Panicked witnesses ran out of the terminal and spilled 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 Friday to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.
Authorities said an Army veteran who complained that the government was controlling his mind drew a gun from his checked luggage on arrival and opened fire on fellow travellers.
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 to 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.”
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; his family also said he'd recently become a dad to a son.
A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that 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, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
FBI agent George Piro, who is in charge of the Miami field office, confirmed that Santiago had come into the Anchorage office and said he clearly indicated at the time that he was not intent on hurting anyone.
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. The airport reopened early Saturday, though many flights were cancelled or delayed and long lines of passengers were forming.
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.
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.
The gunman was taken into custody after throwing his empty weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, one witness said.