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Missteps in Uvalde shooting response echo Pulse massacre, where 49 died

“We know a similar horror,” says Pulse shooting survivor and gay activist Brandon Wolf.
At Least 20 Dead In Mass Shooting At Orlando Gay Nightclub
Orlando police officers outside of Pulse nightclub after a fatal shooting and hostage situation, in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016.Gerardo Mora / Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

For one Pulse nightclub shooting survivor, the admission by police Friday that they waited too long to go after a gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school brought back bitter memories of hiding in a bathroom while his best friends were being slaughtered. 

Brandon Wolf managed to escape the June 12, 2016, massacre at the Orlando nightclub that claimed the lives of his friends Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, and 47 others — one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.

And just as police in Uvalde, Texas, now face harsh criticism for failing to storm the classroom at Robb Elementary School where the 18-year-old shooter was holed-up, Orlando law enforcement was faulted for giving mass killer Omar Mateen more time to murder more people.

Mateen, a disgruntled security guard and self-proclaimed “Islamic Soldier,” also wounded 53 people before he was killed in a police shootout. And just like the Texas shooter, he was armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.

“A total failure of police response in Uvalde cost children their lives,” Wolf, who works for Equality Florida, the state’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, wrote in an email to NBC News. “We know a similar horror. While police waited three hours to breach Pulse Nightclub, 13 of our friends and family members died on the bathroom floor.”

Wolf said his community was failed six years ago just as the slain children in Uvalde were failed.

“The powerful in this country are addicted to the failing experiment of doubling down on the status quo knowing that it will lead to the same result,” he wrote. “These families deserved courage, not cowardice, on Tuesday from those they pay to protect and serve them. They deserve accountability, not simply belated press conference reflections. And they deserve political leaders who stop regurgitating the same old talking points and doubling down on easy access to guns while whole communities are shattered.”

Wolf weighed in after police admitted their response to the attack on the school was rife with mistakes, including by the on-scene commander, Peter Arredondo, who believed the shooter had barricaded himself in the classroom and assumed, wrongly and tragically, that no more children were at risk.

“From the benefit of hindsight where I’m sitting now, of course it was not the right decision,” said Texas Department of Safety Director Steve McCraw. “It was the wrong decision. There’s no excuse for that.”

“There were children in that classroom that were still at risk.”

Six years earlier, police in Orlando had been able to get into the nightclub after Mateen opened fire and left dozens of people dying on the dance floor.

But instead of following Mateen to the bathroom, where dozens of terrified patrons were hiding, or allow paramedics in to treat wounded patrons, they tried to negotiate to get him to surrender. Mateen was “cool and calm” in a conversation with negotiators, John Mina, Orlando police chief at the time, said in the aftermath.

But when it became clear that they would not be able to coax Mateen out, police used an explosive and an armored vehicle to break through a wall on the other side of a bathroom where police believed hostages were being held.

Dozens of frightened patrons poured out and with them Mateen, who was cut down in a furious exchange of gunfire with more than a dozen officers.

Maria Haberfeld, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on police tactics, said “there are indeed similarities between what happened in Texas and the Pulse nightclub.”

“The difference is that the police in Texas knew there were kids there, they knew they were vulnerable, and they knew this guy went there to kill them,” she said.

The Pulse victims were also at the mercy of Mateen, she said.

“In the Pulse situation, it could be argued that after the initial shootings there was the possibility of maybe negotiating with the gunman,” she said. “But not in Texas. He had already tried to kill his grandmother, and they knew that they had to get the kids out fast. They just didn’t.” 

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