As their JetBlue flight zoomed toward Fort Lauderdale last week, the first stop on a nomadic cross-country quest for the perfect college-break party town, Missouri State student Jordan Upchurch and his best friend, Brittney Gross, faced what seemed a crucial series of decisions: Which Cuban restaurant to hit first. The best beach. The hottest dance club.
But their reverie was interrupted by a flurry of activity a few rows in front of them, where one flight attendant had just summoned another to look at the small TV screen embedded in the back of a seat, tuned to MSNBC. “Hey, look at this,” the first attendant said. “Oh my gosh!”
Upchurch and Gross, more curious than alarmed, switched their own TV screen to the same channel and saw panning aerial shots of an airport emblazoned with a BREAKING NEWS chyron. Putting on their headphones, they heard a reporter buzzing excitedly about gunfire and dead bodies — not at an airport, but their airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International.
Up and down the aisle, other TV screens began clicking over to the news. A fizz of chatter rippled through the cabin, but Upchurch and Gross sat there quietly, transfixed by the surreality of it all: They were flying into a slaughterhouse, and watching themselves do it on television.
Terrifying. Bloody. Horror.
In an era when mass murder by the deranged or choleric has become tragically common, so many of the words used to describe the scene last week when a calmly intent gunman killed five travelers and wounded six others have a familiar, if no less painful, ring: Terrifying. Bloody. Horror.
But the omnipresence of the wired world, in which social media and cable news not only chronicled but influenced events as they unfolded, has unveiled a new bit of common parlance: surreal. Life and death played out on a wave of live feeds across Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms as victims and survivors alike shouted their fears into cyberspace.
Those spilling out onto the airport runways in flight from the killer monitored their own escapes on their cell phones as live feeds sprouted across Facebook and Instagram. Half-crazed friends and relatives desperately sought information on loved ones, their dread sometimes crystallizing into awful reality as the world watched. Plaintively tweeted a Chicago man: “My grandparents were victims in the shooting in Fort Lauderdale. If you know anything about where Shirley Timmons is, please contact me.” The heartbreaking answer came at the speed of cyberspace.
Unfounded rumors of a second shooter leaped repeatedly from one distant corner of the airport to another, prolonging the afternoon’s terror long past the 90 seconds in which bullets actually flew.
As it continued, many of the people at the airport began to feel that reality was rippling and giving way to something indefinable, as if they were characters in a movie, their actions less their own than the dictates of an unseen and menacing screenwriter. The feeling persisted well after they left the airport.
Ruthie Bellman, a 53-year-old librarian from Dublin, Va., had just flown into Fort Lauderdale for a Caribbean cruise vacation when bullets started cutting down people around her near a baggage carousel. She escaped unharmed and, miraculously, made it to the ship on time. But she was haunted by the images she saw on her stateroom TV: faces she recognized from the airport, now attached to names and medical status. “How surreal it all is!” she told the Herald by email.
Old army buddies
Nobody felt the connectedness of it all like Luis Ortiz-Sanchez, an Arizona postal worker who was trying to board a flight for home one level above when the baggage-claim area in the airport’s Terminal 2 turned into a killing field. As shots echoed through the building and TSA workers shrieked “Run! Run! Active shooter!”, Ortiz-Sanchez grabbed his wife and bolted for the tarmac, then slipped into an airport hangar to hide.
He stayed there for hours, periodically using his cell phone to broadcast accounts of what was happening on Facebook Live, afraid to leave because of the rumors of another shooter he saw on the Facebook posts of others. In one of his sweeps of social media, Ortiz-Sanchez was stunned to read that he was actually hiding out from one of his old Army buddies. The killer, Esteban Santiago, had served with him in Iraq in the same Puerto Rico National Guard unit.
“He talked a lot about zombies,” the dazed Ortiz-Sanchez would tell reporters later. “He talked about how to kill the zombies.” And maybe that was a better metaphor for the surreality than movies — a bang-bang video game, sprung to sudden, malign life.
‘He’s got a gun!’
However it felt, though, what happened at the Terminal 2 baggage-claim area was mercilessly real. It started just before 1 p.m. Among the first to understand what was happening — at least, among those who survived — was Annika Dean, a 42-year-old Broward County school teacher returning from a quick trip to Atlanta to see friends.
Dean had been hanging around the quiet Fort Lauderdale airport for a couple of hours after grabbing an earlier-than-planned flight home (she was trying to beat a snowstorm forecast for Atlanta) that her bags missed. As the luggage finally began tumbling onto the carousel, she walked over to look for her black Samsonite bag — but turned around instead when she heard a series of sharp, cracking noises that she recognized immediately as lethal.
