Michael Mayo and Megan O’Matz

Inside the hotel ballroom, parents kneeled in prayer. Some sobbed. Pizza and chicken sandwiches sat untouched.

It had been hours since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day, and they had not heard from their kids.

In the first hours before sunset, school buses rolled up to the Coral Springs Marriott at Heron Bay. The parents held out hope as they watched other families reunite in warm embraces. They heard how students had lost cellphones and backpacks in the chaos. The stream of buses slowed to a trickle, and then stopped altogether. Darkness set in.

“Eventually you start to realize your kid is one of the people who has been shot,” said Luke Sherlock, whose 14-year-old niece Gina Montalto was one of 17 people killed. “Nobody has told you this information. It just becomes obvious … Then you start to pray that she’s one of the injured and not one of the dead.”

More than 100 cops and feds swarmed the conference center, but relatives said nobody seemed to be in charge. Nobody could offer concrete information. Scores of people — moms and dads, aunts and uncles, clergy and friends — waited on one side of a ballroom divided by a rollaway partition while witnesses gave statements to detectives and FBIagents on the other side.

“One man kept shouting, ‘Just tell me. Just tell me what happened to my child!’ ” said State Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Parkland resident.

The hours passed. The crowd thinned.

Finally, as Wednesday turned to Thursday, homicide detectives and FBI agents began calling families into two smaller conference rooms. Families were called one at a time, one mother said.

One relative said: “We could hear them screaming and crying through the walls. And we knew we were next.”

A torturous wait

When two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, some parents did not learn their children’s fate for two days. When a lone gunman killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, parents were told to go home after waiting in a firehouse near the school, and state troopers later knocked on their doors to officially inform them of their kids’ deaths.

After all these years and too many school shootings, the delicate and dreadful matter of notifying parents of violent, sudden deaths has gotten no easier. While everyone says victims’ families are the top priority, parents say they often feel ignored and kept out of the informational loop in the chaotic early hours after a shooting. Many describe the waiting as torturous.

The same complaints have been voiced after the Parkland shooting. The South Florida Sun Sentinel interviewed a dozen relatives, friends, clergy and public officials who were at the ballroom that night. Some describe disorganization, a concern that nobody was in charge. Relatives grew desperate for information as the hours ticked away. Many turned to social media for help.

Roughly seven hours after the shooting stopped at 2:27 p.m., waiting parents were asked to share photos of their children. The dead were still being identified.

“When it came to being fast or right, we had to be right,” said Lt. Col. Michael DiMaggio, director of investigations for the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

A Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said that some notifications were done before all the bodies were identified, which alleviated the wait for some. She said the agency designates “a lead detective to be responsible for the families, and that detective has others who assist.”

For some parents the final news that their children were dead did not come for more than 12 hours. Linda Schulman said it was 2:50 a.m. when she was called into a conference room and told that her son, geography teacher Scott Beigel, had been killed.

“I was not the last,” said Schulman, whose family chartered a plane from Islip, N.Y., and arrived at the Marriott shortly before 10 p.m. “Do I wish I knew earlier? Yes. But the people who told us were extremely kind, extremely caring.”

“When you’re waiting there, it’s torture,” said Jesse Pan, a neighbor of shooting victim Peter Wang, 15. Pan served as a translator for Wang’s non-English speaking parents during the night. He said parents began yelling at police and FBI agents as the hours dragged on. “The mayor and commissioners were telling police — you have to do something for these parents.”

One victim’s relative who waited at the Marriott said, “There was no command center … A guy from the sheriff’s office came in and said he was in charge, then he disappeared.”

Rabbi Moshe Levin, of Chabad of Coral Springs, said, “Parents were hearing about things from social media … There were no systems in place. There were all these police and agents from everywhere, but nobody could work out who the heck anybody was.”

“As the night went on, it got more hostile,” Moskowitz said.

‘They knew for hours’

Lacking information from the police and agents in the conference center, some families tried to take matters into their own hands.

Jennifer Montalto got a tip through Facebook about her daughter Gina. She left the Marriott around 7 p.m., telling her husband, Tony, to meet her at Broward Health North in Deerfield Beach, said Sherlock, her brother.

Waiting in a private space in the hospital, she was asked if she wanted a priest. After her husband arrived, they were told their daughter had died.

“They knew exactly who she was … They knew for hours,” Sherlock said of his niece. “They had that information and … with all the chaos they just didn’t take the time to assign somebody to organizing [the information] and getting it to the parents.”

Nicholas Dworet’s parents learned he had died, and his younger brother had been injured, at the school, said the boys’ uncle, Gary Dworet.

“They never went to the Marriott,” said Gary Dworet. “Alex was discharged that night, and they went straight home.”

Sherlock said he has friends who are firefighters and police, and in recent weeks he’s been telling them all the same thing: “You guys have got to do a better job. When you guys have an opportunity to sit down and talk about what went wrong that day and what you can fix, communicating to these parents has got to be done. You’ve got to have somebody assigned to doing that.”

Past experience

While many agencies have no experience with mass-casualty events, the Broward Sheriff’s Office does. Last year a gunman killed five and wounded six at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The agency was criticized for its disorganized response to that event, when thousands of passengers were stranded on tarmacs and in terminals for hours.

