ORLANDO, Fla. - An Orlando police lieutenant who led a team into Pulse nightclub as gunman Omar Mateen was opening fire on patrons was recently recognized for his heroic efforts that night.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in partnership with Target, named Orlando Police Lt. Scott Smith its Officer of the Year.
Smith was one of the first law enforcement officers to arrive at the nightclub, minutes after Mateen first began shooting at 2:02 a.m. on June 12, 2016.
"When I arrived within a couple of minutes and you open your door and you can still hear that rifle fire, that's the first time I knew this was going to be drastically different," Smith said.
He had responded to nightclub shootings in the past, but nothing on the same scale as the mass shooting at Pulse, which left 49 people dead and dozens of others injured.
"I hear the off-duty unit come over the radio and in the background you can hear the shots being fired and that was the first time I heard Scott's voice, Lt. Smith's voice, say 'Hey, if he's still shooting, you need to go and challenge him,'" OPD officer Kyle Medvetz said.
Smith said he instantly reverted back to his training and began leading officers toward the gunfire coming from the dance floor at 2:09 a.m.
"On scene, when you first hear that sound and see the amount of people that are fleeing, some of them wounded some of them aren't, you know a lot of it just goes back to training, we call it muscle memory... It all reverts back to that and trusting yourself and being able to make split-second decisions," Smith said.
Smith led the officers in a diamond formation through the club with the priority, at that point, being to save as many lives as possible. Clubgoers had crammed into bathrooms, closets and any other small space they could find in an effort to survive what would go down in history as one of the deadliest mass shooting in America.
"Going through every nook and cranny some places you would think like, 'No, not one person could hide there.' We found five people," Detective Graham Cage said.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said Smith and the other law enforcement officers who responded to the scene saved 90 people alive from the club.
Smith's team moved through the club until they got to the bathroom where Mateen was hiding with several hostages. That's when officers came face-to-face with the terrorist.
Outside of the building, shortly before 5 a.m., first responders were preparing to breach the wall so more patrons could be saved.
"As they moved the BearCat around to the north side to be able to breach that wall, the gunman came out and started firing at our officers. So our officers returned fire, with Scott being right there with them returning fire, and they were able to kill him," Deputy Chief Mark Canty said.
Mateen was dead by 5:15 a.m. and all the victims were rescued by 5:27 a.m., more than three hours after the attack began.
Mina recalled that story when he submitted Smith for the IACP Police Officer of the Year award. He said Smith was selected among hundreds of nominees and received the prestigious award at a ceremony in Philadelphia on Oct. 21.
"Now with Scott, the first one in, to this active shooter situation not knowing where the suspect is because of the echoing and because of the sound, he still went in there, which is amazing and I'll say frankly, the bravest and most courageous act I've ever seen as a police officer," Mina said.
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