A troubled Army combat veteran traveling through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday retrieved a firearm from his checked luggage, loaded it in the bathroom and then opened fire on fellow passengers waiting by a baggage carousel.
Moments later, five people were dead and eight wounded. The mass shooting shut down one of South Florida’s busiest travel hubs and thrust the airport into chaos that unfolded on live TV, as hundreds of panicked passengers fled, flights were diverted and planes were stranded on the tarmac.
The suspected shooter was identified as Esteban Santiago, law enforcement officials told the Miami Herald. He is thought to have been a passenger on a Delta Airlines flight from Minneapolis that landed in Fort Lauderdale at around noon.
After getting his handgun from a checked bag, Santiago is believed to have gone into the bathroom and loaded the weapon. Then he stepped into the Terminal 2 baggage-claim area shortly before 1 p.m. and began shooting. Witnesses said that after he fired three clips’ worth of rounds, the shooter surrendered to police without a struggle.
Santiago was carrying some form of military ID. He is a former U.S. Army private and combat engineer who served two years in Iraq and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Though the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which wouldn’t name Santiago, said there was only one shooter, passengers and airport personnel panicked about an hour after the shooting when a second gunman was falsely reported at the airport. Dozens of people fled across the tarmac as police in armored gear responded with drawn weapons, live TV cameras rolling. Police and passengers at the terminal took cover behind parked cars.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel later said the only shooting was in Terminal 2 earlier in the day. The subsequent confusion in Terminal 1 was apparently prompted by a person injured during the evacuation of the airport, Israel said.
Israel said the suspected shooter was arrested, unharmed, by BSO deputies.
“At this point, it looks like he acted alone,” Israel said.
Israel wouldn’t name the victims or disclose their genders or ages. He also wouldn’t say which flights the victims had arrived on or what airlines they had flown. He couldn’t elaborate on the extent of the injuries suffered by the eight wounded, all of whom are being treated at area hospitals.
“This scene is considered fluid and active,” Israel said.
Later in the day, an NBC affiliate in Virginia, identified one of the dead victims as Terry Andres, 62, of Virginia Beach. He died at the airport, according to a WAVY-TV report. Andres’ daughter told the local news station that her father was at the airport with his wife, who was unharmed, and that the pair were going on vacation. He worked at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
BSO homicide detectives and FBI investigators are interviewing the shooter and witnesses. No motive was revealed Friday.
“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 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 is deemed terror-related, but he said it’s too early to know if that’s the case. However, law enforcement sources confirmed to the Miami Herald that Santiago went to an FBI office in Anchorage in November to confess he felt compelled to fight for the terrorist group ISIS.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said he heard about the shooting while in Fort Myers, flew into Fort Lauderdale's Executive Airport Friday evening. He called the shootings a “senseless act of evil.”
“There is still a lot of information that we are waiting on,” Scott said later in a written statement. “But we know that many people have been killed and many are fighting for their lives at hospitals in Broward County. This was an attack on innocent people who were just trying to travel home to their families or go on a fun trip this weekend.”
FLL Director Mark Gale said the airport had suspended all operations and he couldn’t say when flights would resume. “We’re going to move step by step, methodically through the building before we reopen operations,” he said.
Port Everglades was also closed to inbound land traffic until further notice, and passengers were instructed to call their airline or cruise line for the latest information.
Court records show Santiago, the suspected shooter, lives or lived in Alaska and has had minor brushes there with the law, including a $1,000 fine for driving without insurance and another infraction for driving with broken tail lights. Last year, an Anchorage landlord evicted him for failure to pay rent, and in January he was charged with misdemeanor counts of property damage and assault. That case is ongoing. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Santiago has no apparent criminal record in Florida.
President Barack Obama was apprised of the shooting Friday afternoon, the White House said. Obama spoke with Scott and offered condolences to the families of those killed and his prayers for the wounded, said National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price.
President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence spoke to Florida’s governor while he was en route to Fort Lauderdale.
