BY SABRINE BRISMEUR
After an eight-hour flight from Alaska to Florida, 26 year old Esteban Santiago was in no hurry to pick up his personal belongings at the luggage claim and get home.
Instead, he brought his only checked baggage to the airport bathroom – a small bag holding a semi automatic 9 mm handgun and ammunition inside – loaded it with bullets, and walked out ready to open fire.
The January 6 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) shooting that left five dead and six injured has rocked the South Florida community, a chilling reminder that tragedy can occur in unassuming locations.
Students at Cooper City High School expressed their shock at the incident, with many well-traveled students shaken by the closeness of the attack. The Fort Lauderdale airport is the nearest airport to Cooper City, and a popular point for international destinations.
“It’s incredibly scary that it happened so close to home,” junior Casey Chapter said. “Things like this have happened too much in recent years, but you never think it will happen locally. I never did until this shooting happened. It doesn’t quite become as real to you until it happens right here.”
Esteban Santiago, a New Jersey native and Iraq War veteran, opened fire at a Terminal 2 baggage claim at FLL after a Delta flight from Anchorage, Alaska. The weapon he used in the deadly rampage had been legally checked as his only luggage, along with two separated magazines of ammunition.
Despite being apprehended and taken into custody a mere eighty seconds after the first shot, the panic remained for hours.
Senior Kia Del Solar was on the runway when Santiago opened fire, describing the experience as “surreal.”
“We passed Terminal 2 on our way to go check in,” she said. “Everything was pretty normal until we got on the plane. After being on the runway for ten minutes, I saw two helicopters flying above the airport. I thought it was a bit odd, but then ambulances and security cars started racing towards the airport.”
With the travelers secured inside the plane, the pilot made an announcement to the passengers about the incident that had occurred just inside the airport.
“[The passengers] were completely in shock,” Del Solar said. “A lot of them turned on their screens to get more information and some got up to talk to the flight attendants. Many of the people around me also called their relatives or friends to confirm that they were safe.”
Del Solar’s flight was delayed an hour; it was the last one to leave FLL before the airport was shut down until five the next morning.
“Originally I couldn’t believe it,” she added. “You never really expect these tragedies to happen to you or your close ones.”
Reports of the shooting began gaining traction on social media midday as news outlets released information about an active shooter, inciting mass panic in the airport and resulting in thousands of travelers scrambling for safety. Images of people fleeing on foot along the tarmac, arms raised in surrender, circulated around the internet. Twenty-thousand bags were left without owners as travelers dropped their personal belongings and ran for what they believed was their lives.
As news of the incident was made clear, students took to social media to express their horror.
“Just found out about the airport shooting & thinking about how I was just there yesterday scares me. Praying that everyone is safe,” sophomore Alexa Pichardo wrote on Twitter.
Junior Melany Rivera, whose mother works at FLL but was not working on Friday, followed the updates live on television with her family.
“When I saw the news unroll on TV, my heart dropped,” Rivera said. “We were watching it live, and suddenly everyone started running across the tarmac… I felt so horrified that something so terrible happened so close to home and at a place many people in our area go to so frequently.”
Fort Lauderdale had not a moment of silence on Friday, where agencies from counties all over Broward sent hundreds of officers in patrol cars, helicopters, and ambulances to respond to the crisis. Multiple SWAT teams arrived to assist in gaining control of the situation, as well as several K-9 officers.
Mark Brent, a parent of a Cooper City High School student and a member of the Davie SWAT team, was on duty at the time of the shooting and helped search and secure the parking garages, as well as the airport terminals for any other suspects.
“The atmosphere was crazy. It’s the only word for it,” Brent said. “It looked like a wasteland – it was obvious that large amounts of people left in a hurry and in a panic. Personal items were scattered everywhere, restaurant tables were turned over, food everywhere. It was just crazy.”
Released airport surveillance videos showed the moment Santiago began firing at the baggage claim. The BSO officer responsible for leaking it is currently under suspension with pay following allegations that they filmed the video with their camera phone and sold the video to TMZ.
“I saw the [TMZ] video and I felt really scared because I recognized where they were,” junior Ryan Sullivan said. “I’ve been in that baggage claim. It was surreal.”
Mental illness seems to have characterized the shooting instead of terrorism. Gunman Santiago turned himself into the Anchorage FBI last November, complaining about “hearing voices” and being forced by the CIA to join the Islamic State and watch videos of them training. Though he stated he had no intentions of harming anyone, authorities referred him to a local psychiatric facility, where he was ultimately released after a few days.
His family members said that Santiago had not been the same since returning from his tour in Iraq, especially since having seen a bomb explode next to two of his friends.
The FBI closed their case on Santiago after an assessment, and his gun was returned to him in early December after having been confiscated during the FBI’s evaluation. Less than two months after the incident, five people lay dead at the hands of a mentally disturbed gunman.
Though the incident has reopened conflict over U.S. gun control policies, specifically in airports, the fact remains that Santiago checked his weapon legally and followed all TSA procedures.
The general consensus, however, remains that mentally-unstable individuals should not be allowed to own guns.
Senior Jesse Klauber pointed out the importance of policy enforcement, finding a problem with the mental illness aspect more than anything.
“The fact that an individual who had shown signs of mental instability, regardless of his military past, was allowed to carry a firearm on a plane displays a failure to enforce gun control policy,” he said.
Santiago was charged on three counts and could face the death penalty if convicted. He reportedly told authorities that he had scoped out the Fort Lauderdale airport purposely and planned the attack. Why he chose FLL, a smaller destination airport and not a larger connecting one, is not yet known.
Cooper City students are still reeling from the attack, and an airport once regarded as safe now has people on edge over the bloodshed. For the families of those dead, only answers can be offered now.