ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) — A gunman killed at least 20 people and injured 42 others in a gay nightclub in Florida early on Sunday before police shot him dead in what U.S. authorities described as a “terrorism incident” and one of the nation’s deadliest mass slayings.
A senior FBI official said there were suggestions that the gunman might have had leanings toward Islamic State militants but that this required further investigation.
CBS News reported shortly afterward that the gunman’s name was Omar S. Mateen, quoting unnamed law enforcement sources.
A police officer working as a security guard inside the Pulse nightclub, which has operated in downtown Orlando since 2004, exchanged fire with the suspect at about 2 a.m. ET, police officials said.
A hostage situation quickly developed, and three hours later a squad of officers stormed the club and shot dead the gunman. It was unclear when the gunman shot the victims.
“Do we consider this an act of terrorism? Absolutely, we are investigating this from all parties’ perspective as an act of terrorism,” said Danny Banks, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “Whether that is domestic terrorist activity or an international one, that is something we will certainly get to the bottom of.”
When asked if the FBI suspected the gunman might have had inclinations toward militant Islam, including a possible sympathy with Islamic State, Ronald Hopper, an assistant FBI agent in charge, told reporters: “We do have suggestions that the individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology. But right now we can’t say definitively.”
If the death count remains 20, the incident will rank as the third-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history – after the 2007 attack at Virginia Tech university that killed 32 people and the 2012 massacre of 26 people at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school.
President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to provide any assistance needed to Florida police investigating the shooting, the White House said in a statement.
Obama was briefed by Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and had asked to receive regular updates, it said.
POLICE STORMING SAID TO SAVE 30 LIVES
At least one officer was injured in the gunbattle but the decision to storm the club saved at least 30 lives, Orlando Police Chief John Mina told a press conference.
The suspect was carrying an assault-type rifle and a handgun as well as an unidentified “device”, Mina said.
Javer Antonetti, 53, told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper that he was near the back of the dance club when he heard gunfire. “There were so many (shots), at least 40,” he said. “I saw two guys and it was constant, like ‘pow, pow, pow,’.”
Video footage showed police officers and civilians carrying injured people away from the club and bending over others who were lying on the ground. Dozens of police cruisers, ambulances and other emergency vehicles could be seen in the area.
“It was one after another after another after another,” Christopher Hansen told CNN, describing the gunshots inside the club. “It could have lasted a whole song.”
Police said they had carried out a “controlled explosion” at the club hours after the shooting broke out, but did not explain why that was done.
TEARFUL SCENE AT HOSPITAL
Several dozen people gathered outside Orlando Regional Medical Center where some of the gunshot victims were being treated. The scene was somber as many people had not been able to reach their loved ones.
Hovering by a hospital door they could not enter because of a security lockdown, they checked their cell phones and became tearful when asked for comment.
C.J. Walker, 30, drove the 80 miles (130 km) to Orlando from Tampa seeking information on his sister, one of the nightclub’s DJs. She normally worked on Saturday nights, and he had not been able to reach her by phone or social media. He finally learned that she had not worked on Saturday night and was OK.
“Unfortunately it’s not going to be like this for so many other people,” he said.
It was the second deadly shooting at an Orlando night spot in as many nights. Late Friday, a man thought to be a deranged fan fatally shot Christina Grimmie, a rising singing star and a former contestant on “The Voice”, as she was signing autographs after a concert in the central Florida city.
Orlando has a population of 270,930 and is the home of the famed Disney World amusement park and many other tourist attractions that attracted 62 million visitors in 2014.
(Additional reporting by Letitia Stein in Tampa, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Chris Michaud in New York and Mary Milliken in Los Angeles; Writing by Frank McGurty and Scott Malone; Editing by Mark Heinrich)