Frantic and Terrified, They Called 911 From Inside Pulse Nightclub. Bill Hammer Answered.
As the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre approaches, 911 call taker Bill Hammer reflects on the calls he took on what was the longest night of his life.
Nor does he know if some of the people he spoke with even survived.
“We don’t know what happens at the end a lot,” Hammer tells me, recalling the first call he took around 2 AM that night—a man, breathing heavy, while gunman Omar Mateen unleashed a flurry of gunshots. “I don’t know what happened to the victim. I don’t know if he lived or died. It’s one of those situations where your brain wanders.”
The 51-year-old call taker and military veteran had been working as a 911 operator for over six years when he found himself fielding calls during an active shooter situation that would go on to become the deadliest mass killing in modern U.S. history, leaving 49 dead and dozens more injured on Latin night in an LGBT nightclub in Orlando.
Hammer and the other 911 operators working in the communications center that night found themselves in uncharted territory, talking to terrified patrons who were hiding from Mateen, huddled together in restrooms during a three-hour standoff between negotiators and the gunman. Mateen was ultimately killed in a shootout after 5 AM.
“You train based on the things that have been done in the past,” Hammer recalls. “Well, this has never happened.”
Public 911 records show that, at 2:11 AM that night, nine minutes after an officer working at Pulse first signaled for help, Hammer took a call from a group of people who were hiding in a second-floor office, one of them a man who had been shot in the stomach.
“You got a shirt or something to hold, push on your wound to keep the blood from coming out?” Hammer asked him, after informing dispatchers of the group’s location.
“Just wait with me,” Hammer said. “I’m not going to hang up on you. Stay with me.”
That group was eventually rescued. Then, at 2:35 AM, Hammer took a call from a young woman who was trapped in a dressing room with another group of patrons.
As the Miami Herald first reported after the call audio was released last year, Hammer helped reassure her and the group while officers coordinated an escape plan that involved removing a portable air conditioning unit from the wall.
For over ninety minutes, Hammer did his best to be what 911 operators call “the calm voice in the dark”—a constant, calming presence in the midst of unimaginable danger. When the young woman said that she didn’t have a family yet, Hammer said, “You’re going to have a story to tell them one day, huh?”
“I hope so,” she replied. “I really hope so.”
She stayed on the phone until the last person in the group got out safely. If Hammer could meet anyone he spoke with the night of the shooting, it would be her.
“It would be nice for me to meet that girl one day, give her a hug, and say what a great job you did, but we haven’t been able to do any of that,” Hammer tells me today.
But like so many 911 operators, Hammer didn’t take the job to get public recognition. After four years in the military straight out of high school, Hammer ended up working for an oil change chain for 23 years, rising in the ranks to a management position in Florida and having two sons with his wife along the way. Lucky enough to enter semi-retirement early, Hammer wanted to spend the next chapter of his life doing good behind the scenes.
“I always wanted to be that person who can help,” he says.
That’s why it has been hard for him and the other 911 call takers to accept accolades or praise in the year since the Pulse shooting: They want to keep the focus on the victims and survivors, and on the officers—the people they consider the real heroes of the night.
“We went to a Heroes’ Luncheon a couple weeks ago and that, to be honest with you—a lot of that is really hard to absorb,” he says. “I don’t think any of us see ourselves as heroes because this is what we choose to do every day … It’s really hard to take that applause or take that ‘atta boy’ because that’s what we’re there to do.”
In fact, Hammer is the only 911 call taker from that night who was willing to speak to a reporter when The Daily Beast asked the Orlando Police Department for an interview.
A number of call takers who were working that night, Hammer explains, cannot speak to the press because the night is too hard for them to relive; some were so affected by it that they since moved on to other roles. Counselors and chaplains are still available to 911 operators today.
“But there’s also people that don’t even want to talk about it to try to keep the limelight away,” Hammer adds.
“I mean this in a positive way: at the 911 call center, we’re kind of in the background,” he explains. “We understand that, that’s what we choose to do, and there’s no expectation of maybe meeting these people.”
Hammer agreed to talk to reporters for the Pulse anniversary but, in so doing, has felt more affected by the shooting now than ever before.
“Now that I’m doing the interviews and rehashing it, it’s kind of more upsetting now than it was back then, just having to remember everything,” he tells me, adding, “I’m still processing—and probably the rest of my life I’ll process it.”
The most difficult thing for Hammer to deal with, he says, is the sheer scale of the violence as compared to the kind of calls he has taken before and since.
“You process the random deaths that you deal with on the phone,” he tells me. “But to process 49 people dead, and to process 50 other people were shot, and to process several hundred running for their lives? I just don’t know if I’ll ever really understand what that meant.”
But there has also been healing and growth in the year since the shooting. For one, Hammer didn’t realize in the moment that he was dealing with a shooting at an LGBT nightclub. (“All I got was ‘I’m at the Pulse nightclub,’” he recalls. “Well, I don’t go downtown—I’m past that age—and we’ve got 30 nightclubs down there that change names once a year.”)
But since last June, the straight and married father of two says that he has “met dozens of LGBT people” and “it’s opened [his] eyes up to a different way of life.” He never bore any sort of ill will against the LGBT community before, he says, but meeting these new people has still been a powerful experience.
“I think everybody’s opened up,” he says. “I think the world has opened up.”
Hammer also believes that those who have continued working as 911 call takers after that night have only become more effective in their roles.
The operators who were there for the shooting, he says, had to collectively step up “to the next level and then the next level and then the next level” as they took call after call from Pulse.
“I think that night made us all better because there is nothing else that bad that could happen that we couldn’t handle,” he says.
When the comms center finally heard that Mateen had been taken down shortly after 5 AM, Hammer recalls that “the whole comms center clapped, we were happy, we knew we had done our jobs.”
But after the relief wore off, he remembers a sudden shift in the group’s demeanor: “You could see everybody just drained.” “You could see it in their faces,” he says. “Some people cried.”
Hammer went home that morning to be with his family and watch the news but he had to return to work the next day and the day after that before getting some time off. Within a week, he says, he had stopped thinking about the gunman and his motives, about the reported hate in his heart that led him to kill so many at an LGBT safe haven.
“To be honest, he’s not worth my time any longer,” Hammer tells me.
But there is one voice in the night that has stuck with him—the voice of a frightened young woman, hiding in a dressing room, hoping that she and her fellow survivors will be able to escape through the air conditioning unit.
Hammer doesn’t feel an urgent need to meet her—“I would assume that maybe she’s the type of person who doesn’t want to be in the limelight,” he says—but wherever she is, he is happy that she gets to live out a life he helped ensure would continue.
“She knows who she is,” he says.