“Just spoke to Governor Scott,” Trump posted on Twitter. “Thoughts and prayers for all. Stay safe!”
The false alarm of a second shooter exacerbated the chaos at the airport. Though the Federal Aviation Administration initially reported that flights were continuing to land at FLL, after the erroneous report of a second gunman, the FAA issued a ground stop for flights around the country headed to Fort Lauderdale. Those flights were grounded at their originating airports and those that had already landed in Fort Lauderdale were not allowed to disembark. Several flights were diverted to other South Florida airports, including Miami International.
Ethan Repman and his girlfriend, Jessica Deer, said they arrived on a Southwest Airlines flight shortly after 11 a.m., excited about taking a cruise to the Bahamas. They had gathered their luggage and were waiting for a shuttle to take them to Port Everglades when they began to hear shouting outside Terminal 1.
“We saw all these cops and then someone yelled ‘shots fired’ and officers told us to all evacuate,” Repman said.
People scrambled to grab their luggage — and find their loved ones. Some families were separated in the chaos.
Kristen Viers said she had just arrived from Ohio with her 6-year-old grandson when the commotion started. She grabbed her grandson, placed him on the top of her luggage cart and frantically wheeled it out of the terminal. Everyone was shouting and screaming about gunshots, she said.
“I was terrified,” Viers said. “There were police officers with guns everywhere and I just wheeled my cart with my grandson as fast as I could.”
One WPLG-ABC 10 live shot at 2:45 p.m. showed hundreds of travelers walking along railroad tracks east of the airport — many of them walking with their hands above their head to show they had no weapons.
Traffic near the airport turned into gridlock after the initial call to police that shots had been fired at the airport came at 12:55 p.m.
At the intersection of Griffin Road and U.S. 1, police created a holding area under Interstate 595 for several hundred people who were evacuated from the airport. They were released one by one after being searched at gunpoint by Hollywood police, who said they were checking for weapons and ensuring that no one else was involved in the shooting.
With hands in the air and helicopters hovering overhead, people slowly emerged from the airport grounds, some with luggage in hand, others having left it behind.
“We were in the parking garage and people started running in the opposite direction. So then we started running the way they were running,” said Daniel McFadden, 42 of Louisiana. “We left behind our suitcase.”
Darrell Mills, of Chicago, said he was planning to board a flight to Puerto Rico when people started screaming and running.
“They told us to run toward the garage, and we did. We thought we were safe until police yelled that there might be another active shooter in the garage,” Mills said. “Just when we were trying to catch our breath, we were told to run as fast as we could toward the train tracks.”
Thomas Sanders, who was traveling with Mills, said several parents were separated from their children during the commotion.
“I feel very bad. Everyone is crying their eyes out,” Sanders said. “One mother and father lost their kids. It’s hell over there.”
Yudi Martinez, who works in the rental car section of the airport, was approaching the terminal to start her shift when shots rang out.
“Everyone dropped to the floor. I started hyperventilating,” Martinez said. “In a matter of seconds everyone was running.”
Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who worked for President George W. Bush, happened to be at the airport, tweeting that “shots have been fired. Everyone is running.”
Fleischer later tweeted that “all seems calm now but the police aren’t letting anyone out of the airport.”
Eyewitnesses at the airport posted photos and other messages on Twitter, including one image that showed a person bleeding profusely while seated in a corner outside of the terminal.
Mark Lea, who said he was a witness to the shootings, told MSNBC that the shooter was wearing a Tshirt, and that he walked into the baggage claim area of Terminal 2 and opened fire with a single handgun.
Lea said the man didn’t speak as he fired before giving up and sprawling face down on the floor as a police officer took him into custody.
“He had no intention of escaping.”
Miami Herald staff writers Julie Brown, Lance Dixon, Joey Flechas, Kyra Gurney, Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris, Chabeli Herrera, Monique O. Madan, Nicholas Nehamas, David Ovalle, Charles Rabin, Amy Sherman, Curtis Tate and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.