TAMPA BAY, Fla. - For as many things that went very wrong at last summer's Pulse Nightclub attack, one thing went very right: a majority of club-goers were able to find emergency exits quickly, ensuring the terrorist gunman would not claim additional victims.
The tragedy stands in stark contrast to another nightclub tragedy: the preventable 2003 fire at The Station in Providence, R.I., where 100 people died because of safety violations and insufficient exits.
While the two tragedies had many differences, they have one glaring similarity: the ability to get out of the building quickly was the single biggest determining factor if individuals lived or died.
WARNING: Graphic language used.
So 10Investigates dug into the fire inspection reports for Tampa Bay nightclubs to see if they would be prepared to respond to an emergency quickly and evacuate their customers, often from rooms with little-to-no lighting.
And many clubs - in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties - were frequently cited by fire marshals when they conducted their inspections every 2-3 years. Even when inspectors prompted quick fixes on-site, 10Investigates found some clubs quickly lapsed into complacency with potentially deadly mistakes such as blocking emergency exit routes.
Pulse, one year later
“Everybody was running in every direction they could and I remember the smoke being in the air and you could just smell the gunpowder from how many times he was just unloading on everybody."
Tampa native Amanda Grau remembers lying on the floor of Pulse, moments after passing out from being shot in the side by terrorist Omar Mateen.
“The screaming and crying...that's something that nobody should ever have to go through," she recalls. "All I thought about was just getting out of that room.”
So Grau popped up, bleeding from under her armpit, and ran - not out of the building as so many others did, but toward the restrooms.
For the next three hours, she sat huddled on the floor of the restroom with dozens of others as Mateen continued to terrorize, shoot, and kill.
Grau was shot three more times in the bathroom.
But she was one of the lucky few who survived the night. Her close friend Christopher did not.
“Unbelievable what this man did," Grau said. "Unbelievable and disgusting what he did to all of us.”
Tampa Bay undercover
10Investigates visited several nightclubs that had been previously cited by fire marshals in St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Hillsborough County.
In addition to emergency lighting issues spotted at some clubs, 10Investigates found a couch partially blocking an emergency exit on the second-floor balcony at the Dallas Bull on US-301 in Hillsborough County. In a fire, that could create a dangerous bottleneck as hundreds of concert- or club-goers try to escape.
Fire inspectors say mistakes like that are common among bars and restaurants.
"(Safety) is not (a nightclub's) No. 1 concern," said Lt. Steven Lawrence with St. Pete Fire Rescue. "Generally, it’s 'how many people can I get inside this structure and how much money can I make for the evening?' "
Violations were also an issue at nightclub 260 First, operated by MacDinton's, in St. Petersburg. After an initial 2017 fire inspection identified lapses with obstructed exits, fire extinguishers, exit signs, and lack of secondary exit from an outdoor balcony, management agreed to show 10Investigates the improvements the club made afterward.
But an April re-inspection revealed many of the issues had not yet been corrected, and club management reneged on its interview offer and stopped responding to 10Investigates. St. Pete Fire Rescue continues to work with the club on complying with fire code & improving safety.
Life after Pulse
Grau, a nurse by trade, says she constantly relives every moment of that deadly night.
"It plays in my mind every day," she said, recounting how she tried to assist other victims with their wounds. "I just wish I could have saved more people."
Grau also played a pivotal role in helping law enforcement stop Mateen, as she secretly sent text messages throughout the three terror-filled hours in the bathroom.
She is much healthier physically after 11 months of rehab, but struggles with much of the mental recovery. She cannot spend much time in crowds and will never enter a business the same way again.
"I’m more aware of my surroundings and I try to look for exit points," she said.
Later this year, Grau will marry her long-time girlfriend and try to continue to put the past behind her.
“I try to smile every day as much as I can. I go through my bad days – I’m not going to lie - but I try to get through it as much as I can and take it one day at a time.”
Local club inspections