FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – An Army veteran who had connected to his flight in the Twin Cities drew a gun from his checked luggage on arrival at the Fort Lauderdale airport and opened fire in the baggage claim area Friday, killing five people and wounding six, authorities said.
He was taken into custody after throwing his empty weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, one witness said.
The gunman was identified as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska, who served in Iraq with the National Guard but was demoted and discharged last year for unsatisfactory performance. His brother said he had been receiving psychological treatment recently.
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage aboard a Delta flight Thursday night that connected through Minneapolis, checking only one piece of luggage — his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.
According to flight records, a Minneapolis-to-Fort Lauderdale flight landed at 12:11 p.m. Eastern time. Broward County Sheriff’s Office received phone calls of shots fired around 12:55 p.m.
FBI Special Agent George Piro said Santiago had walked into the FBI office in Anchorage in November to say that the U.S. government was controlling his mind and making him watch Islamic State videos.
Agents questioned an agitated and disjointed-sounding Santiago and then called police, who took him for a mental health evaluation, Piro said. He said Santiago clearly indicated he was not intent on hurting anyone.
Authorities said the motive for the attack was under investigation. Shortly after the shooting, and before details of Santiago's mental health became public, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said that it remained to be seen whether it was terrorism or the work of "someone who is mentally deranged."
Piro said authorities are looking at leads in several states and have not ruled out terrorism. `'We're looking at every angle, including the terrorism angle," he said.
Santiago, who is in federal custody, will face federal charges and is expected to appear in court Monday, Piro said.
One witness said the attacker gunned down his victims without a word and kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition for his handgun, sending panicked travelers running out of the terminal and spilling onto the tarmac, baggage in hand.
Others hid in bathroom stalls or crouched behind cars or anything else they could find as police and paramedics rushed in to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.
Bruce Hugon, who had flown in from Indianapolis for a vacation, was at the baggage carousel when he heard four or five pops and saw everyone drop down on the ground. He said a woman next to him tried to get up and was shot in the head.
The guy must have been standing over me at one point. I could smell the gunpowder," he said. "I thought I was about to feel a piercing pain or nothing at all because I would have been dead."
Several Minnesotans were in the baggage claim area at the time of the attack.
“People started kind of screaming and trying to get out of any door they could or hide under the chairs,” Mark Lea, an eyewitness and financial adviser from Elk River, told CBS News. “He just kind of continued coming in, just randomly shooting at people, no rhyme or reason to it.”
Lea told MSNBC that the shooter was a man wearing a “Star Wars” T-shirt, and that he walked into the baggage claim area and opened fire with a single handgun.
Lea said the man said nothing as he went through three magazines before giving up and sprawling spread-eagle on the flood as a police officer took him into custody.
“He had no intention of escaping,” Lea told MSNBC.
Travis Stiller, 33, of Inver Grove Heights, said in a phone interview Friday night that he arrived at Terminal 2 moments before the gunfire erupted. He had taken an Uber ride to the airport for his 3:17 p.m. Delta flight back to Minneapolis after a work trip to Florida.
Minutes after being dropped off, he saw a swarm of police cars arrive at the terminal and heard people screaming. Police officer then hustled everyone behind barricades, he said. Stiller crouched behind pillars between Terminals 2 and 3 to hide, then dropped his luggage and rushed to help those around him.
“It was a lot of chaos,” he said, with everyone confused about whether a second shooter might be on the loose.
Then he saw the aftermath of the shooting. “There was a huge pool of blood,” he said. “ I saw a glimpse of it as we were running in the other direction.
Stiller was still at the airport late Friday, hoping to get on a flight back to Minneapolis.
Motive not known
Authorities gave no details on a possible motive for the shooting, which sent panicked passengers running out of the terminal and onto the tarmac, baggage in hand, and forced the shutdown of the entire airport.
President Obama was briefed by his Homeland Security adviser, the White House said.
Chip LaMarca, a Broward County commissioner who was briefed on the attack by the sheriff’s office, told the Associated Press, “After he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting. We don’t know why.”
It is legal for airline passengers to carry guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag — not in a carry-on — and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in
Lea said the gunman said nothing as he “went up and down the carousels of the baggage claim, shooting through luggage to get at people that were hiding.” The killer had a handgun and went through about three magazines of ammunition, Lea said.
Then the attacker threw down his weapon and lay spread-eagle on the ground until he was arrested, Lea said.
Sheriff Scott Israel said five people were killed and eight were wounded, although authorities changed the injured number to six on Saturday morning. He said three are in good condition, and three are in intensive care. He said the gunman was arrested unharmed, with no law enforcement officers firing any shots, and was being questioned by the FBI.
People spilled onto the tarmac, some carrying luggage, and some ran from both Terminals 1 and 2, hiding behind cars or anything else they could find to shield themselves.
The airport suspended operations as law enforcement authorities rushed to the scene and emergency medical workers treated at least one bleeding victim on the tarmac. Fort Lauderdale-bound flights already in the air were delayed or diverted, and those that had yet to take off from the airport were held on the ground.
Video posted on Instagram appeared to show several people wounded in the baggage claim area of the terminal. One person appeared to be lying in a pool of blood with a head wound.
John Schilcher told Fox News said he came up to the baggage claim and heard the first gunshot as he picked up his bag off a carousel.
“The person next to me fell to the ground and then I started hearing other pops. And as this happened, other people started falling and you could hear it and smell it, and people on either side of me were going down and I just dropped to the ground,” said Schilcher, who was there with his wife and mother-in-law.
“The firing just went on and on,” he said.
He said the gunman emptied his weapon and reloaded, and “it was eerily quiet.”
“I was down on the floor, when we finally looked up there was a policeman standing over me,” Schilcher said. “That’s when I assumed it was safe.”
Staff writers Beatrice Dupuy and Kristen Leigh Painter and the Associated Press contributed to this report.