- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2016

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Deputies and police officers within shooting range of a gunman inside the Pulse nightclub loaded wounded patrons into pick-up trucks and drove them to safety. Dispatchers had trouble reaching a police officer who had initially called in “shots fired” from the club.

An attempt to breach the nightclub wall was made with an armored vehicle before explosives failed and then the armored vehicle was used again, according to newly released reports by deputies that give new insight into the police response to the mass shooting June 12 at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

The reports from about a dozen deputies released late Thursday by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office raise some new questions, answer some older ones and show the horror of the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history.

“I witnessed exceptional heroism in the face of indescribable horror,” wrote Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Benjamin Edmondson, whose agency, along with others, assisted the Orlando Police Department in responding to the gunfire.

Most of the deputies described hearing shots coming from the nightclub when they arrived and seeing wounded patrons outside on the ground or running away. The deputies treated the wounded on the spot and carried bodies to a triage area. Entering the club, they carried out patrons unable to walk and helped out others who could.

“I’m scared, please talk to me. I don’t want to die,” one woman told Deputy Brian “Bart” Lemons.

Deputy Andrew Stephens noted in his report that dispatchers had trouble reaching the Orlando police officer who initially alerted law enforcement to the shooting. “We were informed through dispatch an OPD officer was not responding to their radio after calling, “Shots fired!” he said.

Orlando Police have said that Officer Adam Gruler - working off-duty security at Pulse - exchanged fire with the attacker but was out-gunned. He was uninjured. In an email Friday, spokeswoman Sgt. Wanda Miglio said, “best guess he is not answering his radio due to dealing with the shooter.”

Gunman Omar Mateen opened fire at the nightclub in a rampage that left 49 patrons dead and 53 hospitalized. Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group during a call with police dispatchers during a three-hour standoff. He died in a hail of gunfire after police breached a wall in the venue.

Lemons’ account of how the wall was breached differs slightly from the way Orlando Police Chief John Mina and others had described it in the shooting’s aftermath. Past accounts described SWAT team members using explosives in an attempt to create a hole in the wall, and when that didn’t work, using an armored vehicle. Lemons said an armored vehicle first breached a wall, allowing some patrons to escape. The explosives were then set off, and when that didn’t work, the armored vehicle was used again.

When asked about the differing accounts, Miglio said, “Keep in mind that it is not uncommon in these type of high-stress situations for statements of both witnesses and officers to vary based on their experience level, stress, vantage point, and many other factors.”

Lemons also offered the first detailed description of the shootout between Mateen and SWAT team members. After the breach was made by the armored vehicle, “I heard gunshots from the area of the breach,” Lemons wrote. “I could not see the shooter inside the building, nor do I know how many shots were fired. I immediately saw a volley of shots (return fire) from the SWAT members that lasted several seconds. We were notified over the radio that the shooter was down.”

After making three trips escorting patrons from the club to the triage area, Deputy Robert Knight returned to see if any of the victims near the bar showed signs of life.

“I later estimated there were approximately 15 bodies in this area and observed horrific wounds on many of the bodies,” Knight said. “Finding no sign of life, I responded to the stage area where there were an additional three bodies which I checked but could find no signs of life.”

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mikeschneiderap

His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/Mike-Schneider

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