An Iraq War veteran who had complained that the government was forcing him to watch Islamic State videos pulled a gun from his checked bag and opened fire Friday afternoon at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport, killing five people and injuring six, authorities said.
The bloody rampage at a quiet baggage-claim area sent people scrambling through the terminals and across the airfield at one of the country’s busiest airports, shutting down all flights for hours while paramedics and federal and local law enforcement officers flooded the scene.
The alleged gunman, identified by authorities as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, was apprehended unharmed. Authorities believe he acted alone. Family members said he had struggled with mental health issues, but investigators said Saturday that they have not yet ruled out other motives, including terrorism.
Santiago was in federal custody Saturday morning following a lengthy interview by Broward County sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents. He will face federal charges, officials said.
The attack at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport occurred just before 1 p.m. and also left dozens of people injured in the chaos that followed the shooting.
At a Saturday morning news conference, authorities detailed a sprawling investigation in Florida, Alaska and several other locations. Investigators had interviewed 175 people, including Santiago’s family and the people on his two flights on Friday, which were uneventful.
They’ve identified the people killed during the minute-long shooting spree, but have not released their names, saying they have not contacted all family members.
“We have not ruled out anything, George L. Piro, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Miami division, said at a Saturday morning briefing. “We continue to look at all avenues, all motives for this attack. And we continue to look at the terrorism aspect as a motive.”
Investigators are scouring Santiago’s electronics and digital media, a law enforcement official familiar with the case told The Washington Post. They’re trying to determine what videos Santiago actually watched, if he had any real contact with Islamic State sympathizers and whether that motivated him to carry out the shooting.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said earlier on Friday: “This could well be someone who is mentally deranged, or in fact it could be someone who had a much more sinister motive that we have to worry about every day, and that is terrorism.”
Relatives of the alleged shooter told news outlets that Santiago had a history of mental health problems, including some that followed his military service in Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard.
“Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn’t feeling too good,” his uncle, Hernan Rivera, told The Record newspaper.
His aunt told the newspaper he was hospitalized after returning from Iraq. “He lost his mind,” Ruiz Rivera said in Spanish.
He had seemed to get the help he needed, and became a father in September, she told Noticias Telemundo. But his mental health issues resurfaced in December. “They took him to the hospital but they didn’t tell me what for but they had him in an isolated room because he was a little wrong in the head and he started to like hear things,” she said.
On Friday, Piro described a bizarre encounter the bureau had with Santiago just months before the shooting. Santiago voluntarily walked inside an FBI office last November, Piro said. Santiago clearly indicated at the time that he was not intent on hurting anyone, Piro said, but what another federal official called incoherent and erratic statements led agents to ask local police to take him for a mental health evaluation.
Federal law enforcement officials said that Santiago had told the FBI that the CIA was forcing him to watch Islamic State propaganda videos to control his mind. After interviewing Santiago’s relatives and conducting other reviews and checking with other agencies, the bureau closed its assessment of him.
On Friday night in Anchorage, law enforcement officials descended on a small house where Santiago’s name was on the mailbox, along with the names of two others. A neighbor interviewed there said that Santiago had lived with a woman and two small children.
Santiago, a U.S. citizen with ties to New Jersey and Puerto Rico, had picked up his bag from the carousel and gone to the bathroom to load his 9 mm handgun before returning to the baggage-claim area and firing at people, federal officials said.
Travelers are allowed to bring firearms with them to flights as long as the guns are unloaded, locked in a hard-sided container and in checked baggage, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Ammunition can be brought onto flights but also must be placed in checked baggage.
The firearm was the only bag that Santiago checked when he traveled alone from Anchorage, en route to Minneapolis and then Florida, said Jesse Davis, chief of police at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, where passengers routinely check their weapons. “We’re a big hunting state, so we get quite a lot of that,” said Davis.
“Everything appeared normal,” said Davis. Santiago checked in for his Delta flight more than four hours early, which was unusual, said Davis, but “didn’t call attention to himself at all.”
A federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said that the suspect did not appear to say anything during his first interactions with police that suggested a political or terrorism-related motive. According to some witness accounts, he reloaded at least once and fired on horrified passengers, then lay down on the floor in a spread-eagle position and waited for authorities to arrest him. In total, about 80 seconds elapsed between when the first shots were fired and when officers made contact with Santiago.
Traveler Steve Frappier told CNN that he survived because the gunman’s bullet was stopped by the laptop in his backpack.
“The backpack saved my life,” Frappier said, on CNN’s AC360. “[I] dropped and the backpack was still on my back, and I was turned in such a way where that at one point when the shooter shot toward my direction . . . there was a bullet that ricocheted.”
Frappier said he felt something hit his back, but didn’t realize what it was until he went to an airport bathroom and found a bullet hole in his backpack. The FBI later found a bullet in the pocket, he told CNN.
“The way that it ricocheted and entered my bag. That would have been my back,” he said. “It hit just so through the open backpack, exited, ran through the laptop and the casing and landed in an interior pocket of the backpack.”
Another flurry of nervous activity erupted at the airport later Friday afternoon when there were reports of additional gunfire, but Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said there was no evidence of a second shooting.
The shooting took place in the baggage-claim area at the airport’s Terminal 2, home to departures and arrivals for Delta and Air Canada, according to the airport. Footage from the scene inside the building captured the brutal aftermath of the shooting in the baggage area, on the airport’s lower level.
Jay Cohen was dropped off at the airport for a flight and arrived after the gunfire had stopped, finding an unusual scene at the usually bustling facility.
“The airport was like a ghost town,” Cohen, 51, a consultant, said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t see anyone around.”
It wasn’t until he walked all the way up to the Delta counter without encountering a line or a single soul that he noticed about 20 people huddled together behind a nearby concrete wall. He said he peeked over the counter and saw the Delta employees on the ground trying to cover their heads with their hands.
“Hurry up. Get behind here,” someone whispered to him, he said. “Active shooter. Active shooter.”
As he looked around the terminal he previously thought was abandoned, he now could see people hiding under benches, squished up against windows, he said. Then Cohen saw police running full speed through the terminal, some with guns drawn, others with their hands on their holsters, while police cars began screeching up to the curb.
“It went from eerie quiet from when I walked in to pure mayhem in just minutes,” he said. “It was chaos.”
Many of those at the airport expressed frustration with the lack of information Friday. Hundreds were stranded on the tarmac and not allowed off the premises for hours as authorities sought to clear the airport, looking for other danger.
All flights were suspended following the shooting, and the airport was closed, officials said. Officials at other major airports across the country, including in Los Angeles and Chicago, said they were beefing up security in response to the shooting in Florida.
The bustling international airport in Fort Lauderdale was closed after the shooting, halting scores of flights from across the country. Some planes intended for Fort Lauderdale were grounded, while others were diverted to nearby airports.
The airport reopened Saturday morning for flights, officials said, though they warned that some flights were canceled or rerouted in the wake of Friday’s violence. Some travelers were also being directed to South Florida’s other two major airports in Miami and West Palm Beach.
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The Washington Post’s Julia O’Malley in Anchorage, Tal Abbady and Michael S. Rosenwald in Fort Lauderdale, and Abigail Hauslohner, Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Ashley Halsey and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.