ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — “Please, don’t let my hand go,” Eddie Justice begged Demetrice Naulings. The two best friends huddled together in the women’s bathroom with about 40 other terrified club-goers.
Panic welled in Naulings’ chest. “I was like, ‘I can’t be in this bathroom,'” he recalled, feeling it meant certain death. “Because they closed the door, but we could still hear the gun. And people were yelling, ‘Let me in, please!’ And I was like, ‘Let me out!'”
So clutching Justice’s left hand in his right, Naulings and his friend bolted from the bathroom at the Pulse nightclub. When Justice implored him to hold on tight, Naulings said: “The face that he gave me was just, ‘I’m afraid. And I know with you, you gonna get me out.'”
Inside the club, dozens of people wailed and screamed in pain. Shots, seemingly endless, continued to ring out. Some club-goers — stained with their own blood, or with the blood of others — hid under a bar, while others ran wildly in every direction.
Dozens tried to push toward a hallway leading outside. Naulings had hosted parties at Pulse and knew there was a gate just beyond that. Could they reach it?
And then it happened. Somehow, in the crush of panicked people clogging the narrow hallway, Naulings let go of his friend’s hand. Eddie was gone.
As Naulings looked back for him, a woman directly behind him was shot. People were “stumbling over her and walking over her,” he said.
He dashed outside and ran across the street to a Dunkin Donuts, where he received a text from his friend. “I’ve been shot,” he recalled Justice writing. “I’m going into shock.”
All around the club, people dialed 911 and reached out to relatives any way they could. One of them was Justice, who made his way back to the bathroom and sent his first text to his mother at 2:06 a.m. Sunday, just a few minutes after Omar Mateen first entered Pulse and started spraying the crowded dance floor with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
“Mommy I love you,” the 30-year-old accountant wrote. “In club they shooting.”
Luis Burbano joined the crush of humanity trying to push through the hallway to safety, but few could: Club-goers had toppled atop each other and there was no way out.
“I can’t begin to describe,” Burbano said. “People were ready to force themselves through, but they couldn’t.”
As the sound of the gunshots came closer, Burbano made a decision that now haunts him: He briefly closed the door leading from the club to the hallway to give people time to wriggle out. If the killer knew where they were stacked up, “we were all going to be done,” he said.
When Burbano finally pushed through the hallway and escaped through a hole in a perimeter fence, the first thing he saw was a man with his arm virtually destroyed by a barrage of bullets.
Back in two of the bathrooms, the hell wore on for almost three hours. People tried to be as still as possible and many played dead as the shooter stalked the club, firing and reloading.
“Over and over and over again” is how Angel Santiago described the shooting, reverberating as he hid in a stall. “It kept getting louder and closer.”
And then the shooter was there: Bullets punched through the wall of the stall where Santiago had taken shelter, ripping into his left foot and right knee.
The shots stopped. Santiago heard the gunmen enter a nearby bathroom: More gunfire. More screaming. He and others shushed the petrified people around them, fearing their panic would draw the gunman back.
After the gunman shot Patience Carter in the leg in the second bathroom, she tried to wedge herself into the next stall. As she cowered, she heard him call 911 and say he wanted America to stop bombing his parents’ native Afghanistan.
Then he spoke to the club-goers in the bathroom directly, she recalled. “He said, ‘Are there any black people in here?’ I was too afraid to answer, but there was an African-American male in the stall where most of my body was … and he said, “Yes, there are about six or seven of us.’ And the gunman responded back to him saying that, ‘You know, I don’t have a problem with black people. This is about my country. You guys suffered enough.'”
The gunman walked out, but he returned and ordered everyone inside to silence their phones.
“Hey, you,” he said to one man. Then he shot him. And he kept shooting people.
Justice, still hunkered down in one of the bathrooms, continued texting his mother periodically. At 2:39 a.m., he wrote that the gunman was near: “He’s coming. I’m gonna die.”
Mina Justice texted back, asking her son if anyone was hurt and which bathroom he was in. “Lots. Yes,” he responded at 2:42 a.m.
When she didn’t hear back, she kept reaching out. She asked: Was he with police? “No,” he responded four minutes later. “Still here in bathroom. He has us. They need to come get us.”
At 2:49 a.m., she told him the police were at the club and to let her know when he saw them. “Hurry,” he wrote. “He’s in the bathroom with us.”
At 2:50 a.m.: “He’s a terror.”
Then, the final text from her son a minute later: “Yes.”
At some point in those final, excruciating moments, Mateen lied to hostage negotiators, telling them he was strapping explosives onto four of his hostages. Before that, some club-goers had indicated in 911 calls and texts to loved ones that they believed Mateen brought explosive vests into the club as part of his arsenal.
So the injured lay wounded and dying for hours while law enforcement grappled with what might be happening inside the club, as paramedics stood by helplessly.
The end came shortly before 5:15 a.m., when Carter heard a voice: “Move away from the walls.”
Police ripped through the wall with a battering ram. “Put your weapon down! Put your weapon down!” one SWAT officer yelled. “Get guns in that hole!” another screamed.
The officers punched through the wall a second time. “Nobody move!”
In a club where hundreds had danced and drank and laughed just hours before, 49 people lay dead or dying — 50, including Mateen.
Naulings learned that Justice had died when he turned on the TV later that day.
“We were in our safe zone. Our own comfort. It was where we felt happy,” he said. “That place will never be the same. It will be a memorial site now.”
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush
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