PARKLAND, Fla. (CN) – A fire rescue commander who helped manage the response to the Florida school shooting that left 17 dead Wednesday said in an interview that en route to the massacre, his team clung to futile hopes that reports of unrelenting gunfire at the suburban campus would turn out to be a false alarm.
But the 911 calls kept pouring in, and when Michael Moser, division chief of the Coral Springs Fire Department, arrived on scene at the school, his worst nightmare was realized and the first responders under his command encountered unbridled chaos.
Nineteen-year-old expelled student Nikolas Cruz had allegedly rampaged through Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida with an AR-15 rifle just before the end of the school day Feb. 14.
Injured students and teachers were strewn across the campus, and the floors of a school building were covered in blood.
“As I was driving here, the information at the beginning was uncertain. So part of me hoped that this was a fake call,” Moser said in an interview outside the school. “Part of me hoped this was less than they made it out to be. As I was gathering more info, I learned that it was the real deal.”
Moser said scores of paramedics and first responders from Broward County triaged and transported most of the injured patients within minutes.
“It was a very difficult scene, very chaotic…. [It] went from level 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to be able to get a majority of the patients off the scene within 10 minutes.”
A student of the high school at a local McDonald’s Thursday afternoon recounted gruesome images: a schoolmate with a gunshot wound to the head, and bodies pressed up against the outside of locked classroom doors. Moser said the scene was heart-wrenching.
“It is emotional. But at the same time, you have to work. You put those emotions aside and deal with them later. I think our men and women saved a lot of lives yesterday,” Moser said.
With his voice at times barely audible over the frantic sobs of a young girl nearby, Coral Springs Fire Chief Frank Babinec at a press conference echoed Moser’s statements, noting that first responders en route to the school “weren’t sure if this was a real event or not.”
Upon arrival, the reality dawned on them.
“Our first responders can never unsee what they saw yesterday,” Babinec said at the press conference.
Moser said the fire department does active shooter training often.
“It’s something that we have to be proficient in,” Moser said. “We’re ready to act whenever we need to. This is the type of call that you train for, that you see on TV in other jurisdictions. You hope that it never happens here. … But it happened here.”
While paramedics were transporting patients from the school, which has more than 3,200 students enrolled, the alleged shooter was making his way off campus. He had dropped his gun at the school and was able to blend in with fleeing students, according to an arrest report.
It was revealed Thursday afternoon that Coconut Creek police officer Michael Leonard came upon Cruz as the 19-year-old walked on a sidewalk off campus. Leonard said at a media briefing that he recognized that Cruz’s clothes matched the description of the shooter. He said Cruz “complied with [his] demands” and surrendered without resistance.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office has stated that Cruz was kicked out of Stoneman Douglas High School for disciplinary reasons last year.
Cruz has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, according to court documents. He is being held without bond. He was seen being taken into a booking area Wednesday night in a hospital gown after receiving treatment at a local medical center for minor health issues.
According to the arrest report released Thursday, Cruz admitted that he was the shooter.
The arrest report states that an Uber driver had picked up Cruz, who was carrying his weapon and ammo in a duffel bag and backpack, and dropped him off at the high school before he carried out the attack. The report notes that Cruz purchased the AR-15 in February 2017. The seller was not specified.
Damar Osouna told Courthouse News in an interview outside the high school Thursday that Cruz was his classmate at an alternative school.
“I had an ‘off’ vibe from him,” Osouna said in an interview. “He always talked about guns.”
“He had a few friends. He wasn’t alone all the time,” Osouna said. “He wasn’t like a popular kid. He just had a little circle [of friends].”
Osouna said Cruz would speak of committing violent acts, but that it seemed as if he was being facetious.
“He would say it in a joking manner. So you wouldn’t take it too serious,” Osouna said.
The death of Coach Aaron Feis, who is being credited with shielding students from gunfire, hit Osouna particularly hard.
“Coach would always be there for you. He was such a caring person. It felt like it shouldn’t have been him,” Osouna said.
Recounting Cruz’s social media activity, Osouna said Cruz once cut open a toad, posted pictures of it on his Instagram account, and justified the act by posting a message that his dog had been poisoned or killed by a frog.
According to a Sun Sentinel report, past neighbors of Cruz recalled another act of animal cruelty, namely that Cruz shot at chickens in the neighborhood.
One former classmate claimed in an interview with WJXT that students had in jest suggested that one day Cruz would “shoot up the school.”
The alleged gunman lived with his adoptive mother at various residences in Broward County throughout his youth, until her death last November, after which point he moved in with a friend’s family in north Broward County, according to the Sentinel report. Jim Lewis, an attorney for that family, said they were aware that Cruz had a rifle, and had him keep it in a lockbox.
The FBI has revealed that it investigated an alarming comment posted on YouTube under the name “nikolas cruz” last September, according to the New York Times. The poster said he was “going to be a professional school shooter.”
“No other information was included in the comment which would indicate a particular time, location, or the true identity of the person who posted the comment,” an FBI statement reads.
The Anti-Defamation League stated on Feb. 15 that a spokesperson for the white nationalist group Republic of Florida admitted that Cruz was associated with the group.
A Republic of Florida member told the Anti-Defamation League that Cruz had participated in ROF training exercises in the Tallahassee area, according to the League’s web site.
The group describes itself as a “white civil rights organization” that seeks to create a “white ethnostate” in Florida, according to the ADL.