At Pulse Nightclub, A Death Toll That Might Not Have Been So High The Orlando Fire Department had been working on a plan to respond to a mass shooting. But at the time of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the plan was on hold and the bulletproof vests sat untouched.

At Pulse Nightclub, A Death Toll That Might Not Have Been So High

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When a gunman opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in Florida in June of 2016, it was at that time the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Including the gunman, 50 people died. But the death toll did not have to be that high. An investigation by member station WMFE and ProPublica finds some people might have survived if paramedics had been allowed inside the nightclub sooner. This story lasts about 4 minutes. And we should warn you, it contains sounds that some people will find disturbing. Here's Abe Aboraya of WMFE.

ABE ABORAYA, BYLINE: When police first entered the nightclub, the shooting had stopped. More than a hundred people were hit. Unfinished drinks and unpaid bar tabs littered the tables. Belle Isle Police Officer Brandon Cornwell gets on the radio.


BRANDON CORNWELL: We have multiple people down and shot inside behind the bar. Can't get them out at this time.

ABORAYA: A moment later, a police officer hears a yell.



ABORAYA: The priority for police at this point is to stop the shooter. But they were also confronted with dozens of horrifically-wounded victims. On the radio, police officers began talking about getting paramedics into Pulse to help get victims out.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: We're in the main area front door where we got all these victims. Can (unintelligible) come to us if we start brining FD to try to get some of these guys out of here?

ABORAYA: FD, the Orlando Fire Department, they didn't go inside Pulse for another two-and-a-half hours after the shooter was killed. But they could have gone in using what's called a rescue task force - paramedics wearing bulletproof vests and guarded by police. Emails to and from the fire chief obtained through public records request showed the Orlando Fire Department had been developing just such a rescue task force. They'd bought special bulletproof vests for paramedics before Pulse, and paramedics had some training with the police department.

On the night of the Pulse shooting, the vests sat untouched at fire department headquarters. A policy to initiate the task force wasn't finalized until nearly a year after the shooting. Orlando Fire Chief Roderick Williams says, even if they had the equipment at the scene, he believes Pulse nightclub that night was too dangerous for firefighters.

RODERICK WILLIAMS: Based on what transpired in that club, it was a hot zone, unless something changed. But it was active fire, active shooting. That's a hot zone to us.

ABORAYA: But a review by the U.S. Justice Department after the shooting concluded otherwise, saying after 20 minutes, fire EMS could have entered the club. Still, that question - when can paramedics be sent into harm's way? - it's an issue law enforcement and fire agencies across the country have struggled with. Few departments bring medics into that hot zone, but an increasing number are finding ways to send in specially trained rescue task forces after shooting stops but before the perpetrator is caught or killed. This is called a warm zone operation.

ANIBAL SAEZ JR.: I got to admit - I mean, you know, chiefs don't cry. But I've shed a tear or two over this. And it breaks my heart.

ABORAYA: That's an Anibal Jr. Saez. He was the Orlando Fire Department assistant chief who was originally told to implement a rescue task force policy back in 2013. Saez was pulled off the project in 2015, and the task force never got off the ground.

SAEZ: And in my mind I'm thinking, man, if I would have had that policy, if I could have got it done, if I could've pushed it, maybe it wouldn't be 49 dead. Maybe, you know - not that - one's too much - but maybe it'd be 40. Maybe it'd be 48 - anything but, you know, the end result here.

ABORAYA: A peer-reviewed study of autopsies that followed the Pulse shooting found 16 victims had potentially survivable wounds if they'd gotten basic medical care in 10 minutes and made to the hospital in an hour. That's nearly a third of victims. The study was led by Dr. Edward Reed Smith. He's the operational medical director for the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia, one of the first in the country to use a rescue task force.

EDWARD REED SMITH: The people who were dying on the dance floor, they didn't ask to be there. But it's our job to do our damnedest to get in there as safely as we can.

ABORAYA: In her parents' home near Orlando, Laly Santiago-Leon says she hopes to never learn if her cousin, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, was one of the 16 victims with survivable wounds.

LALY SANTIAGO-LEON: I'm still - as I said - I'm still angry that he's gone. But to know that he could have survived would be horrific.

ABORAYA: After Pulse, Orange County Fire Chief Otto Drozd began working with the National Fire Protection Association to create a new national standard for active shooters. It requires police and fire departments, at the very least, have a plan.

OTTO DROZD: My hope is that the standard will move everybody to operate within the warm zone.

ABORAYA: He says that warm zone, as soon as victims can safely be retrieved, is where fire departments and paramedics can do the most good. For NPR News, I'm Abe Aboraya in Orlando.

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