This article was published in The Orlando Sentinel on June 13, 2016.
By Gal Tziperman Lotan
Brandon Wolf didn't really want to go out Saturday night, but a friend convinced him. So he showed up at the Pulse Orlando nightclub on South Orange Avenue with three friends, hoping to have a fun night.
It was Latin Night, and the club was full of couples and friends who were dancing and talking.
Closing time neared, and Wolf and one of his friends were in the bathroom. That's where they started hearing gunshots. Maybe 20 of them.
"And then we heard them get closer," he said. "So we had to run."
A uniformed Orlando police officer working at the club off-duty first heard gunshots. Omar Mateen was outside with an AR-15, a handgun and an explosive device.
The officer fired at him, police said. Two more officers showed up and opened fire.
Mateen fired back, and walked back into Pulse, trapping dozens of people inside.
A message was posted onto Pulse Orlando's Facebook page: "Everyone get out of pulse and keep running."
Wolf and his friend hid in the bathroom. Then they heard the gun shots getting closer and decided they had to run.
"All I heard was gunfire after gunfire," Wolf said. "Eventually, I thought you were supposed to run out of ammunition. But it just kept going and going."
Ivory Mcneal was in the club's patio area when he started hearing the shots.
"People were running everywhere. Gunshots were going off. People were ducking," Mcneal said.
In the three hours that followed, more than 100 law enforcement officers gathered near the club to assess the situation and wait. People were still inside, calling 911 from a bathroom, wanting to be rescued.
Police decided to go in.
They drove an armored vehicle through a wall, breaking their way in. They threw two Distraction Devices, which released loud bangs and bright lights.
Mateen shot at the officers who came into the club. One of the bullets he fired hit an officer's Kevlar helmet – which likely saved his life.
The officers opened fire. Mateen fell to the ground, dead.
Thirty people were rescued from the club alive, police said. But another 39 people were found dead inside the club, and another two people died outside.
Just after 5 a.m., Brandon Wolf was in a 7-11 parking lot at Orange Avenue and Gore Street. He ran out safely with the friend he was in the club's bathroom with. A third friend was seen being hoisted onto a gurney, injured.
But the fourth, Drew Leinonen, was still missing.
Wolf had called Drew's mother, Christine Leinonen, who got out of bed and started driving from Lakeland. She pulled into the parking lot, got out of the car, and ran toward Wolf.
They embraced and cried.
At a press conference, Orlando Police Chief John Mina declined to say exactly how many people were killed. But, he said, the number was at least 20. And another 42 people were hospitalized.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks called the shooting an act of terrorism. Officials said the shooter may have been motivated by Islamic extremism.
"Any time that we have potentially dozens of victims in any of our communities, I think we do qualify that as terrorist activity," he said.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer called the shooting a "horrific crime."
"Many lives were lost, and many more individuals were impacted by witnessing the crime," he said. "…We are a strong, resilient community. Tonight, we had a crime that will have a lasting effect on our community."
Law enforcement officials counted the casualties: 50 people dead, 53 injured.
"Our focus is going to be on identifying the victims and notifying the families," Dyer said.
Imam Tariq Rasheed of the Islamic Center of Orlando condemned the attack.
"No religious tradition can ever justify nor condone such ruthless and senseless acts of violence," he said. "Our prayers and condolences go out to the family and loved ones of the victims."