It’s not clear why the off-duty officer didn’t pursue the gunman into the club, Canty said, but it’s not surprising.
“That officer is by himself and doesn’t know how many people are involved. The guy is obviously armed with more advanced weaponry,” Canty said. Mateen had a handgun and a Sig Sauer MCX assault-style rifle.
Some patrol officers responded to the call and traded gunfire with the shooter at the front of the club, Canty said.
“That’s kind of what drove him into the bathrooms, and that allowed the officers to come in and remove some people who were inside from the main part of the club,” he said.
One officer was grazed by a bullet that struck his Kevlar helmet, and a photograph of the green helmet — with its scuffed surface and bullet hole — soon became a familiar image from the attack. The officer wanted to stay on the scene, but fellow members of law enforcement forced him to get medical attention, Canty said.
I know people thought during that three-hour period we were just waiting. We were actually trying to rescue people.
— Mark Canty, SWAT commander for the Orlando Police Department
After the gunman retreated to the rear bathrooms, where more than 20 patrons had crammed themselves into the stalls, Canty and other police began to position themselves outside the darkened building.
They considered smashing through a wall to reach the hostages.
“We had been discussing the breach from shortly after I got there just because we realized it was going to be difficult to get to the hostages from the interior,” he said.
An Orange County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office bomb squad was on the way, and Canty asked the commander to prepare an explosive to break through the club’s walls. “None of my officers are trained to deal with those type of explosives,” he said.
But he said they didn’t sit around waiting.
Some of the 44 SWAT team members replaced patrol officers stationed around the club in case the shooter emerged. They couldn’t hear the gunman or those trapped inside, Canty said, but dispatchers could.
“People inside were calling, texting their friends. They were calling dispatch, and they were relaying that to us,” he said. “I know people thought during that three-hour period we were just waiting. We were actually trying to rescue people.”
And they did.
“There was a group in a dressing room. They were kind of isolated from where the shooter was, and we were able to get them out a door on the north side of the building,” Canty said. Outside, officers helped punch holes in a fence so people who had reached a patio could escape.
The club manager was in touch with employees trapped in another dressing room with an air conditioning unit in the wall. “We were able to get that air conditioning unit out and get them out,” he said. About a dozen people were freed from the two dressing rooms.
As the hours ticked by, Canty grew worried. The gunman was talking to a negotiator, but he was also checking Facebook, texting his wife and calling a local television station. Canty heard radio traffic that the gunman had made calls to 911 to say he’d “pledged allegiance” to terrorist groups “and he had made his peace with Allah.”
Explosives were a major concern. The gunman claimed that a female accomplice armed with a bomb was playing dead among the victims and that he had snipers stationed nearby, hostage Richard Aiken texted a friend, who alerted police.
“Are we going to be able to get them out of there?” Canty said he wondered. “Is there some explosive in there that’s going to detonate and kill all the people in there and my officers that are there?”
Normally, he said, “when you know there’s a bomb, the smart thing to do is back away like 1,000 feet.” But his team wouldn’t budge.
“Even if I had given them an order, I don’t think I could have dragged them away from their positions,” he said.
Shortly before 5 a.m., the gunman called 911 with a threat.
“He talked about putting vests on the hostages and sending them out to the four corners of the club,” Canty said. Mateen claimed to have a vest for himself too, according to the police chief. And the gunman said he’d take action in 15 minutes.
“Considering what has gone on in San Bernardino and Paris, you’re thinking the worst case,” Canty said. “We had started prepping [an explosive] charge. We were getting ready as quickly as we could.”
When Mateen made the call, Canty was at the command post a few blocks from the club with Orlando Police Chief John Mina. They reviewed the plan to rescue the hostages, and Mina made the call to use the explosive to break through a wall of the club.
In the bathrooms, Aiken, 29, heard police on a loudspeaker: “Move as far away from the walls as you can.” He said the gunman then started shooting again.
The first explosion didn’t quite break the wall, so the SWAT team used an armored, Humvee-style BearCat vehicle to ram it, Canty said.
“The hole was in the wrong spot. It was in the hall between the two bathrooms. So they attempted to make a second hole,” he said.
When officers heard gunshots inside, they hurled in some nonlethal explosive flash-bang devices to divert the shooter and then rammed the wall a few more times, finally breaking into one of the bathrooms where the hostages were trapped with the gunman.
That’s when they faced off with Mateen.
“He starts coming out of the first hole, and that’s where he engages the officers in gunfire,” Canty said. Ten SWAT team members opened fire and killed the shooter.
The team freed more than 20 hostages, helping those who could not walk. Still uncertain whether the gunman had acted alone, officers quickly searched the group for weapons. Concerned that Mateen might have explosives strapped to his body, officers sent a robot to inspect the corpse.
Canty said the rescue showed why police increasingly invest in military-style equipment like the BearCat. He said his team followed “accepted tactics” and did all it could to help those trapped inside the club.
As the investigation unfolded, police eventually would find 49 people dead. “You have a lot of seasoned guys — they’re shaken by what they saw,” Canty said.
Many SWAT team members stayed until 10 a.m., when they were sent home to rest. By 5 p.m., they were back on duty, Canty said, “ready for anything else that may occur in the city of Orlando.”
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