The Parkland shooting points to continued gaps in crisis planning and management. Designating a lead detective to be responsible for victims’ families might suffice for double or triple homicides, but for mass-casualty events a point person with specialized training who remains with gathered families throughout a crisis should be the norm.

The school and hotel were 1 ½ miles apart. Many high-ranking officials bounced between the school, the hotel and Sheriff’s Office headquarters near Fort Lauderdale, where the shooting suspect was brought for questioning. Families said they would have liked to have a full-time conduit at the hotel who could communicate with hospitals and other agencies for any available information.

Lt. Col. DiMaggio said homicide detectives, crime scene technicians and investigators from the Broward medical examiner’s office were working the school grounds and Broward Health North to confirm identities. He said the process was complicated because many victims did not carry any form of identification and were separated from backpacks.

“Nobody there … had the parents more on their minds than me and the homicide investigators that were there working alongside me,” DiMaggio said. “We wanted them to know as fast as humanly possible what had happened to their children.”

The Columbine High School notification process was complicated by fears that the school had been booby-trapped by the dead perpetrators. In those pre-social media days, families gathered at a local library serving as a communications center and waited by fax machines for lists of injured who had been transported to hospitals.

At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., Gov. Dannel Malloy told gathered parents that their children were likely dead. State troopers later knocked on their doors to give official death notifications.

“There was an overall sense of frustration, and at times anger, because of the amount of time it took for the families to receive the final word,” an official state report about the Sandy Hook shooting said. “The process of positively identifying which children were deceased was very difficult to manage and should be considered when formulating future action plans.”

Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine said of the many things victims’ families are angry about — the shooter’s ruthlessness, the response by the armed deputy assigned to the school, the failure of the FBI and BSO in preventing the attack despite specific warnings and red flags, past missteps by the Broward school district and Florida’s child-welfare agency, gun policies — the handling of families and the notification process “is down the list.”

“It was the worst day of my life,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed. “I don’t know how anybody could have made it any better.”

‘We sat and sat and sat and sat’

When families began arriving at the Coral Springs Marriott on Valentine’s Day, a sign-in table was set up. Police separated witnesses from families waiting for children who could not be reached. Coral Springs Marriott general manager Mark Cherry said a truck with a pallet of water showed up, as did delivery men bearing dozens of pizzas.

“This was even before the Red Cross got there,” Cherry said. “There was just this outpouring from the community and it was heartening to see.”

But as the night wore on, and only the family and friends of the missing remained in the ballroom, the scene became heartbreaking.

Broward Sheriff’s chaplain Nathaniel Knowles said he tried to comfort families, “but you just really don’t know what to say.”

Jesse Pan, Peter Wang’s neighbor, was also at a loss for words when he went into the conference room at 1:25 a.m. with Wang’s parents, Hui Wang and father Kong Feng Wang, aunt and uncle. Pan was the only one in the group who spoke English.

“I’m like shaking. I’m crying first,” said Pan, a real estate agent. “I don’t know how [I can] translate in Chinese to them. I don’t know how to find a way to tell them. The FBI agent said, ‘Unfortunately I have to tell you Peter is one of the victims and he passed.’ The parents are asking me [in Mandarin], ‘What did he say? They don’t understand what that means ‘passed.’ I’m crying. I say, ‘Peter got killed.’”

Pan said Wang’s father banged his head against a wall in grief. “They just moved to Parkland a year and a half ago for Peter to go to Stoneman,” Pan said. “Better school.”

Linda Schulman was at home in Dix Hills, N.Y., on Valentine’s Day when she got a phone call from her husband. “What school does Scott teach at?” Michael Schulman said. “A school with a lot of names,” she said. “Is it in Parkland?” he said. She wasn’t sure. “It’s close to Deerfield,” she said.

“What subject does he teach?” Michael said. “Geography, why?” she said.

“There’s been a shooting. The news is saying a geography teacher and coach are hurt.”

They tried calling hospitals and couldn’t get information. They tried finding a flight and all were booked. The Schulmans and Linda’s brother chartered a plane from Long Island with a credit card and landed in South Florida around 9:30 p.m. “If Scott was in the hospital, we were going to find him,” Schulman said.

Schulman spoke to Scott’s girlfriend and met her and two of Scott’s friends at the Marriott. She signed in at the conference center. She entered the ballroom and saw roughly 100 people, “all in the same boat — nobody knew anything.”

“We sat and sat and sat and sat,” she said. “And then we sat some more.”

She said around 2:30 a.m., her cell phone rang. She said hello and a law enforcement officer said, “We know you’re in New York…” She cut him off, “No, I’m in Florida, at the command center.”

“I guess everybody was a little mixed up there,” Schulman said this week. “It was as humane as could be. Everybody at the Marriott was very compassionate.”

About 20 minutes later, her group was escorted into a conference room.

“There were six of us, and six of them,” Schulman said, referring to the notification team. “I’m not exactly sure who it was. Someone with jurisdiction.”

She said a woman started by saying, “I’m not supposed to tell you this but your son is a hero.”

Someone else said, “He saved [many] students.”

Schulman said: “And then two people over, a gentleman said, ‘But he didn’t make it.’”

A short time later, the Marriott conference center was empty.

Two student funerals were held there the following week.