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The gunman who opened fire inside an LGBTQ Colorado nightclub, killing at least five, was stopped by two "heroic" people inside the club, police told a press conference Sunday.
They identified the suspect as 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, and said he had used a rifle at the club, where partygoers were apparently marking Transgender Day of Remembrance, which pays tribute to trans people targeted in violent attacks.
Eighteen people were wounded in the incident shortly before midnight, police said, adding that an unspecified number of the wounded remained in critical condition.
The shooting was the latest in a long history of attacks on LGBTQ venues in the United States, the deadliest of which claimed 49 lives at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.
The suspect in Colorado Springs entered Club Q and immediately began shooting at people inside, police chief Adrian Vasquez told a press conference.
"At least two heroic people inside the club confronted and fought with the suspect and were able to stop the suspect from continuing to kill and harm others," he added.
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Joshua Thurman of Colorado Springs was in the club at the time.
"It was so scary," he told reporters Sunday. "There were bodies on the floor. There was shattered glass, broken cups, people crying.
"It was supposed to be our safe space... Where are we supposed to go?"
Aeron Laney, 24, was at the club for the first time, having just moved to Colorado Springs.
She described a small club where everyone seemed to know each other, the kind of place she knew she would fit right in.
"Everyone was just having a good time and smiling and laughing," she told AFP, tearfully looking at the bank of flowers growing outside the club.
"I just can't wrap my hand around somebody just walking in and seeing people that are so happy and so comfortable in their community and just wanting to end that."
Laney and her friend Justin Godwin left minutes before the gunman stormed in.
"Maybe the guy was already there. Like was he in the parking lot... just planning it?" Godwin, 25, said. "It's just terrifying."
US President Joe Biden released a statement condemning the attack, slamming violence against the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender women of color.
"We must drive out the inequities that contribute to violence against LGBTQI+ people. We cannot and must not tolerate hate," he said.
Earlier bomb threat
The authorities said the suspect was being treated at a local hospital but they released no other information about him, noting that officials including the FBI are investigating.
A man with the same name was arrested on June 18, 2021, aged 21 after his mother said he had threatened to hurt her with a homemade bomb or "multiple weapons," according to a news release at the time from the El Paso County Sheriff's Office.
Police spokeswoman Pamela Castro said Sunday that police received an initial call about an active shooting in the club at 11:56 pm. She said a first officer arrived within four minutes, and that the suspect had been subdued just two minutes later.
"Club Q is a safe haven for our LGBTQ citizens," Chief Vasquez said. "I'm so terribly saddened and heartbroken."
Club Q said on Facebook that it was "devastated by the senseless attack on our community," adding, "We thank the quick reactions of heroic customers that subdued the gunman and ended this hate attack."
Authorities said Sunday that the shooting had not yet been officially classified as a hate crime but that first-degree murder charges were certain to be filed.
Governor Jared Polis, who in 2018 became the first openly gay man elected as a US governor, called the shooting "horrific, sickening and devastating."
Messages of support poured in by the hundreds to the club's Facebook page, some from as far away as Sweden, Britain, New Zealand, Germany and Australia.
'Events we train for'
Authorities could not immediately say how many people were in the popular club at the time.
Dozens of police and firefighters rushed to the scene.
Bartender Michael Anderson was working at the club.
"I always hoped that I would never be somewhere where this would happen," he told CBS.
Transgender Day of Remembrance has been marked each year since 1999, when it began as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, who had been killed the year before.
Transgender rights were a hot-button issue in the United States leading up to midterm elections earlier this month, with Republicans putting forward a slew of legislative proposals to restrict them.
Gun violence is a huge problem in the United States, where more than 600 mass shootings have occurred so far in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.
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