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Fort Lauderdale Airport Re-Opens After Fatal Shooting

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport re-opened early Saturday, 16 hours after a gunman opened fire in a baggage claim area. Long lines were the common denominatorwhile an estimate of 6,000 passengers tried to find a way to make it to their final destinations.

Five people were killed and six injured in the shooting, occurred on Friday at 12:56 p.m. Three of those injured were still in intensive care on Saturday  while the other three were in good condition, according to Broward Sheriff Scott Israel. Another 37 people were injured in the chaos of the evacuation after the shooting.

All passengers scheduled to travel through Fort Lauderdale-Hollwood International Airport should call their airlines to find out if their flights are delayed or canceled. The Broward County Call Center also remains open at 866-435-9355. That's also the number passengers should call to find out how they can get their luggage back.

The shooting suspect, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago, was charged with committing an act of violence in an airport, using a firearm to commit the crime, and causing the death of a person — three federal offenses punishable by death. His first federal court appearance is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia O. Valle.

“Today’s charges represent the gravity of the situation and reflect the commitment of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel to continually protect the community and prosecute those who target our residents and visitors,” U.S Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said.

Authorities are still investigating the motives behind the attack.

"We have not ruled out anything. We continue to look at all avenues and all motives for this horrific attack," said FBI Agent in Charge George Piro in a press conference on Saturday. "And at this point we are continuing to look at the terrorism angle in regards to the potential motivation behind this attack."

Investigators are still trying to determine a motive for a shooting. The FBI has confirmed that Santiago voluntarily went to the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, in November and that he was referred to local law enforcement.

Piro said the FBI office in Anchorage is actively involved in the investigation and that the FBI is talking to Santiago's family as well as reviewing his social media profile.

Piro said it appears that Santiago came  from Alaska to South Florida specifically to carry out the attack, but investigators still don't know why.

Esteban Santiago, the suspect in Friday's shooting.
Credit Broward Sheriff's Office
Esteban Santiago, the suspect in Friday's shooting.

"The early indication is that there was no specific reason he chose Fort Lauderdale International Airport," Piro said. "But we’re still pursuing that and trying to really determine why he came here."

Some of the victims of the attack have been identified: Terry Andres, 62 years old and from Virginia Beach; Olga Woltering from Marietta, Georgia; Michael Oehme, 57 years old from Omaha, Nebraska and Shirley Timmons, from Senecaville, Ohio, whose husband was also shot and remains in a coma. 

Saturday morning, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Florida's top priority was the safety of its visitors and residents.

"We’re a strong and resilient state. We’re not going to let attacks like this tear us apart. We’re going to pray for the victims. We’re going to mourn for all their families. We’re going to hope and pray that everybody that’s still injured fully recovers," Scott said. "I know we don’t have an answer [about motive]. I don’t know if we’ll ever have an answer to an evil attack like this."

About 10,000 people were at the airport at the time of the shooting and Broward officials are still processing 20,000 pieces of luggage left there. All flights were canceled Friday afternoon, leaving thousands of people forced to find accomodation for the night.

On Saturday, Israel defended his decision to close the airport. He said after the shooting, only the Terminal 2 baggage claim area was being treated as the crime scene.

"When we received information that there was a possible active shooter and shots had possibly been fired – although the last thing we wanted to do was impede the progress and travel plans of our residents and citizens, in the hierarchy of responsibility, preserving the crime scene came second and most importantly keeping Broward county and its citizens came first," he said. "So I made the appropriate decision to close the airport until I was sure that people at the airport and in and about the airport were safe."

That second report of another active shooter turned out to be erroneous.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the airport, said there's "no question" that federal authorities should review whether passengers should continue to be allowed to travel with firearms, even in checked luggage as the shooter in this case reportedly did. She also said security around baggage claim areas deserves a "hard look" after the incident.

"And not just leave it at that. I think it’s important, over the last 12-15 hours, that it’s been pointed out that there are many unsecure areas in facilities that the public travels. Train stations. Port terminals and baggage claim areas," she said. "So certainly those procedures need to be reviewed and I’m going to be addressing that when I go back to Washington."

Friday evening, room-sharing site Air BnB activated its Urgent Accomodations program, waiving service fees for renters and allowing hosts to offer rooms for free.

Steve Frappier, former director of college counseling at Ransom Everglades school, told CNN's Anderson Cooper that the gunman shot at him — but the Macbook in his backpack stopped the bullet.

"All this was over and done with in about 90 seconds," he said.

One passenger in Terminal 2 was protected from a bullet by his MacBook laptop computer.
Credit Facebook
One passenger in Terminal 2 was protected from a bullet by his MacBook laptop computer.

Passengers all over the airport were ordered to shelter in place and many were searched as police made sure that the shooter was acting alone.

Michelle Pollard Gonzalez had just walked into the baggage claim at Terminal 2 when the shots began.

"After maybe an hour they told us it was OK to go inside again. Then I heard someone else screaming 'Shots.' So another stampede out," she said. "We went back on the tarmac. then there was a stampede on the tarmac because someone heard something on the tarmac. And finally they moved us to an airplane locker on the far side of the airport and they said they would just lock us in there."

Friday evening, passengers were finally allowed to leave the airport after spending hours reading, napping, making phone calls to arrange for hotels or talking to friends and family. Traffic on the roads leaving the airport was jammed as cars were slowly allowed out of the airport garages.

Deanna Mullins was in Terminal 1 on Friday, on her way home to San Jose, Calif., after getting off a cruise. She was supposed to take a flight just before 7 p.m. so she was prepared for a long wait and had brought her ukulele.

"I am a singer-songwriter in San Jose, and I like to have it for writing on board. I actually play guitar, but it's too big for the overhead bin," she said. On Friday, she said she was glad to have the instrument with her — for another reason.

"It's soothing," she said. "It's kind of a spiritual practice for me."

Benjamin Laack was on his way to his parents' home in Sheboygan, Wisc., after a work trip to Fort Lauderdale. He spent the afternoon on the sidewalk between Terminals 1 and 2, overlooking the tarmac.

He and others watched from above as a fire alarm sounded in Terminal 1 and people fled the airport to the runways. They saw SWAT teams sweep the parking garage right across from them, weapons drawn, as helicopters circled overhead.

But Laack said he felt disconnected from everything that was going on.

"We kind of had our bubble out here on the outside," he said. "It's just little nuggets here and there of something that happens. You try and remove yourself just so you don't have to think about what people are actually going through and what news someone's going to be hearing later on."

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Investigators were still processing evidence from the site of the shooting, in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2.
Al Diaz / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Investigators were still processing evidence from the site of the shooting, in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2.

Fort Lauderdale International Airport was a scene of chaos and fear Friday for thousands of people after a shooter opened fire, killing five people.
David Santiago / El Nuevo Herald
El Nuevo Herald
Fort Lauderdale International Airport was a scene of chaos and fear Friday for thousands of people after a shooter opened fire, killing five people.