ORLANDO, Fla.– Patience Carter and two friends cowered inside the handicapped bathroom stall, injured and pinned by a crush of bleeding bodies, the gunman who opened fire in the Pulse nightclub kept talking.
“He said, ‘Are there any black people in here?’ I was too afraid to answer,” said Carter, who is black.
Carter continued: “There was an African American man in the stall with us … he said, ‘Yes, there are about six or seven of us.’ The gunman responded back to him saying that, ‘you know, I don’t have a problem with black people, this is about my country. You guys suffered enough.'”
Carter, a slight 20-year-old with long hair and rhinestone-tipped nails, had just arrived in Orlando, Fla., for her first night of vacation and ended up cowering with more than a dozen people held hostage by the Omar Mateen in a rear bathroom. Carter and another survivor, Angel Santiago, 32, on Tuesday met with reporters at Florida Hospital in Orlando to recount their ordeal.
When Santiago heard shooting, he figured it was a fight, and took cover in a restroom. “I thought it was going to pass,” he said.
Santiago and a friend crammed themselves into a stall with 15 to 20 people as the gunfire continued. Santiago started to worry, then pray.
“I just remember thinking ‘When is it going to stop?'” Santiago said as he lay atop a gurney, a white sheet draped over his lap concealing his wounds.
“It kept getting louder and closer and I could actually start to smell … I don’t know, I guess it’s gunpowder, I’m not sure, it kind of smells like when firecrackers go off,” he said.
Everyone in the stall tried to be as quiet as possible. “We didn’t want to attract attention,” he said, “but the gunfire kept getting closer and closer.”
Santiago could not hear the gunman, but Carter did. She heard Mateen, who was born in New York to Afghan immigrant parents, speak in a foreign language. Then he called 911.
“Through the conversation with 911, he said that the reason why he was doing this was he wanted America to stop bombing his country,” Carter said. “So the motive was very clear to us who were laying in our blood and other people’s blood who were injured, who were shot — that we knew what his motive was. And he was not going to stop killing people until he was killed, until he felt that the message got out there.”
She and two friends had been near the restroom when the shooting began and they fled into a stall. A man who had closed the bathroom stall to shield the rest was shot, she said. Later, she heard the gunman complain, “Damn! It jammed” as he fiddled with the gun.
Throughout the hours the hostages were trapped in the bathroom, Carter said the gunman repeatedly yelled at them to shut off their cellphones. Some were frantically texting or calling relatives, she said, but other phones went unanswered. “We were assuming because they were dead,” she said.
“Every time a phone would go off or a text message (alert) he would say, ‘Where is it? Give it up,'” and hostages would have to hand over their phones, she said.
She could see where others had tried to hide in another stall opposite.
“I could see piles of bodies laying over the toilet seat and slumped over. And the bottom of the toilet was just covered with hand prints and blood,” she said, and recalled thinking, “I really don’t think I’m going to get out of here.”
At one point, she prayed to die.
“I was just begging God to take my soul out of my body,” Carter said.
At times, she said the shooter referenced snipers and implied he was not acting alone.
“It sounded like he was communicating with other people involved in it,” Carter said, noting that when police arrived outside he said, “It’s OK, we have snipers outside.”
The ordeal began about 2 a.m. Later, Carter said, they heard three explosive sounds and feared another gunman was arriving to attack them. Actually, it was the police starting to break through the restroom wall around 5 a.m.
Before police entered, she said the gunman backed toward the stall. She could see his feet. Then he scooted away.
“He said, ‘Hey you!’ and shot another person, then another person who I’m told shielded me with their body,” Carter said. “I don’t know who that was, but thank you.”
Then the wall exploded, she said, and water rose from the floor.
“I was getting pretty scared because I thought if they don’t come soon, I might drown in this bloody water,” Crater said.
She asked her friend Tiara Parker, 20, if she was shot. She was. So was friend Akira Murray, 18, who was sprawled on Parker’s lap, unresponsive. A stranger checked her pulse, and she was still alive, Carter said.
As police entered, the hostages warned them about possible snipers, Carter said. Police said to raise their hands if they were alive, and she said, “We were all raising our hands up.”
A member of the SWAT team dragged her through the grass to an ambulance, Carter said. A bullet had shattered a bone in her right leg and then entered her left leg. She didn’t realize her left leg was hit until paramedics cut her clothes off in the ambulance.
Reflecting on that day, Carter said she feels guilty. When the shooting started, she and Murray had been standing in front of an exit and quickly stepped out. She persuaded her friend to go back in to find Parker, and they ended up trapped in the bathroom.
Carter has spoken with Murray’s mother, who told her, “That’s OK. God has a plan.”
But she still feels survivor’s guilt. She wrote a poem about it in a small notebook that she carried with her and read at the briefing. “The guilt of feeling grateful to be alive is heavy,” she wrote, recalling, “The other 49 who were not so lucky to feel this pain of mine.”
She read it and told the story of those hours in the bathroom without breaking down once, then suddenly sobbed uncontrollably as she was wheeled away.