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Orlando gay club carnage: Pulsing music, strobe lights, then gunfire

Orlando police officers seen outside of Pulse nightclub after a fatal shooting on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.

[WASHINGTON] It was a Saturday night at the Pulse nightclub, which could mean only one thing: a raucous, high-spirited celebration that would not end until the small hours.

Strobe lights flashed and music blared at the popular lounge, home to one of the hottest party scenes in Florida - and where 50 people died and 53 were injured in the country's worst mass shooting.

Just a few days earlier, Orlando's vibrant LGBT community had marked the annual Gay Days celebration, one of the biggest events anywhere in the United States dedicated to gay pride.

The partying was to go on at Pulse, a club known for its drag shows and one of several gay-friendly establishments in downtown Orlando's vibrant club scene.

"Tonight 21 and up is FREEEEEEEE before 11 pm," Kenya Michaels, a well-known Puerto Rican drag queen who was slated to perform at the club, posted on Facebook earlier Saturday.

"Come see me show time at 12 am at Pulse Orlando Doors open at 9 pm. My sister Jasmine international is performing with me," posted Michaels - who escaped the shooting unharmed.

Scores of people turned out for the show: A contest of dancing, lip-synching drag queens took the floor one by one, showing their best dance moves, sashaying in high heels, as patrons laughed, nursed their cocktails, tossed dollar bills onto the stage.

One dancer with swiveling hips and a Beyonce-like mane slinked around podium, as video footage posted online on Periscope captured the revelry.

A crowd of patrons thronged the area just off-stage, drinking and partying, amid a crescendo of laughter.

Then, at around 2 am, with the party in full gear, barely discernible under the cheers and the throbbing music, were the sounds of what one reveler said sounded like drumbeats.

Christopher Hanson said at first he thought the loud, rhythmic sounds were part of the music "until you heard too many shots. It was like, bang, bang, bang, bang."

"I just saw bodies going down and I was ordering a drink at the bar. I fell down. I crawled out. People were trying to escape out the back," he told CNN, adding that he didn't see the shooter.

"When I got across the street, there were people - blood everywhere."

The management of the Pulse club, grasping the gravity of the situation, quickly posted an emergency warning on its Facebook page.

"Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running," it wrote.

The carnage was so unthinkable that patrons couldn't make sense of it, even as they watched their friends and loved ones falling all around them.

"It was like complete chaos. If I can relate it to anything, I would say it was like a scene out of a movie," Janiel Gonzalez told AFP.

"People were screaming 'Help me, help me, I'm trapped'.

And people were getting trampled. There was no clear exit sign at the club, so we didn't know which door to take or where to go."

Club-goers - who just minutes earlier were dancing without a care in the world - suddenly were simply trying to escape with their lives.

Some told US media they were able to crawl out of the front of the establishment. Others ran out the back, while still others scrambled out of windows.

Many, however, did not make it out, including some who reportedly sought shelter in club's bathroom.

The shooting eventually became a hostage situation after the gunman barricaded himself in the club with scores of captive patrons.

The standoff would not be resolved until more than three hours later, when police used an armored vehicle to ram down part of the building, eventually killing the gunman in a hail of bullets.

About 300 relatives had gathered Sunday afternoon in a hotel behind the Orlando hospital where most of the victims had been taken.

The family members, many of them Hispanic, were hugging, crying and checking their phones for news in the packed lobby.

Angel Mendez, who was outside the hospital, held up his phone and showed a reporter a photo of his brother.

"He was inside the club, we're very desperate," he said.

"We're looking for him, this is something that has taken Florida by surprise but we know there is a God that can have control over this family." Mr Gonzalez said he was still looking for three friends, while two were hospitalised with gunshot wounds.

"A place that we normally go to just to hang out, have fun, dance and normally there's no issues, for something like that to happen is just devastating," he said.