“I knew it was gunfire,” said Dean, who just a couple of months earlier had gone through a gut-wrenching training course for teachers on what to do if a gunman broke into her school. “The trainings are not fun, they simulate a real active shooter, so I knew these weren’t firecrackers or something.” If she had any doubts, the strangled gasps of people being hit by bullets erased them. We’ve got an active shooter, she thought in amazement, right here, right now.
Looking back, she could see the man wielding the gun, about 30 feet away, walking straight toward her from the direction of the bathroom. His route blocked any exit for her. Her training was to head for the nearest room and lock and barricade the door, but she couldn’t see anything like that.
Instead, she walked behind a large sign advertising luggage carts for rent and dropped to the floor, facedown. Around her she could see other passengers doing the same. That was the last thing she saw. Dean, who’s so squeamish about violence she won’t even go to R-rated movies, pressed her face to the floor. “I don’t enjoy violent stuff,” she said. “I did not want to watch what was going on, so I just looked at the carpet.” Then one other bit of training, much older, came to her mind, and she whispered a prayer: God, don’t make my children grow up without a mother. It stayed in her mind long after it left her lips.
Dean wasn’t exactly trying to play dead, just to keep a low profile. But nearby, Ruthie Bellman, the Virginia librarian, was doing her best to look like a corpse. When Bellman first spotted the gunman, she immediately dropped to the floor, only to see a woman lying at her feet, bleeding to death. Now Bellman was lying motionless, a backpack dragged over her face.
But in one respect, she was exactly like Dean. Jesus, keep my daughter safe, Bellman murmured. That daughter, 20-year-old Rachel Carroll, had left the baggage area a couple of minutes earlier to grab a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in the terminal. Bellman had no idea where she was now.
Unlike Bellman and Dean, Atlanta school counselor Steve Frappier didn’t immediately grasp that he was under attack. He heard the shots, but figured they were just one more bit undifferentiated airport noise, a minor companion to the roar of jet takeoffs and the dinging bells of electric carts. Then, the shout: “He’s got a gun! Get down!”
HE WAS COOL, CALM AND COLLECTED. HE NEVER GRIMACED.
Witness Steve Frappier talking about the shooter
Frappier, like everyone around him, dived for the floor. But he still had a clear view as a bullet plowed into a man’s head not far away. As the man’s wife crouched over him, screaming, Frappier felt a muffled thud on his back — a piece of the luggage piling up on the carousel toppling onto him. He didn’t bother to check; he was too riveted on the shooter.
“He never said anything the entire time,” Frappier marveled later. “He was cool, calm and collected. He never grimaced.”
If the gunman was quiet, however, many of his victims weren’t. Dean, her eyes still buried in the carpet, listened in astonishment as a man perhaps 15 or 20 feet away from her rattled off a steady stream of maleficent curses at the killer. “Asshole!” he shouted. “You f---ing asshole!” Similar cries came from other directions, hovering in the air like the mating calls of homicidal lovebirds.
“They almost sounded like angry New Yorkers,” the perplexed Dean would say later. “Their attitude was, ‘What are you doing, asshole,’ just kind of chewing him out. I just couldn’t believe it.” The taunts, she was sure, would only prolong the shootings. Drop down and be quiet, people! she thought, only to be interrupted by something totally unexpected: A large body fell gently atop her and then enveloped her completely.
Orange cones, usually used to mark the discovery of shell casings, pockmarked the lower level of Terminal 2.
It wasn’t a corpse but a man, unscathed and acting purposefully. He was heavy, but Dean’s body was pumping so much adrenaline she didn’t notice. What she heard clearly were his murmured words: “I will protect you.”
They didn’t know one another. All the same, Dean was certain who he was: “My guardian angel...The answer to my prayers. God was looking after me.” Now, she was certain, she would survive.
Neither of them said another word. They lay there together as the shooting continued, the gunman pacing as he fired. From the sound of the shots, Dean thought he was never closer to her than about 10 to 15 feet, but later other passengers would tell her the gunman at one point was standing almost directly over her.
And then the shooting stopped.
Out of bullets
Esteban Santiago, the wiry, 26-year-old gunman, had not had a change of heart. He just ran out of bullets for his 9mm Walter pistol after firing a couple of dozen rounds. When a Broward sheriff’s deputy approached him, he dropped to the floor in a spread-eagle position. Whatever he was thinking — and 10 days later, very little about that has emerged — Santiago had no intention of dying that day.
Santiago had been decorated for his year of National Guard service in Iraq, but when he returned in 2011, he was a troubled man, withdrawn and bitter. He moved to Alaska, a remote state that’s often a magnet for people trying to remake their lives, but if that was the goal, it didn’t work.
His long string of rough-and-tumble squabbles with his girlfriend repeatedly brought him to the attention of police. He was booted from the National Guard. In November, he visited the FBI in Anchorage to complain that he was hearing voices in his head about the CIA and ISIS.
