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  • Writer's picturePulse Families and Survivors for Justice

Records Show Pulse Nightclub Was Overcapacity in Violation of Life Safety Codes

Updated: May 3

At the time of the massacre, the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub was the deadliest in the history of the United States.

As such, questions were asked almost immediately about the number of people in the nightclub when the shooting broke out at 2:02 AM on June 12, 2016. This was right after the "last call" for alcohol, near the end of the night, and after many people had already left the club.

On July 1, 2016, just weeks after the shooting, WFTV reported that Orlando Police publicly stated that 321 people were in the nightclub. However, after the Orlando Police Department (OPD) made this statement publicly, news outlets were not able to get a definitive answer from the City of Orlando or the nightclub owner's lawyer about the number of survivors.

This is likely because the occupancy load limit at the Pulse Nightclub was set to 299/300 by the City of Orlando Fire Department (OFD) Fire Marshal, which is documented in the maximum occupancy load signs from 2005 and 2015. This was also documented by Click Orlando (Channel 6) News.

WFTV also reported in the same segment that the nightclub's required clicker counter was not taken into evidence by the FBI.

The City of Orlando required the Pulse Nightclub to keep track of the number of people entering and leaving at all times with a clicker counter. This is documented in exit checks and inspections of the Pulse Nightclub conducted by the OFD since it opened. One of many examples of the Pulse Nightclub being written up for occupancy issues can be seen below:

Disregarding the fact that there were over 320 survivors and 49 victims, the FBI did not criminally investigate overcrowding at the nightclub nor the negligence of the owner and employees admitting people into the nightclub that night while collecting a $10 cover charge, which was unpermitted because of the building's CUP (Conditional Use Permit) except for special occasions.

Rather, Ron Hopper, who led the FBI's Pulse Nightclub Shooting investigation and started working for the FBI in 2015, ignored this issue completely, as well as the unpermitted renovations and code violations inside the Pulse Nightclub. In 2021, he left the FBI and began working for the Seminole County Sheriff's Office.

In 2022, soon after victims' families and survivors expanded their premise liability civil lawsuit against the Pulse Nightclub, Hopper attended a TopGolf Fundraiser as a special guest to help raise money for the onePULSE Foundation—the now-dissolved and disgraced nonprofit started by the Pulse Nightclub's owners and ran by nightclub owner Barbara Poma who was paid a six-figure salary by the nonprofit she started.

Channel 9 News reported they would address this occupancy issue the following day with the City of Orlando. However, there was never any subsequent coverage of this matter. The issue of Pulse Nightclub's overcrowding on the night of the shooting vanished from the public sphere.

Despite the lack of public oversight and follow-through by local journalists, we have been able to collect documentation since the shooting that proves the Pulse Nightclub was, in fact, overcrowded on the night of the shooting.

Contrary to statements crafted by the Office of Mayor Buddy Dyer, public records also show that the Pulse Nightclub had a pattern of operating over capacity—a serious life safety issue that the City of Orlando continues to deny despite its own documentation.

The overcrowding of the Pulse Nightclub is important because this would have also encumbered escape, in addition to the unpermitted renovations, code violations, and other obstructions that impeded fleeing shooting victims, which we have documented over the years through public records and first-hand accounts from survivors.

The New York Times even reported issues with egress and the Pulse Nightclub being loud and crowded affecting the death count. It reported:

"Mass shooting fatalities are often higher in large, crowded spaces that are somewhat confined, making it hard for people to escape, said J. Pete Blair, a Texas State University professor who trains law enforcement officers to respond to shooters. The noise may have also played a factor: When Mr. Mateen started shooting, one patron said he first thought the gunfire was firecrackers; others said they thought it was part of the music. “Without available avenues of egress, it seems like they didn’t have an easy way of getting out,” Mr. Blair said."

Some of those issues with egress we have documented here and here. It is important to emphasize that whether they are unpermitted renovations to the building, building code violations, violations of land development codes, violations of fire (life safety) code, or other violations of municipal code, all of the code violations at the Pulse Nightclub played a role in the shooting and the severity of its deadly aftermath.

The dangerous pattern of the Pulse Nightclub operating illegally and over its legal capacity has been documented by the City of Orlando itself. On Thursday, June 5, 2008, the Fire Department was called out to the Pulse Nightclub due to the "hazardous condition" of the overcrowded nightclub. The report states,

"E-5 responded to report of overcrowding of a nightclub. Upon arrival off-duty OPD officer stated she also felt club was beyond its occupancy load. E-5 met with on duty manager and requested total number of patrons currently inside. The manager was unsure and occupancy sign was not posted although the sign was found after E-5 crew conducted an exit check. Exit doors were unlocked although any access throughout the club was slow due to the number of patrons. On premise was advised to not allow any more occupants into the club this evening (0130 hrs). E-5 advised on duty manager that without a dedicated door clicker that counted patrons entering and leaving, that the club had no accurate method to monitor occupancy. E-5 officer advised the manager that the occupancy load sign needed to be posted and measures were needed to control the number of patrons."

