50 killed in Florida nightclub shooting, worst in U.S. history

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Police: Shooting At Orlando Nightclub A 'Mass Casualty' Situation

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Fla., June 12 (Reuters) - A gunman killed 50 people at a packed gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on Sunday and wounded 53 others before being killed by police in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

The shooter was identified as Omar S. Mateen, a Florida resident who a senior FBI official said might have had leanings towards Islamic State militants. Officials called the rampage a "terrorism incident," but cautioned that the suspected Islamist connection required further investigation.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said the attack was the deadliest single U.S. shooting incident, eclipsing the 32 people killed in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech university.

Images from the scene:

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50 killed in Florida nightclub shooting, worst in U.S. history
Orlando Police officers direct family members away from a multiple shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. A gunman opened fire at a nightclub in central Florida, and multiple people have been wounded, police said Sunday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Brandon Shuford, left, waits down the street from the scene of a shooting involving multiple fatalities at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Bystanders wait down the street from a multiple shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. A gunman opened fire at a nightclub in central Florida, and multiple people have been wounded, police said Sunday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
An aerial view shows the Pulse gay night club after a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, center right, and Orlando Police Chief John Mina, center left, arrive to a news conference after a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Jermaine Towns, left, and Brandon Shuford wait down the street from a multiple shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Towns said his brother was in the club at the time. A gunman opened fire at a nightclub in central Florida, and multiple people have been wounded, police said Sunday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse Nightclub where Omar Mateen allegedly killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The mass shooting killed at least 50 people and injuring 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse Nightclub where Omar Mateen allegedly killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The mass shooting killed at least 50 people and injuring 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse Nightclub where Omar Mateen allegedly killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The mass shooting killed at least 50 people and injuring 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Jermaine Towns, left, and Brandon Shuford wait down the street from a multiple shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Towns said his brother was in the club at the time. A gunman opened fire at a nightclub in central Florida, and multiple people have been wounded, police said Sunday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club, where as many as 20 people have been injured after a gunman opened fire, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Demetrice Naulings sobs outside the Orlando Police Headquarters where police are interviewing witnesses in the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Concerned friends and family of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting wait outside of the Orlando Police Department on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Ray Rivera, DJ at the Pulse nightclub, is consoled by a friend outside of the Orlando Police Department on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
FBI assistant special agent in charge Ron Hopper, center, answers questions from members of the media after a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Listening are Orlando Police Chief John Mina, left, and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Police stand in front of one of the houses that officials indicated was connected to the Orlando shooter in Port St. Lucie, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
An aerial view shows the Pulse gay night club after a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Police stand in front of one of the houses that officials indicated was connected to the Orlando shooter in Port St. Lucie, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse Nightclub where Omar Mateen allegedly killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The mass shooting killed at least 50 people and injuring 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 12: FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse Nightclub where Omar Mateen allegedly killed at least 50 people on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The mass shooting killed at least 50 people and injuring 53 others in what is the deadliest mass shooting in the country's history. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Officers arrive at the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman, in Orlando, Florida, U.S June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Steve Nesius
An aerial view shows the Pulse gay night club after a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
An Orange County Sheriff's Department SWAT member arrives to the scene of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Orange County Sheriff's Department SWAT members arrive to a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Police cars and emergency vehicles surround the Pulse Orlando nightclub, the scene of a fatal shooting, in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
A police officer stands guard outside the Orlando Regional Medical Center hospital after a fatal shooting at a nearby Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Emergency personnel wait with stretchers at the emergency entrance to Orlando Regional Medical Center hospital for the arrival of patients from the scene of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Police cars surround the Pulse Orlando nightclub, the scene of a fatal shooting, in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other city officials answer the media's questions about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski
Police lock down Orange Avenue around Pulse nightclub, where people were killed by a gunman in a shooting rampage in Orlando, Florida June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski
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"Today we're dealing with something that we never imagined and is unimaginable," Dyer said, more than doubling an earlier estimate that about 20 bodies were found in the Pulse nightclub.

A police officer working as a security guard inside the club, which has operated in downtown Orlando since 2004, exchanged fire with the suspect at about 2 a.m. (0600 GMT), police officials said.

A hostage situation quickly developed, and three hours later SWAT team officers used armored cars to storm the club before shooting dead the gunman. It was unclear when the gunman killed the victims.

One officer was injured after he was hit in his helmet while exchanging fire with the gunman, police said.

"Do we consider this an act of terrorism? Absolutely," 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."

Asked if the FBI suspected the gunman might have had inclinations toward militant Islam, including a possible sympathy for 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."

The FBI said it was still trying to pin down whether the mass shooting was a hate crime against gays or a terrorist act.

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U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida told CNN he understood that the gunman had worked for a security company and so would have undergone some background checks.

"Over the next couple of days they're going to be looking to see where this individual was inspired to carry out this horrifying act of terrorism," Rubio said. "I think we're going to be talking about a very different kind of case here soon."

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.

'HORRIFIC ACT'

The attacker was carrying an assault rifle and a handgun, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said. He was also carrying an unidentified "device," Orlando Police Chief John Mina said earlier.

Javer Antonetti, 53, told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper he was near the back of the dance club when he heard gunfire. "There were so many (shots), at least 40 ... it was constant, like 'pow, pow, pow,'," he said.

Video footage showed police officers and civilians carrying some injured people away from the club and bending over others on the ground. Dozens of police cruisers, ambulances and other emergency vehicles could be seen in the area.

Pulse, which was crowded for a Latin music night, describes itself on its website as more than "just another gay club." One of the founders and owners, Barbara Poma, opened it more than a decade ago in an effort to keep alive the spirit of her brother, who died after battling HIV.

The choice of target was especially heart-wrenching for members of the U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida said in a statement.

"Gay clubs hold a significant place in LGBTQ history. They were often the only safe gathering place and this horrific act strikes directly at our sense of safety," the group said. "We will await the details in tears of sadness and anger."

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.

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 singer Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on "The Voice," as she was signing autographs after a concert. (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, Scott Malone and Dan Wallis; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Mary Milliken

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