Local cops took his gun away and sent him to a psychiatric facility. But a few days later he was released, penniless. Last week he bought a one-way plane ticket to Fort Lauderdale and checked a single piece of luggage: his gun, in a properly legal lockbox. When he arrived, he retrieved the box, went to the restroom and came out firing.
Why did he do it in Fort Lauderdale? Why did he do it anywhere? The FBI, heading the investigation because airports fall under federal protection, doesn’t know. Neither does his family, which learned what happened when Santiago’s aunt and uncle heard it on television that afternoon.
“I called his brother in Florida, who lives in Naples,” Maria Luisa Ruiz told reporters. “When I told him this is the name and the birthdate, he said [in disbelief], ‘Don’t tell me that.’” Looking forlorn, she added: “I don’t know what else to say.”
Waves of fear would continue to wash over the airport for hours after the gunshots ended. The continued reports of other gunmen caused repeated panicky dashes down stairs and across runways, so many that police recorded 37 more injuries, from sprains to broken bones.
Even more common were casualties to dignity as passengers were detained by cops — under bridges, in hangars, on lawns — uncertain about the security situation. Palm Beach County dentist Margie Ngo and her family found themselves seated for hours in a driveway outside the airport, staring at a bloody patch of pavement where a shooting victim had awaited an ambulance. Ngo grew increasingly frantic, though not about gunfire. When she finally asked a cop where she could go to the bathroom, his reply was terse: “Find a bush.”
Jordan Upchurch, who watched TV in disbelief as his plane descended toward a bloodbath, spent the next several hours whipsawing between confusion and terror. He was astonished to learn that airport passengers and employees one terminal over from the shooting didn’t even know about it. Many of them were confused by emails and texts from loved ones asking — to them, it seemed, completely out of the blue — if they were all right.
Upchurch, looking around at all the security guards in his terminal, wasn’t worried at all by rumors of a second gunman — until somebody told him, incorrectly, the first gunmen had been wearing a uniform. Suddenly cops represented not security, but a threat. “That scared the hell out of us,” he said. “No one knew what to do. No one knew where to hide. You felt like you were stuck.”
The police were already tallying the afternoon’s human damage. All five of the fatalities — 69-year-old Mary Louise Amzibel of Dover, Del.; 70-year-old Shirley Wells Timmons of Senecaville, Ohio; 57-year-old Michael John Oehme of Council Bluffs, Iowa; 84-year-old Olga M. Woltering of Marietta, Ga., and 62-year-old Terry Michael Andres of Virginia Beach, Va. — were tourists who had come to Fort Lauderdale for cruises.
In Terminal 2, people got off the floor and tried to resume their business, in varying degrees of post-traumatic stress. Frappier, the Atlanta school counselor, wandered dazedly into a bathroom, where he took off his backpack, only to find a bullet hole in his Macbook Pro computer. What he thought had been a jostle by falling luggage had actually been a deadly accurate shot fired by the gunman.
“If I didn’t have that backpack on, the bullet would have shot me between the shoulders,” Frappier said. “It still doesn’t feel real.”
As Bellman, the librarian, got up, she took one look at the woman at her feet and knew nothing could be done for her. Her anguish accelerated when she went to Starbucks and couldn’t find her missing daughter. Calls and texts to her cell phone went unanswered.
As Bellman was on the verge of completely unraveling, her phone rang: Salvation! Rachel had been able to duck out of the airport just as the shooting started.
IF I DIDN’T HAVE THAT BACKPACK ON, THE BULLET WOULD HAVE SHOT ME BETWEEN THE SHOULDERS.
Dean’s first act when the police shouted the all-clear was to thank the man she was convinced was her guardian angel. “When you did that it really comforted me in a terrifying situation,” she told him. But their goodbyes were brief. He was anxious to find his wife — who was in another part of the airport — and Dean wanted to leave the shooting scene before she saw anything that would remind her of an R-rated movie, only worse.
A few minutes later, Dean had a sudden attack of what-was-I-thinking? She hadn’t even asked his name, much less his phone number. And there was something more she had to tell him. She started wandering the terminal, looking for him, but realized to her horror that she didn't really know what he looked like. They hadn’t been lying face to face. All she knew was that he was a big guy with white hair.
Spotting somebody by that description, Dean approached him and tried to explain that she was looking for a man who had lain atop her in the baggage claim area — and was wildly relieved when he replied, “I recognize your sweater.”
That’s how Dean learned her guardian angel had a name and an earthly profession: Tony Bartosiewicz, a retired electrician from Rochester, N.Y. He was in Florida to catch a cruise ship.
This time they exchanged contact information, and then Dean used the word she should have the first time: “You’re a hero.”
Miami Herald staff writers Charles Rabin, David Ovalle, Joey Flechas, Julie K. Brown, Chabeli Herrera, Lance Dixon and Jay Weaver contributed to this story.