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Orlando nightclub shooting leaves 49 dead; terrorism links probed

Police cars surround the Pulse Orlando nightclub, the scene of a fatal shooting, in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016.
Police cars surround the Pulse Orlando nightclub, the scene of a fatal shooting, in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. AP

In what is now the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, an assault rifle-wielding gunman fatally shot at least 50 people, and wounded 53 more, in a downtown Orlando gay nightclub before he was felled by police bullets.

Authorities have identified the killer as Omar Mateen, 29, of Fort Pierce. Federal agents are now probing whether Mateen has links to international terrorism.

As the country awoke Sunday to the shock of yet another mass shooting, federal agents with South Florida’s Joint Terrorism Task Force had joined in the investigation into Mateen, who is of Afghan descent. Authorities with knowledge of the investigation say agents have already begun interviewing Mateen’s relatives, and search warrants are expected to be executed Sunday afternoon.

His father, Mir Seddique, told NBC News that he believed the shooting “has nothing to do with religion” but instead was outrage sparked after his son saw two men kissing in Miami a few months ago.

“We are saying we are apologized for the whole incident,” he told NBC News. “We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shocked like the whole country.”

Rep. Alan Grayson, speaking to reporters Sunday, said he believed the shooting was a “hate crime,” although the FBI stopped short of saying that.

“It's absolutely one of the worst tragedies we've seen,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina told reporters Sunday morning. “It's terrible. There are more victims inside than we earlier thought.”

Authorities in Orlando are now undergoing the grim task of identifying the dead and notifying their relatives. 

The carnage quickly became international news. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency, and was traveling to Orlando, vowing to expend all resources to help. President Barack Obama was also receiving regular briefings. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the victims,” the president’s press secretary said in a statement.

Before noon Sunday, politicians on all sides —including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — had already begun issuing statements and sending out tweets. Religious leaders were also urging calm.

“We are heartbroken. We are sad. It’s not time for sensationalized news, or a rush to judgment,” Imam Muhammad Musri, of the Islamic Society of Central Florida in Orlando, told reporters outside the crime scene. “We need to look at this issue of mass shooting because we have had one too many today.”

Meanwhile, medical personnel in Orlando were working frantically to help the critically wounded. Six trauma surgeons, including a pediatric surgeon were rushed to local hospital as doctors were calling for people around Florida to donate blood to their local blood banks.

“We have spent the morning operating on a number of victims,” Dr. Michael Cheatham, from the Orlando Regional Medical Center, told reporters. “We continue to operate on them.”

The scene of the violence was Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, a popular gay nightspot where over 300 people were partying early Sunday. Police said Mateen opened fire around 2 a.m., taking scores of people hostage just before closing time as people were downing their final drinks.

Just after 2 a.m., the club posted on its own Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.” 

A bouncer knocked down a partition between the club area and an area in the back where only workers are allowed. People inside were able to then escape through the back of the club.

Kenneth Melendez told the Orlando Sentinel that he and his friends were at the club when the shooting happened. Four of his friends were shot and were at a the hospital, he said.

“It's just something that you see in the movies but never think would happen to you,” he said.

"At first, when I heard the shots I thought it was part of the music, but then we realized it was really happening. I started running and saw someone bleeding from the arm and I was like wow this is really happening and I kept running."

He said he went to Pulse often because it was a “safe environment where you could express yourself ... Not anymore.”

Heavily armed Orlando police officers later stormed the nightclub, killing Mateen just before 6 a.m. He was carrying an assault rifle, a handgun and possibly wearing an explosive “device,” police said. Nine Orlando police officers were involved in the shootout, and one was shot in the helmet, but survived.

“Tonight we had a crime that will have a lasting effect on our community,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer at a news conference. “We need to stand strong, we need to be supportive of the victims and their families.”

Some victims were taken to Orlando Health, which on social media announced a family information center early Sunday morning, directing family members to 52 West Underwood St. 

One Blood, a southeastern United States blood blank, issued an urgent call for O Negative, O Positive and AB Plasma Blood donors after the massing shooting. Generally, healthy people age 16 or older who weigh at least 110 pounds can donate blood. 

The shooting came one day after another high-profile shooting in Orlando.

On Friday, YouTube sensation and former Voice contestant Christina Grimmie, 22, was shot and killed after her concert in Orlando by a 27-year-old St. Petersburg man who later killed himself. Police said they believed the shooter came specifically to attack Grimmie. 

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