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Jermaine Towns, left, and Brandon Shuford wait down the street from a multiple shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Towns said his brother was in the club at the time. A gunman opened fire at a nightclub in central Florida, and multiple people have been wounded, police said Sunday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Jermaine Towns, left, and Brandon Shuford wait down the street from a multiple shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. Towns said his brother was in the club at the time. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

UPDATED STORY:

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — It had been an evening of drinking, dancing and drag shows. After hours of revelry, the party-goers crowding the gay nightclub known as the Pulse took their last sips before the place closed.

That’s when authorities say Omar Mateen emerged, carrying an AR-15 and spraying the helpless crowd with bullets. Witnesses said he fired relentlessly — 20 rounds, 40, then 50 and more. In such tight quarters, the bullets could hardly miss. He shot at police. He took hostages.

When the gunfire finally stopped, 50 people were dead and dozens critically wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Mateen, who authorities said had pledged allegiance to Islamic State in a 911 call shortly before the attack, died in a gun battle with SWAT team members.

Authorities immediately began investigating whether the assault was an act of terrorism and probing the background of Mateen, a 29-year-old American citizen from Fort Pierce, Florida, who had worked as a security guard. The gunman’s father recalled that his son recently got angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami and said that might be related to the assault.

Thirty-nine of the dead were killed at the club, and 11 people died at hospitals, Mayor Buddy Dyer said.

Jon Alamo had been dancing at the Pulse for hours when he wandered into the club’s main room just in time to see the gunman. “You ever seen how Marine guys hold big weapons, shooting from left to right? That’s how he was shooting at people,” he said.

“My first thought was, oh my God, I’m going to die,” Alamo said. “I was praying to God that I would live to see another day.”

Pulse patron Eddie Justice texted his mother, Mina: “Mommy I love you. In club they shooting.” About 30 minutes later, hiding in a bathroom, he texted her: “He’s coming. I’m gonna die.” As Sunday wore on, she awaited word on his fate.

At least 53 people were hospitalized, most in critical condition, and a surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center said the death toll was likely to climb.

The previous deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. was the 2007 attack at Virginia Tech, where a student killed 32 people before killing himself.

Mateen’s family was from Afghanistan, and he was born in New York. His family later moved to Florida, authorities said.

A law enforcement official said the gunman made a 911 call from the club in which he professed allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The official was familiar with the investigation, but was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The extremist group did not officially claim responsibility for the attack, but the IS-run Aamaq news agency cited an unnamed source as saying the attack was carried out by an Islamic State fighter.

Even if the attacker supported IS, it was unclear whether the group planned or knew of the attack beforehand.

Mateen was not unknown to law enforcement: In 2013, he made inflammatory comments to co-workers and was interviewed twice, according to FBI agent Ronald Hopper, who called the interviews inconclusive. In 2014, Hopper said, officials found that Mateen had ties to an American suicide bomber, but the agent described the contact as minimal, saying it did not constitute a threat at the time.

Asked if the gunman had a connection to radical Islamic terrorism, Hopper said authorities had “suggestions that individual has leanings towards that.”

Mateen purchased at least two firearms legally within the last week or so, according to Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In a separate incident, an Indiana man armed with three assault rifles and chemicals used to make explosives was arrested Sunday in Southern California and told police he wanted to do harm to a gay pride parade.

The Orlando shooting started about 2 a.m., with more than 300 people inside the Pulse.

“He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance,” said Jackie Smith, who saw two friends next to her get shot. “I just tried to get out of there.”

At 2:09 a.m., Pulse posted on its Facebook page: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.”

Mateen exchanged gunfire with 14 police officers at the club, and took hostages at one point. In addition to the assault rifle, the shooter also had a handgun and some sort of “suspicious device,” the police chief said. About 5 a.m., authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the remaining club-goers, Police Chief John Mina said.

At first, officers mistakenly thought the gunman had strapped explosives to the dead after a bomb robot sent back images of a battery part next to a body, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. That prevented paramedics from going in until authorities determined the battery was something that fell out of an exit sign or a smoke detector, he said.

The robot was sent in after SWAT team members put explosive charges on a wall and an armored vehicle knocked it down in an effort to rescue hostages.

Just before 6 a.m., the Pulse posted an update on its Facebook: “As soon as we have any information, we will update everyone. Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event. Thank you for your thoughts and love.”

Authorities were looking into whether the shooter acted alone, according to Danny Banks, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as domestic terror incident,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said.

Mateen’s father, Mir Seddique, told NBC News about his son seeing the men kissing a couple of months ago.

“We are saying we are apologizing for the whole incident,” Seddique said. “We are in shock like the whole country.”

