For Pulse massacre victims, a new push for answers
By Frances Robles
On the night that the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was attacked by an assailant with a high-capacity rifle, Jorshua Hernández spent three hours bleeding in a bathroom stall, unable to find his way to an exit.
Another patron, Javier Nava, saw a ladder suspended from the ceiling and thought it could help him escape to the roof. But the ladder led only to a loft-style office, where he was trapped with a bullet wound in his abdomen. César Rodríguez, who on a whim had gone to Pulse to enjoy Latin Night, recalls seeing people trying to flee out an exit door, only to come rushing back inside because the alley outside had no exit.
“If they had more doors, one could survive and there wouldn’t be so many dead,” said Hernández, 29. “If the windows had not been covered, we would have looked for alternative ways to get out. I have always said it: That place had one way in, and one way out.”
Questions about the design, unpermitted renovations and code enforcement at the nightclub where 49 people were killed and 53 others were injured in 2016 have been raised periodically over the years. Both the club owner and city officials said the building had sufficient exits and complied with all required regulations. The full weight of responsibility for the nation’s second-deadliest mass shooting fell on Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old security guard who carried it out and then died in a shootout with police.
But survivors and relatives of some of those who were killed are now raising these questions anew. In July, more than two dozen of them filed complaints with the Orlando Police Department seeking a criminal investigation into whether insufficient exits, ad hoc renovations and lax code enforcement could have contributed to the staggering death toll. City officials and the club owner say that the club was in compliance with building code requirements and that it is wrong to suggest that such problems led to more deaths.
In their search for answers, survivors said they had taken inspiration from victims’ relatives in Uvalde, Texas, who brought attention to the delayed police response to a school shooting there last year and pushed publicly for more controls on the sale of military-style assault rifles.
“I think what happened in Uvalde and with Black Lives Matter is that we now have space to criticize and analyze,” said Zachary Blair, vice president of Victims First, a nonprofit organization that has spent four years researching the Pulse shooting and how the death toll climbed so high. “When Pulse happened, it quickly became about celebrating the police response, which took three hours. With so many mass shootings, now we know that three hours is not normal.”
The gay nightclub was still crowded with revelers when, moments after last call around 2 a.m. June 12, 2016, a shooter who had pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State militant group stormed in with a semi-automatic military-style rifle and a Glock 9 mm handgun.
Patrons scrambled for a way out of the darkened disco, where some windows, crime scene photos show, had been covered and blocked as part of a conversion from a restaurant to a nightclub. The building’s owner has said the club had six exits. But two of them led to a closed-off patio that documents indicate had been added without a permit after the club opened. Two more opened out to an area surrounded by an 8-foot fence that had also been erected without a permit very close to the building.
FBI photos and bodycam footage released this year show that the fence created a narrow alleyway enclosed by the building’s roof overhang, and the way out was blocked by a large soft drink cooler.
A spokesperson for the club owner has said a permit for the fence was obtained sometime after it went up. But there is no record of such a permit in documents released by the city.
After the shooting, a security officer had to punch a hole in the fence to evacuate about 20 people who were briefly trapped there, according to the police homicide report.
Another exit issue raised in the new police complaints was the front door, which appeared to have slammed shut. A police officer reported hearing at least one patron banging on it in an apparent attempt to get out, according to a police report cited in one of the new submissions. It said another set of double doors was obstructed by a stripper stage and furniture.
Rodríguez, who suffered broken bones when people trampled over him, remembers people’s frantic efforts to escape.
“I saw people run out the doors and come back inside when they realized there was no way out,” Rodríguez said. “If there had been glass windows, someone could have broken them.”
After the shooting, Victims First stepped in. The group was founded and is funded by Anita Busch, a former journalist whose cousin was killed in the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. The group spent four years and over $15,000 on Pulse public records requests. Volunteers from the group listened to bodycam audio and pored over blueprints, permits and hundreds of emails and then presented their findings at a weekendlong meeting in July with families and survivors, many of whom flew in from Puerto Rico.
In a complaint he filed with Orlando police, Blair said he had decided to try to seek a fuller accounting after an elected city official told him in a phone call three years after the shooting that unpermitted renovations and code violations at the club had hindered the rescue of shooting victims.
“This began my research into the issue,” he wrote. He cited in his complaint a 2018 medical journal study that suggested that 16 of the people who died could have survived had they received medical attention sooner.
The complaint cited records he and the others had found that he said revealed a “pattern of the city allowing the Pulse Nightclub to operate in violation of City codes.”
The records, which the group shared at the July meeting, showed that the city had notified the owners in 2010 that the club had received a conditional use permit for a restaurant and martini bar, not a dance club, and that the owners had agreed in 2004 to remove the dance floor but had never done so. Twenty people died on the dance floor.
The city’s press secretary, Cassandra Bell, insisted that while the records show “inconsistencies,” the club was safe and in full compliance with regulations. She acknowledged that the city “does not have records that indicate whether a permit was received or not” for the fence.
“These records demonstrate that the Pulse facility was safe, that it met occupancy, fire and related requirements,” she said. “We found no pattern of critical life-safety violations.”
The Orlando Police Department has received the new criminal complaints and is reviewing them, she said.
Barbara Poma, who owns the nightclub property with her husband, Rosario, had — in a statement released before the filing of the new criminal complaints — disputed many of the issues raised by the group, but the statement did not discuss the issues in detail.
“Out of respect to those impacted by this tragedy, I have never responded to the handful of individuals who continue to spread a myriad of untruths about my husband and me, falsely blaming us for what was an unforeseeable terrorist attack,” said the statement, released in May. “While I recognize and respect these individuals’ grief, that should not serve as a free pass for intentionally spreading lies about us.”
Some of the building issues raised by the families and survivors are likely to be aired as part of a negligence lawsuit against the club that has yet to go to trial, although most of the Pulse victims have settled their cases, said Keith Altman, the lawyer who represented about 60 of the survivors and families. The nightclub carried $2 million in insurance, and with more than 100 survivors and deaths, the payouts have been small, he said.
“In the end, what is definitely true is that Omar Mateen caused this disaster,” Altman said. “He is the primary cause, but there were contributing factors.”