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Tragedy In Fort Lauderdale

empty baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Photo by Chris Dlugosz.

Exactly one week ago tonight, my wife and I returned from a family vacation in London on a Norwegian flight into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

It took a little while to deplane our Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The fast-growing airport has limited gate space at Terminal 4, the primary international terminal, so our plane was parked on an apron and we were bused to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility. But once there we were whisked through Immigration (the new electronic kiosks greatly speed the process), grabbed our luggage, handed our forms to the Customs officer and jumped in a taxi for the 15-minute ride downtown, where our apartment and my company headquarters are located.

The Fort Lauderdale airport is far from the most modern or efficient airport you’ll run across. It is uncomfortably cramped, dining choices are limited, shopping is almost nonexistent and, thanks to the local demographics, certain flights seem to have nearly as many passengers requiring “extra assistance on the jet bridge” as those who can board under their own power.

But it is friendly and convenient – far more convenient for many South Floridians than much-bigger Miami International Airport – and also festive, because so many Fort Lauderdale passengers are excitedly traveling to or from the huge cruise terminal next door at Port Everglades. The good cheer usually comes bubbling out at baggage claim. Instead of a ringing alarm, our travelers are warned that the carousels are about to start moving by the sound of a ship’s horn or calypso music playing. It is hard to be grumpy when you’re listening to calypso music, even after a long trans-Atlantic flight.

Two days after we came through the airport, I was walking back to my office after eating lunch and running some errands when my wife texted me about a shooting at the airport. In baggage claim. At Terminal 2 – not the terminal I usually use because it serves Delta and Air Canada and I usually fly on JetBlue, but one that many of my colleagues and friends use regularly and which is much like my usual haunt in Terminal 3.

No doubt you know what happened: Authorities say a mentally disturbed military veteran named Esteban Santiago, 26, flew to the Fort Lauderdale airport from Anchorage, Alaska via Minnesota, on a one-way ticket. He traveled with a single piece of checked baggage: a locked container holding an unloaded 9 mm handgun. Santiago retrieved the gun in Fort Lauderdale, apparently loaded it in a men’s room stall, then emerged back to the baggage claim area and began firing. Five people died and six were wounded before Santiago ran out of bullets and gave himself up to a Broward County sheriff’s deputy.

It all sounds straightforward, albeit horrible, when written after the fact. But watching on live local television that afternoon as the events were unfolding, it was anything but straightforward. The dangerous confusion at the airport, broadcast live to millions, was a clear look at what is meant by the “fog of war.”

For more than two hours, we saw images of heavily armed and armored law enforcement officers running all over the airport, guns drawn, occasionally pointed at some staff member or citizen they encountered. We saw several waves of passengers evacuated from terminals onto the airport aprons and taxiways, and then hundreds of those passengers marched down the runway – a surreal sight – toward a perimeter fence that had somehow been breached. From that point they left the airport property, following the railroad tracks toward Port Everglades, reportedly having to pass through armed checkpoints along the way, set up by law enforcement to ensure that no perpetrators were escaping by hiding in the crowd. Thousands of people were separated from their luggage, medicines and other personal items; some required medical attention after spending an hour or two on a blazing tarmac on an afternoon with temperatures in the unseasonably warm 80s.

There were multiple reports of additional shots fired. Officers searched the garage for a second gunman. But there were no additional shots, no second gunman. The actual violence may have taken place in less than two minutes altogether. The dangers of anxious men (and some women) in uniform running around with guns drawn went on for hours.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of the law enforcement response. After the fact, it seems pretty clear that this was the work of a single disturbed individual, but certainly there have been enough coordinated terror attacks to fully justify concerns about multiple shooters and ongoing dangers. There were probably several thousand passengers and airport employees on the premises at the time, and they all needed protection. The airport itself has no police force; it relies primarily on the sheriff’s office, with backup from other local and federal agencies. Everyone did the best they could under the circumstances, and while many were inconvenienced and some were discomfited, in the end nobody other than the gunman’s victims was seriously hurt. That is the outcome we want.

I imagine there will be extensive after-action study of this incident, and a lot of lessons to be learned that ought to be shared widely among airports and other public facilities far beyond South Florida. Could command and control have been clearer and more efficient? Could officers have been deployed to other terminals to keep passengers safe and sheltered in place without the impromptu mass evacuations onto the tarmac and other areas where civilians don’t belong? Do various first responder agencies need better ways of communicating with one another in emergencies?

There will no doubt be policy discussions as well. Citizens need to travel with unloaded weapons; in Alaska, where guns are widely used for hunting as well as for protection from bears and other wildlife, weapons are routinely checked at airports. But should travelers be allowed to board planes with live ammunition in their baggage or on their person? If last week’s shooter had not been able to load his gun in that airport restroom, five people would likely be alive today.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel suggested that those “suffering from mental illness” should not be allowed to own or possess weapons. It is an understandable suggestion on its face but an unhelpful one. “Mentally ill” is a pejorative label that sweeps up a large slice of the population, including many who work in law enforcement. Is an anxiety disorder a mental illness? I suppose so. Should it automatically require a police officer to be stripped of a weapon and assigned to desk duty? I don’t see why.

The fact that Esteban Santiago walked into an FBI office, declared he was being subjected to CIA mind control efforts to force him to fight for the Islamic State group, and was referred by the FBI for psychiatric treatment – before being released and allowed to recover his weapon – will no doubt get a lot of attention. But it will take much bigger changes in our mental health diagnosis and treatment system than we are probably prepared to make before we will be able to safely say that such a thing could not happen again almost anywhere in the country.

Finally, there are the three federal counts with which Santiago is charged, all of which carry the potential of the death penalty. Santiago will never be put to death for this attack. The country simply won’t do that to a soldier who seemingly snapped – which goes to show how arbitrary and symbolic the death penalty has become, since a shooter who performed the same actions while proclaiming fealty to the Islamic State group might indeed at least be subject to a serious capital prosecution.

Within a couple of days, things were getting back to normal at the Fort Lauderdale airport. By Sunday the planes were flying most of their usual schedule. The cruise ships sailed from Port Everglades that night, with most of their scheduled passengers. The blood-soaked carpet was quickly removed from Terminal 2. And somewhere in the airport, I’m sure, the calypso music played to get travelers in the mood to enjoy their holidays.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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