Mateen was a security guard with a company called G4S. In a 2012 newsletter, the firm identified him as working in West Palm Beach. In a statement sent Sunday to the Palm Beach Post, the company confirmed that he had been an employee since September 2007. State records show that Mateen had held a firearms license since at least 2011.

President Barack Obama called the shooting an “act of terror” and an “act of hate” targeting a place of “solidarity and empowerment” for gays and lesbians. He urged Americans to decide whether this is the kind of “country we want to be.”

Authorities said they had secured a van owned by the suspect outside the club. Meanwhile, a SWAT truck and a bomb-disposal unit were on the scene of an address associated with Mateen in Fort Pierce, about 120 miles southeast of Orlando.

Across the country, police departments stepped up patrols in neighborhoods frequented by the LGBT community.

___

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington, Terrance Harris, Jason Dearen and Tamara Lush in Orlando and photographer Alan Diaz in Fort Pierce, Florida, contributed to this report.

ORIGINAL STORY:

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A gunman wielding an assault-type rifle and a handgun opened fire inside a crowded Florida nightclub early Sunday, killing at least 50 people before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers, police said. It was the worst mass shooting in American history.

Authorities were investigating it as an act of terrorism.

At least 53 other people were hospitalized, most in critical condition, officials said. A surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center said the death toll was likely to climb.

Mayor Buddy Dyer said all of the dead were killed with the assault rifle.

“There’s blood everywhere,” Dyer said.

The suspect exchanged gunfire with an officer working at the gay club known as Pulse around 2 a.m., when more than 300 people were inside. The gunman then went back inside and took hostages, Police Chief John Mina said.

Around 5 a.m., authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the hostages.

Jackie Smith, who was inside the club, said two friends next to her were shot.

“Some guy walked in and started shooting everybody. He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance,” Smith said. “I just tried to get out of there.”

In addition to the guns, the shooter also had some sort of “suspicious device,” Mina said.

Authorities were looking into whether the attack was an act of domestic or international terror, and if the shooter acted alone, according to Danny Banks, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as domestic terror incident,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said.

The suspect was identified as Omar Mateen of Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Rep. Alan Grayson named the shooter, citing law enforcement officials. A federal law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation also confirmed the name. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

FBI agent Ron Hopper said there was no further threat to Orlando or the surrounding area.

When asked if the gunman had a connection to radical Islamic terrorism, Hopper said authorities had “suggestions that individual has leanings towards that.”

Authorities said they had secured the suspect’s vehicle, a van, right outside the club.

Relatives and friends, many in tears, gathered outside the hospital to learn whether their loved ones were among the dead or wounded.

Smith did not know the conditions of her friends and came out of the hospital and burst into tears.

The wounded included one police officer who was shot and suffered injuries to his face, officials said.

Police had said previously on Twitter that there was a “controlled explosion” at the scene of the shooting. Mina said that noise was caused by a device intended to distract the shooter.

A woman who was outside the dance club early Sunday was trying to contact her 30-year-old son, Eddie, who texted her when the shooting happened and asked her to call police. He told her he ran into a bathroom with other club patrons to hide. He then texted her: “He’s coming.”

“The next text said: ‘He has us, and he’s in here with us,'” Mina Justice said. “That was the last conversation.”

Pulse posted on its own Facebook page around 2 a.m.: “Everyone get out of Pulse and keep running.” Just before 6 a.m., the club posted an update: “As soon as we have any information, we will update everyone. Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event. Thank you for your thoughts and love.”

Local, state and federal agencies were investigating.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the attack and asked for regular updates on the investigation, the White House said.

The attack follows the fatal shooting late Friday of 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie, who was killed after her concert in Orlando by a 27-year-old Florida man who later killed himself. Grimmie was a YouTube sensation and former contestant on “The Voice.”

Jon Alamo said he was at the back of one of the club’s rooms when a man holding a weapon came into the front of the room.

“I heard 20, 40, 50 shots,” Alamo said. “The music stopped.”

Club-goer Rob Rick said the shooting started just before closing time.

“Everybody was drinking their last sip,” he said.

He estimated more than 100 people were still inside when he heard shots, got on the ground and crawled toward a DJ booth. A bouncer knocked down a partition between the club area and an area in the back where only workers are allowed. People inside were able to then escape through the back of the club.

Christopher Hansen said he was in the VIP lounge when he heard gunshots. He continued to hear shooting even after he emerged and police urged people to back away from the club. He saw the wounded being tended to across the street.

“I was thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So I just dropped down. I just said, ‘Please, please, please, I want to make it out,'” he said. “And when I did, I saw people shot. I saw blood. You hope and pray you don’t get shot.”

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