FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — An arriving airline passenger with a gun in his checked luggage opened fire in the baggage claim area at the Fort Lauderdale airport Friday, killing five people and wounding eight before throwing his weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, authorities and witnesses said.
A Florida official said initially Friday that the shooter had arrived aboard a Canadian flight, but Canadian officials said that was not the case.
A lone shooter opened fire at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday. (Photo: David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
Canadian Embassy spokeswoman Christine Constantin said in an email to The Associated Press that the suspect did not travel from Canada and was not on an Air Canada flight. She said the suspect has no connection to Canada.
The shooting happened at the airport's terminal 2, where Air Canada and Delta operate flights.
"We understand from officials he was on a flight originating in Anchorage, transiting through Minneapolis and landing in Ft. Lauderdale," Constantin's email says.
Global Affairs Canada also said the flight on which Fort Lauderdale airport suspect arrived did not originate in Canada nor was a Canadian carrier involved. Air Canada said it has no record of any passenger with the name of suspect nor of any checked guns on any of its flights to the city.
Police direct traffic outside of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport after a shooting took place near the baggage claim on Friday. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An Air Canada spokesman added that all its passengers and employees at the airport are "accounted for and safe."
The gunman — identified by authorities as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago, an Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq but was demoted and discharged last year for unsatisfactory performance — was immediately taken into custody. His brother said he had been receiving psychological treatment recently.
One witness said the attacker gunned down his victims without a word and kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition, sending panicked travellers running out of the terminal and spilling onto the tarmac, baggage in hand.
People take cover behind vehicles at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP via CP)
Others crouched behind cars or anything else they could find to shield themselves as police and paramedics rushed in to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen. The airport was shut down.
"People started kind of screaming and trying to get out of any door they could or hide under the chairs," a witness, Mark Lea, told MSNBC. "He just kind of continued coming in, just randomly shooting at people, no rhyme or reason to it."
Authorities said the motive was under investigation.
"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," said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. "We can't conclude that."
President Barack Obama was briefed by his Homeland Security adviser, the White House said.
It is legal for airline passengers to travel with guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag — not a carry-on — and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in.
An injured woman is taken into Broward Health Trauma Center in Fort Lauderdale after a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday. (Photo: Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/AP via CP)
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, aboard a Delta flight Thursday night, checking only one piece of luggage — his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.
At Fort Lauderdale, "after he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting. We don't know why," said Chip LaMarca, a Broward County commissioner who was briefed by investigators.
The attack exposed another weak point in airport security: While travellers have to take off their shoes, put their carry-on luggage through X-ray machines and pass through metal detectors and full-body scanners to reach the gates, many sections of airports are more lightly secured and more vulnerable to attack.
In 2013, a gunman with a grudge against the Transportation Security Administration shot and killed one of the agency's screeners and wounded three others during a rampage at Los Angeles International Airport.
People stand on the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after a shooter opened fire inside the terminal on Friday. (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP via CP)
Last November, an airline worker was shot and killed near an employee parking lot at Oklahoma City's airport, and in 2015 a machete-wielding man was shot to death after he attacked federal security officers at the New Orleans airport.
In the Fort Lauderdale attack, 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 before running out of ammunition, Lea said.
"He threw the gun down and laid spread-eagle on the ground until the officer came up to him," Lea said.
Sheriff Scott Israel said five people were killed and eight were wounded. Their condition was not disclosed. He said the gunman was arrested unharmed, with no law enforcement officers firing any shots, and was being questioned by the FBI.
The airport suspended operations as law enforcement authorities rushed to the scene and emergency medical workers treated the bleeding victims. 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.
Law enforcement personnel arrive in an armored car outside Fort Lauderdale‚ÄìHollywood International Airport on Friday. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP via CP)
At least one person appeared to be lying in a pool of blood with a head wound.
Santiago's brother, Bryan, told The Associated Press that his brother had been receiving psychological treatment in Alaska. He said Santiago's girlfriend alerted the family to the situation in recent months.
Bryan Santiago said that he didn't know what his brother was being treated for and that they never talked about it over the telephone.
He said Esteban Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2. He was deployed to Iraq in 2010 and spent a year there with the 130th Engineer Battalion, according to Puerto Rico National Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen. He later joined the Alaska National Guard.
The Pentagon said Santiago had gone AWOL several times during his stint with the Alaska National Guard and was demoted — from specialist to private first class — and given a general discharge, which is lower than an honourable discharge.
People run on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP via CP)
At the Fort Lauderdale airport, 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."
"I was down on the floor. When we finally looked up there was a policeman standing over me," he said. "That's when I assumed it was safe."
With files from The Canadian Press. Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro and Adriana Gomez-Licon in Miami; Lolita C. Baldor and Eric Tucker in Washington; David Koenig in Dallas; and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.