A metro Atlanta man witnessed the Orlando gay club massacre from a nearby rooftop, describing the attack with images and tweets that went viral as the killings received worldwide media attention.
Nic Hornstein, a 30-year-old Decatur resident and self-described bike jock, was in Orlando to compete in a cycling event. Hornstein, who is straight, stayed with a friend who lived in an apartment on Orange Avenue a few buildings away from Pulse. That's the gay nightclub where a heavily armed Omar Saddiqui Mateen gunned down 49 people and injured 53 others early Sunday.
Hornstein said that after his race on Saturday evening, he returned to the apartment and fell asleep about midnight. But two hours later, gunfire erupted, waking him up and giving Hornstein and his friends a front-row seat to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
"I was awoken by gunfire, by the sounds of the original gunfire," Hornstein told Project Q Atlanta. "At that time, I didn't know what was going on and didn't know there was a hostage situation."
When he and his friends spotted people fleeing the club – about 100 yards from the apartment – they ran down to Orange Avenue to help. But police quickly ushered them back inside. So they went to the roof of the building and tweeted what they were seeing from their cellphones.
The first came at 3:57 a.m.
Over two hours, Hornstein tweeted eight more times. At 6:14 a.m., after sunrise gave the first light to the tragedy, Hornstein posted his final tweet.
But it's the tweet Hornstein posted at 5:40 a.m. that received widespread attention. It includes video of the burst of gunfire exchanged between police and Mateen as he tried to escape the club and was killed – video that has since been aired on WSB, CNN and outlets across the globe.
Hornstein said the explosion that happened just before the video was taken – when police blew open a wall of the club to free hostages – startled him and his friend.
"That kind of spooked us a little bit. We didn't know what was going on," Hornstein said.
He said watching the incident unfold was disturbing, but that he didn't know the extent of the tragedy until later on Sunday. Police wouldn't let Hornstein and his friend out of the apartment building for hours – about 11:30 a.m., he said.
"At first there was very little information about what was happening. We didn't know it was terror related or the number of casualties. All we knew is that it was a hostage situation and didn't realize it was such a big piece of history going down there," he said.
Hornstein, who has returned to his Decatur home, said it's still difficult to process what happened with the tragedy.
"It's just staggering to think that you're randomly somewhere on a vacation and this happens. It opens your eyes. You see the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and you think there's no way it would come that close to me and then it's happening a couple of hundred feet away," he said.