Saturday, January 20, 2018
Public safety

Orlando fire chief recalls grim task firefighters faced in aftermath of Pulse shooting (w/video)

ORLANDO — As firefighters and paramedics worked feverishly to try to save the victims of Sunday's massacre, Orlando Fire District Chief Bryan Davis watched as they made the grimmest decision of all:

Who got a red tag and who got a black tag.

Red tags went to gunshot victims who could be saved. They were rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Black tags went to the dead.

"This is a difficult task to decide if this individual gets to go to the hospital or not," Davis said.

He was the top Orlando Fire Department commander on the scene of the Pulse nightclub shooting, where 49 people were killed and 53 wounded. On Friday, the district chief described the harrowing, chaotic and grim situation first responders faced.

And he talked about the dozens of times they had to decide that a life could not be saved.

"For that (rescuer) to have to put that black tag on an individual, to know I'm moving on to the next (victim)," Davis said, "that has to be a tough moment for all those individuals involved in that triage area."

Davis said his first indication that what happened at Pulse was far more serious than the shooting incidents the department is used to dealing with was the voice of a fire lieutenant over the radio.

"I could hear the intensity in his voice when he told me what was happening," Davis said. "We knew this wasn't just a shooting involving one or two individuals. We knew this was going to grow."

The shooting started around 2 a.m. When the first ambulances and fire engines arrived at the club at 1912 S Orange Ave., Davis said they encountered "a flood of individuals walking down Orange Avenue, doing what they could do."

Some of the wounded made it to nearby Orlando Fire Station 5. Others made the 10-minute walk to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where surgeons and dozens of nurses were rushing back to work to start treating victims. Ambulances started taking multiple patients there.

Around the club, a triage area was set up at the Einstein Bros. Bagels shop across S Orange Avenue. Another was set up on a street behind the club, where paramedics treated those who escaped through the rear.

After the first 911 calls, officials said there were 35 fire and medical vehicles on the scene within the first 10 minutes. All told, fire officials said they had 80 people working the shooting scene.

While police were engaged in a standoff with the gunman inside the club, firefighters and paramedics outside started setting up the triage areas to treat and sort the wounded.

But the situation grew more dire.

"This was a dynamic scene," Davis said. "It went from being an active shooter to now possibly we have an explosive device inside."

Then around 5 a.m., when a tactical team smashed a hole into the club's wall and killed the gunman three hours after the incident started, they were finally able to evacuate the wounded who were trapped inside.

During the standoff, gunman Omar Mateen threatened to rig himself, his hostages and the club with explosives, the New York Times reported, but authorities have found no evidence that he had explosives.

"Within a matter of minutes of them making entry and taking the gunman down," Davis said, "they were bringing us patients."

Many of the wounded, Davis said, suffered "devastating injuries" from the semiautomatic rifle the gunman used in the attack.

The day after the shooting, all 80 people who worked the scene underwent a mandatory stress debriefing, to help them deal with the traumas they had witnessed.

"When I first got home I didn't really want to talk about it," Davis said. "I was just glad to be home, glad to have a moment to gather my thoughts and think about it.

"I didn't really talk about it for the first 12 or 24 hours just because I really wanted to decompress for a little bit, spend some time with my wife and my kids, ride my bike, do something that helps me release a little bit."

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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