Experts: Airport shooting highlights danger of 'soft target'

5 dead in Fort Lauderdale airport shooting

An Army veteran who complained that the government was controlling his mind drew a 9mm pistol 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 eight, authorities said.

He was taken into custody after throwing his empty weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, one witness said.

"People started kind of screaming and trying to get out of any door they could, or hide under the chairs," the witness, Mark Lea, told MSNBC. "He just kind of continued coming in, just randomly shooting at people, no rhyme or reason to it."

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.

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.

Officials held a press conference Saturday morning following interviews with Santiago stating that he followed TSA rules for checking a gun 

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."

Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage 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.

Officials said in a press conference Saturday morning that Santiago followed TSA rules for checking his 9mm pistol.

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said that some airports vary, and in some cases, passengers aren't allowed to bring ammo, period, but not a single airport allows a loaded gun in a bag.

"If you have a mag, it must be empty and, of course, the gun is empty," Smith said. "It must be closed, locked and secured with a locking device."

The Fort Lauderdale 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," according to Lea. The man 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.

The gunman was arrested unharmed, with no shots fired by law enforcement officers, and was being questioned by the FBI, Sheriff Scott Israel said.

Browrad County Sheriff Scott Israel said it took officers 80 seconds from Santiago's first shot to encounter deputies. 

Israel said 30 to 40 people were injured -- scrapes, bruises and broken bones -- after the shooting.

The condition of the wounded was not disclosed. At least one of the victims was seen lying in a pool of blood with what appeared to be a head wound.

The airport was shut down, with incoming flights diverted and outgoing flights held on the ground. Airport Director Mark Gale said the airport will try to reopen at 5 a.m. Saturday, but urged travelers to check with their individual airlines on flight status.

John Schilcher told Fox News that 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."

Danger of soft targets

The shooting is likely to raise questions of whether aviation safety officials need to change the rules.

Aviation expert Ed Booth told News4Jax that the baggage claim area shooting shows that airports have soft targets.

“The person was able to hit one of those,” Booth said.

There is no security screening to enter the baggage claim area.

"This is a soft spot because it’s not a part of the secured area," explained Gil Smith, News4Jax crime and safety analyst. 

That means, despite police presence, anyone can still walk into that area with a weapon. At Fort Lauderdale, officials said that after the suspect claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting. 

“So when he gets off the airplane, he still has no contact with the weapon, not until he gets into an unsecured area, which is the baggage area. Then he was able to get the weapon and go into the bathroom and load his weapon," Smith 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.

“Once you check your weapon in your check bag that you don’t have access to, that is going onto the aircraft,  the firearm is one container and it’s locked. If you have ammunition, it must be in a separate container that is still with the baggage, but is also secured like the weapon is," Smith said. 

The attack also exposed another weak point in airport security: While travelers have to take off their shoes, put their carry-on luggage through X-ray machines and pass through metal detectors to reach the gates, many other sections of airports, such as ticket counters and baggage claim areas, are more lightly secured and more vulnerable to attack.

"While we have authorized doubling the number of TSA canine teams to try to prevent tragedies like this, the fact is that wherever there are crowds, such as at our airports, we remain vulnerable to these types of attacks," Nelson said.

The question now is whether lawmakers will look at the tragedy in Fort Lauderdale and change the law when it comes to allowing travelers to check guns on commercial flights.

“I’m not sure how much of that will change, because people do have the right to bear arms and they can travel with their firearms," Smith said. "They may do something where they allow people to lock their guns in their checked baggage, but not let them carry ammunition. So that’s something that may change.”

Booth said he believes several security measures could change for airports nationwide after the shooting.

“The airports are as secure as anything in our country, and I'm afraid this will lead to even more security, as I referenced, a European-style approach, with a massive show of force, military personnel, automatic weapons, that sort of thing on display,” Booth said.

Law enforcement expert Rick Parker, a former Jacksonville police officer and Homeland Security investigator, explained that training will likely increase in North Florida and across the country.

“You've got to plan for that,” he said. “There are significant protocol and plans in place. You've got to play it out. You've got to train. When training budgets get cut, that's the frustrating thing for any sheriff or chief. How can I keep my mechanisms? How effective can I be? And every county has to fight that every budget year. You have to put eyes on. In Broward County, not any different than Duval County, or St. Johns, or Clay right now. The issue of paying attention right now, not just for public but law enforcement, is at its highest. You have to pay attention and react quickly.”

The chilling details of Friday's shooting now have many passengers worried about airport soft spots in general. Travelers retrieving their luggage at Jacksonville International Airport on Friday said that in light of the shooting, changes should be made.

“Security needs to be beefed up here too," Ken Baptiste said. "You can’t have any weak spots. People who commit these crimes know that.”

Julia Baptiste said she never thought before that the baggage claim area needed security.

"But with this all happening, it’s like nowhere in the airport now is really safe," she said. "It's pretty traumatizing."

JAX on alert

The shooting put airports in the state on high alert, including Jacksonville International Airport, which beefed up security measures Friday afternoon.

A flight from JAX took off at 1 p.m., not long after the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, but did not have to be diverted and landed safely in Fort Lauderdale around 2:20 p.m.

Delta confirmed that a flight from JFK that was scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale was diverted to JAX and landed safely at 3:03 p.m. A Delta employee said several people on the plane were heading to Fort Lauderdale to get on cruises.

Later flights from Jacksonville to Fort Lauderdale were canceled.

A passenger who was scheduled to take a flight to Fort Lauderdale on Friday afternoon to head home to his children in Miami said he didn't want to take any risks, so he chose to fly on a friend's personal plane out of a smaller airport in Jacksonville.

He said he was alerted about the shooting by his children, who called him from Miami.

“It terrifies me, because you want to feel safe, especially when you get off the plane,” Andrew Sands said. “There's a lot of security around, but I did hear that they apprehended him alive, the person, so that was good, so at least they have some something as a control.”

Friday developed into a nerve-wracking day for air travelers, as word of the deadly shooting made its way to airports across the country. 

“It’s definitely scary. You never know. That’s the problem with the way things are these days. You just don’t know that’s going to happen," said traveler Suzanne O'Malley.

At JAX, some passengers told News4Jax that they did not realize what happened until after they landed.

"When I landed in Atlanta, my husband actually sent me a text saying, you know, 'Did you hear?'" said New York resident Gia Anderson. "Obviously, I did not. But it was pretty upsetting."

Others travelers, like Jacksonville resident Zion Gibbs, learned about the shooting mid-flight. 

"It was very frightening. I kind of got a little scared because it happened so suddenly while we were traveling, and we've been traveling all this week," said Gibbs, who was returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic. 

"It's my first time on a plane, so I think I'm going to stick to cars and trains. But I really don't like airplanes anyways, but this is my first time doing it, so it's kind of scary."

As airport officials began increasing security, air travelers also took steps to keep themselves and others safe.

"You just have to be familiar with your surroundings. Look around, watch for suspicious activity. That's all you can do," Anderson said.

Randy Wyse, with the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters, said the city is putting a plan in place for instances like this. 

"Jacksonville is in the middle of right now developing a procedure for how to deal with active shooter situations; testing out bulletproof vests and protective equipment and how to respond," Wyse said.

Wyse added that tragedies like this are what our law enforcement officers and fire fighters have to be prepared for now, and situations like the one in Fort Lauderdale are something they learn from.

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