One suspect is in custody and additional details have begun to emerge after shots rang out Friday at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where a lone gunman killed five and injured eight.
The shooting created massive chaos as panicked crowds of travelers were scrambling for safety and unsubstantiated reports of additional gunshots grounded and diverted all flights.
Eye witnesses who saw the attack say the shooter was in some form of uniform carrying a gun. They say initially everyone thought it was firecrackers when the gunfire erupted near the baggage claim carousel. One man, who stood only feet away from the shooter, said Santiago didn’t say a word and just began to open fire.
“He shot everybody between carousels 2 and 3. We thought it was firecrackers. We all looked down from where it was coming from and we see him with the gun. I saw a short gun. He had on a blue shirt.” said Gene Messina who had just arrived in Fort Lauderdale on Delta Flight 2012 as people were being evacuated from the terminal.
“I got off the plane and I saw people running and screaming. At first I was in shock but when I saw TSA agents running, I booked,” Messina told CNN over Instagram.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said “The shooter is in custody, unharmed, and no law enforcement fired any shots.” Witnesses say the gunman laid down on the ground spread eagle after he ran out of ammunition. Florida Senator Bill Nelson said the ID found on the suspect’s person identified him as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago.
The scene erupted into further chaos when SWAT units and police in armored gear began responding to reports of additional gunshots in a nearby parking garage with weapons drawn. Dozens of passengers fled across the tarmac where they remained until police cleared two other terminals and a nearby garage more than two hours later.
Santiago, a member of National Guard, had an argument with a passenger on part of his trip from Alaska which ultimately ended in tragedy when he departed his Delta flight in Fort Lauderdale.
He apparently retrieved a gun which he had checked inside his bag after exiting his flight. It is believed Santiago had gone into the bathroom and loaded the weapon before stepping into the Terminal 2 baggage-claim area shortly before 1 p.m. and began to open fire.
Witnesses said some passengers were even hunkering behind luggage carts, baggage, and chairs as the shooter made his way through the baggage claim area.
Israel declined to name any of the victims or identify their genders or ages. He also declined to say what flight the victims had arrived on or what airline they flew in on. He also could not elaborate on the extent of the injuries suffered by the eight wounded, all of whom are being treated at area hospitals.
“The investigation is very early. We have a lot of preliminary information we’re going through. But at this point our role is to actively support the Broward County Sheriff’s Office,” said George Piro, special agent in charge of Miami’s FBI field office.
Israel said the FBI would take over if the attack were deemed terror-related, but he said it’s too early to know if that’s the case.
FLL director Mark Gale said the airport has suspended all operations. “We’re not exactly sure when the airport will open for operations,” he said. “We’re going to move step by step, methodically through the building before we reopen operations.”
While court records show that Santiago has no criminal record in Florida, Alaska records indicate that Santiago, lives or lived in Alaska and has had three minor run-ins with the law there: having no proof of insurance in 2015; a tail light violation in 2015 and a criminal mischief charge, causing property damage of more than $50, in 2016 – as case that is currently on-going. Additionally, an Anchorage landlord evicted him last year for failure to pay rent.
It’s the first fatal shooting at a major airport since Nov 15 2016 at Oklahoma’s Will Rogers World Airport
In November 2016, nearly 2.5 million travelers passed through Fort Lauderdale’s airport, according to a government report on the facility. There are four terminals at the airport.
TSA ordered a shelter-in-place for people in the area earlier in the day. The Federal Aviation Administration later issued a nationwide ground stop for the airport. The shelter in place order has since been lifted, however the ground stop remains in place and the airport remained closed for all air traffic late Friday.
We will bring you more details as they develop.