MANATEE -- It had been a quiet Friday night.
Lt. Scott Kemp of Manatee County Emergency Medical Services was asleep in a bunk in an unused wing of Manatee Memorial Hospital rented by county EMS.
A few miles away at the North River Fire District on 14th Ave. W., Palmetto, Battalion Chief Michael Williamson was also bedded down.
At about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, both men were jarred awake.
Williamson received an alert dispatch tone. Kemp got a call on his cell phone from the county’s Emergency Communications Center.
“We have a shooting at 704 10th St. W., Palmetto,” the dispatcher said. “Medic 2 is responding.”
The North River Fire crew assigned to Medic 2, one of 17 EMS ambulance crews strategically placed around the county, was on its way.
Engine 11 also began to rumble out of North River, with Williamson in pursuit in his command SUV.
Back at Manatee Memorial, the dispatcher called Kemp with the news: “We have two patients. No, make that three patients.”
“Get another unit going,” Kemp told the dispatcher.
The dispatcher quickly alerted an EMS technician sharing quarters with Kemp, who began scrambling into his gear and racing to Medic 16, which was parked at Manatee Memorial Hospital.
Kemp jumped into his gear and hopped into his SUV.
On the way to the address, he monitored the Palmetto Police Department radio dispatches that were streaming out.
It sounded bad.
His mind was blazing.
He only had 17 ambulances. How many would be needed?
Both Kemp and Williamson describe the next 40 minutes as probably the most intense of their professional lives.
The two men were headed to what Kemp describes as “a career call, a once-in-a-lifetime horrific mass-shooting incident that if I never get again will make me a happy camper.”
The mass shooting by gunmen with handguns and rifles at the Club Elite would claim the lives of two and injure 22.
It commanded seven of the county’s 17 ambulances. It required 14 Manatee County EMS technicians, three fire-engine companies from North River Fire manned by eight firefighters and scores of Palmetto police officers and Manatee County Sheriff’s deputies.
A critical decision
On shooting calls, EMS always “stages” its vehicles and command units about a block away until law enforcement can secure the scene.
But when Williamson staged the Club Elite in his vehicle with Medic 2 ambulance next to him, almost instantly a victim who had been shot saw the units in the staging area and ran there, going into the ambulance for treatment.
Williamson right then made a decision to drive his SUV in front of the club.
“Our staging was compromised, and I just made a decision to go in and see what type of resources we would need and confirm what Palmetto PD was saying over the radio, which was pretty scary,” Williamson said.
Kemp was a block away in his SUV, assuming the role of commanding officer for EMS on the scene.
“My job was not to go in but to stage and work with our Manatee County EMS Captain Kathy Peel, who was on the scene,” Kemp said.
Peel, who walked the entire perimeter of the club with another first responder to check for any injured people who were out of sight, later told Kemp that she had never been on such a frightening call.
“The best word for the scene was chaos,” Kemp said. ”I was listening to radio traffic from our EMS dispatcher, the fire department, police and arriving EMS. What they were describing was chaotic.”
Slipping on shell casings
Williamson jumped from his SUV right into the heart of the chaos.
“As I approached the establishment, I was slipping on the shell casings, very large shell casings,” Williamson said.
The next thing he saw was a frightening stream of injured people, walking, yelling for friends, screaming.
“I was met with an incalculable amount of patients,” Williamson said. “I saw law enforcement officers performing medical aid. I was seeing all types of injuries, from gunshot wounds to some cut by glass. There was glass all over the sidewalk.
“I saw a lot of wounds from the waist down,” Williamson added. “I saw small-caliber or bullet fragment-type wounds. I saw ricochet wounds. There was screaming.”
A club security guard, apparently an employee working inside, came up to Williamson.
“You have to come inside,” he told Williamson.
“I can’t see anything,” Williamson said. “You need to lead me.”
Inside, there were people walking in a daze, some injured, and there were several on the ground. It was hard to see anything. The light was very low.
“In 24 years, this was the most horrific call that I have ever been on because of the sheer volume of patients,” Williamson said. “There were hurt people everywhere you looked. We had to figure out who was injured and who was psychologically compromised because of the incident.”
Williamson and others tried to cordon off the walking wounded in one area. But they were so concerned about injured friends and upset that they would disappear from their area.
“They would keep coming back to the scene, checking on family and friends while we were trying to get an accurate triage,” Williamson said.
Within a short time, first responders had established a successful triage and had the most critical cases, five trauma alert cases in all, ready to go to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Two less severely injured patients were ready to go to Manatee Memorial Hospital.
Trauma alert patients must go to a trauma center, which means Bayfront Medical Center, Williamson said. But making the intense scene even more complex, the responders were alerted that fog was keeping Bayfront’s helicopters on the ground at that hour.
“We don’t think this really delayed us because, from this location in Palmetto, our ambulances could get them to Bayfront faster than a helicopter,” Williamson said.
Both Kemp and Williamson say the unified response was solid. If he would praise anyone, it would be the county’s Emergency Communications Center.
“As fast as we were making requests, they were dumping resources,” Williamson said.
Like others, Williamson and Kemp say it could have been much, much worse.
“Looking at the damage and the weapons that were used, it could have been a lot worse,” Williamson said. “These bullets were penetrating buildings. I am so thankful we had no injuries among our first responders. I wouldn’t say we were perfect, but everything worked. We overcame every obstacle.”
Now that it is over, Kemp said he is thankful for all the training he has received over the years on working a disaster scene.
“From the time we got the call to the time we got all the patients off scene was 40 minutes,” Kemp said. “I went from sleeping to the biggest mass casualty shooting in the county’s history.”
Said Williamson: “I will never forget the amount of innocent civilians I saw wounded and the sheer terror in their voices and faces.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.