JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Firefighters training Sunday near The Jacksonville Landing didn't hear the gunfire from inside the mall.
But they heard the screams that followed as terrified survivors ran for their lives.
Capt. Jeremy Cooke said Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Engine Ladder 1 had been training in a parking garage across from The Landing. When the firefighters heard the chaos across the street, they looked up and saw people streaming out of the front door and swarming up the road.
“That's when we knew things were getting real,” Cooke said.
Police later said it was "getting real" because a lone gunman had opened fire during a video game tournament at a restaurant inside The Landing. Two men were killed before the suspected shooter took his own life, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Cook said the firefighters immediately sprang into action and were met by one of the walking wounded -- who had been shot in the chest.
As they treated that patient, they flagged down an officer driving by and called for help.
Cooke said as some of the firefighters treated another walking wounded who'd come out of the Landing, they started to hear that at least eight more were injured inside the building.
Their training tells them to wait, Cooke said -- wait until police can clear the building and make sure the scene is safe.
“But from the get go we were right in the middle of the scene as it occurred,” Cooke said. “We had to get in there. We had to get in to help.”
They didn't wait.
Cooke said the officer and several firefighters headed into the building, despite the danger, to see what they could do.
“We are trained to stage and wait for JSO, and that just wasn't happening in this situation. We were just thrust into it,” Cooke said. “I have a great group of guys -- and the guys act. The guys do what needs to be done when the time comes.”
Cooke said they worked to get the walking wounded away from the scene as quickly as possible and waited with those who couldn't be moved until rescue arrived.
In the crucial first moments, their top order of business is to apply pressure to a victim's wounds and to make sure the airway is clear. In this case, the chaos was still going on and firefighters were working without protective equipment.
“At that point it's almost like when we go into a structure fire. You do what you have to do, and you block out all of the interference,” Cooke said, becoming emotional as he recounted the harrowing moments. “We are pretty seasoned guys, and we've seen a lot of things. And so we just go into that mode, just like we are going into a structure fire or a shooting. You don't think about it. You just do what you can to help.”
Cooke emphasized that his team didn't do anything that any other firefighters wouldn't have done if faced with that situation. They just happened to be the ones across the street when it happened.
But he does believe their quick actions likely saved lives.
“I believe one or two of the patients might not have made it that we had trauma alerted. If we had to wait and stage for JSO to clear the scene, because clearing the Jacksonville Landing would have taken some time,” Cooke said. “I believe a couple of those people would have bled out by then.”
Cooke said he's never seen anything like what he faced Sunday.
“But honestly,” he admitted, “we knew it was going to come at some point.”