You can see this page of the report below:

In an interview with CBS News, Pulse survivor Demetrice Naulings told the story of how difficult it was getting out of the club with the rush of people desperately trying to exit a narrow hallway and door to flee the property while the gunman was shooting into the club and unpermitted dancefloor.

So, if we do not have access to the clicker counter, what proof do we have that Pulse was over capacity on the night of the shooting?

Records of Pulse Being Over Capacity on June 12, 2016

First, we submitted multiple record requests for information about the number of people inside of the Pulse Nightclub at the time of the shooting.

Since Channel 9 Eyewitness News reported the number 321, which was the number provided by the Orlando Police, we first asked for that. There were no responsive records.

So, we started asking the City for other records. None of them definitively stated how many people were inside the Pulse Nightclub on the night of the shooting.

So, we continued to dig.

When we were researching where donations went in the direct aftermath of the mass shooting, we came across a nonprofit that popped up immediately after the shooting that was led by Aly Benitez—the niece of Barbara Poma and Rosario Poma's lawyer, Gus Benitez, who has been representing them and the Pulse Nightclub business/property in legal matters for years.

This organization gave money to exactly 299 people, which is "coincidentally" the exact number as the occupancy load limit at Pulse.

Comparatively, the National Compassion Fund (NCF) gave funds to 305 victims/survivors of the shooting who applied for funds. These applicants were all verified by the FBI, taking the count to over the legal limit. Typically, not all victims/survivors sign up to receive funds from centralized victims' funds after mass shootings. So, this is almost always an undercount.

The Orlando United Assistance Center (OUAC), which was set up by the United Way after the shooting to "help" survivors and families, had a list of survivors that amounted to roughly 320 survivors. This is in addition to the 49 people murdered. Taking the total number of those inside of the nightclub to roughly 369.

We were able to get our hands on this list in 2023 and noticed that there was at least one well-documented survivor who was not listed on their master list, as well as the names of a small group of survivors who claimed to be visiting from out-of-town and had no idea that there were resources available after the shooting. It is possible that there were others at Pulse Nightclub when the shooting started who are not documented on either the NCF or OUAC lists.

Both victim counts exceed the Pulse Nightclub's occupancy load limit. Thus, there is more evidence than not that Pulse was overcrowded and over its legal capacity on the night of the shooting.

To this day, the City has not released a total victim/survivor count.

The City's Lies and the Coverup

The City crafted several untrue statements to mislead the public about Pulse Nightclub's occupancy load limit and being over capacity on the night of the shooting, which are easily disproven by the City's own records.

First, the City claimed that Pulse Nightclub's occupancy load limit had not been changed. The City stated, "

However, City records show that this is not true.

Before becoming Dantes and the Pulse Nightclub, the building at 1912 S. Orange Avenue was a restaurant called Lorenzo's. Operating in compliance, the occupancy load was set at 153 people.

After the owners purchased the property, they renovated the building to become the Pulse Nightclub. However, the property's new owners did not expand its square footage and later removed parking spaces to make room for the nightclub's illegal patio bar.

They also installed numerous stages, particularly in the Adonis room, that limited standing room in the nightclub.

How did the occupancy load at the Pulse Nightclub nearly double when the square footage remained the same and additional space was taken up by stages, bars, and VIP seating areas?

Through public records requests, the City of Orlando stated that it did not have occupancy load calculations for every time the Pulse Nightclub's occupancy load limit was changed by the Orlando Fire Department.

This suggests that the City changed the business's occupancy load arbitrarily.

We know from public records that the Pulse Nightclub owners told the City of Orlando that they could not afford to install a required security system in 2009.

According to Fire Codes, this new system was necessary for buildings with an occupancy load over 300. Rather than force the business to follow the law and life safety requirements, the Fire Department lowered the Pulse Nightclub's occupancy load back down to 299, knowing that the nightclub frequently operates over capacity anyways.

Furthermore, the City drafted a standard response they have repeated since we began going public with this information, which is that "there was no pattern of life safety issues at the Pulse Nightclub." However, as we stated before, overcrowding is a life safety issue and there is a pattern of overcrowding at the Pulse Nightclub in the Orlando Fire Department's own records.

Lastly, the City's own chronicle of code violations and unpermitted renovations at the Pulse Nightclub (below) shows that egress at the club was an ongoing concern of the City.

Permitting timeline 2
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