FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Jan. 6 (UPI) — More than a dozen people were shot Friday, several fatally, at one of South Florida’s busiest airports, leading to complete closure of the facility and a bloody aftermath that saw the accused gunman arrested and federal agents all over the scene.
The gunfire started around 1 p.m. EST Friday near the baggage claim in Terminal 2 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Witnesses and authorities said that’s when a passenger who got off a flight retrieved a gun from his luggage and began firing indiscriminately.
Five people died at the scene and 30 others were taken to area hospitals, most with minor injuries received in the chaos of fleeing the gunfire. Eight had been shot, but all of them were still alive and in stable condition by Friday evening.
“No one who arrived at the hospital has expired … Everybody is stable,” Dr. Ralph Guarneri, a trauma surgeon at Broward Health Medical Center, said.
The suspected gunman was identified as Esteban Santiago, 26, a veteran U.S. Army combat engineer who flew to Fort Lauderdale on Friday from Alaska, the Miami Herald reported. He was arrested unharmed and without incident.
Investigators are still trying to determine a motive for the shootings and Santiago’s potential connection to South Florida. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Santiago was a lone gunman. Several agencies are investigating the shooting, including the FBI.
Officials said later that it’s believed Santiago retrieved his weapon from a checked bag, which is why the gunfire started near the baggage claim area. He went into a restroom to load the gun moments before he emerged and began to shoot people, federal officials said.
Immediately after the gunfire started, hundreds of passengers were led out to the tarmac, where the planes park, and waited there for a short while before they were led away from the airport by authorities.
Israel said there were no shots fired anywhere else on the property, disputing some initial news reports that mentioned a second shooting in Terminal 1 about an hour after the first.
“The only gunshots fired at any time during this horrific incident happened downstairs at Terminal 2,” he said.
“I heard shots [and] someone yell, ‘they shot him in face’ — and [I] ran like hell,” a witness told WSVN-TV.
One witness in the baggage claim area at the time of the shooting, Mark Lea, said he dodged bullets and tried to help remove others from the shooter’s line of fire.
“At first we thought it was firecrackers,” he told NBC News. “Everyone started screaming and running. The shooter made his way down through baggage claim. He had what looked like a 9mm and emptied his entire clip. People were trying to run.”
Lea called the scene “surreal” and said people were tripping over each other trying to make a quick exit.
“Our day went from bad to worse,” witness Stephanie Auclair told People magazine. “People left their stuff inside and just ran. … it’s an experience I never thought I’d have. You see it on the news when it happens, but living it, hearing the gun shots, it’s much different.
“It was a total panic.”
When the gunman ran out of ammunition, he sat on the floor and waited to be arrested, Broward Commissioner Chip LaMarca said.
Airport officials halted all operations and closed the facility, and the Federal Aviation Administration issued a ground stop order for all flights nationwide headed for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International.
“They are being held on the ground at the origination airport,” the agency said.
By Friday evening, the airport was still closed.
Initial reports said Santiago landed in Fort Lauderdale on a flight from Canada, as Terminal 2 houses operations for Air Canada and Delta Air Lines. Later Friday afternoon, though, Air Canada said it had no record of Santiago on its manifest and no record of a checked weapon on any flight to Fort Lauderdale. All firearms in checked luggage must be declared in order to get into the planes’ cargo hold.
The Herald and multiple other outlets reported later that Santiago flew in from Alaska. A Delta representative initially declined to say whether he was on one of the carrier’s flights Friday.
Santiago, a former Army private first class who served in Iraq, was discharged for “unsatisfactory performance” last summer and had been living in Anchorage, according to an official with the Alaska National Guard.
A relative said Santiago, who was born in New Jersey and lived for a time in Puerto Rico, had received unspecified psychological treatment while in Alaska. Another relative said Friday he seemed troubled when he returned from Iraq and had just celebrated the birth of a child.
The suspected shooter was also charged with fourth-degree assault last year stemming from a domestic violence incident, Fox News reported.
“Law enforcement in this state will not tolerate evil acts,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a news conference late Friday afternoon. “We don’t ever want this to happen in our great state.”
“It’s not a time to do politics,” he answered when a reporter questioned whether it would be more appropriate to contact Obama instead of Trump.
A bomb squad later detonated a suspicious device that was found on U.S. Highway 1, near a runway at the airport, and investigators don’t believe it was related to the shooting.
CBS News cited a federal agent in reporting that Santiago was involved in an altercation aboard one leg of his flight before landing in Fort Lauderdale.
Also citing a law enforcement official, Fox News reported late Friday that Santiago visited the FBI’s Anchorage field office in November — and reportedly told agents that U.S. intelligence agencies were infiltrating his mind and instructing him to watch Islamic State propaganda videos.
The report said agents in the field office believed he suffered from an unknown mental illness, based on his erratic behavior and incoherence during their interview.
The incident prompted the FBI to investigate Santiago, which found no connections to terrorist organizations, the report said.
Officials said early indications in Fort Lauderdale on Friday were that the shootings were not linked to or inspired by any terrorist faction.