(TNS) — Terrified travelers scrambled for cover as a gunman opened fire in a terminal at Fort Lauderdale's international airport Friday, killing at least five people and injuring eight others, authorities said. The shooter was in custody.
The country's first mass shooting of the New Year threw the busy airport into chaos, with thousands of travelers and airport staff fleeing out onto walkways and the tarmac as emergency responders and police, some heavily armed and in tactical gear, rushed to the scene.
A helicopter buzzed overhead. Hours after the shooting, which broke out shortly before 1 p.m. local time, television footage showed long lines of people trudging with their luggage away from the terminals or milling around outside, with most vehicles still blocked from entering the closed airport.
Mark Lea, a 53-year-old financial adviser from Minneapolis, was in the baggage claim area when, he said, a man came in and started shooting.
"At first we thought it was firecrackers," he told NBC News. "Everyone started screaming and running. The shooter made his way down through baggage claim. He had what looked like a 9 mm and emptied his entire clip. People were trying to run."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told broadcast outlets that the suspect had been identified as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago, who was apparently carrying military identification. Florida Gov. Rick Scott tweeted that he was on his way to the airport for a briefing.
Travelers described huddling inside a restaurant in Terminal 2, using tables for cover after the gunfire erupted, or ducking behind parked cars when they saw people running out the doors.
Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was one of those caught up in the incident, tweeting that shots had been fired and "everyone was running."
The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, about 25 miles north of Miami, is a major travel hub, with more than 70,000 people passing through daily, according to the airport. Security was stepped up at the larger Miami airport in the wake of the shooting.
For some, the attack shattered a workday routine. Jayce Sisley, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and works as a flight attendant, said he was heading to the airport for work when worried friends and family began texting him about the shooting. His employer said flights were still departing, and asked him to report for duty, but the way was blocked by emergency vehicles, with officers waving off arriving cars.
"It was a scene of ambulances and police cars, trucks, all kinds of people with automatic weapons blocking all the exits," he said.
As he headed back to the city, ambulances and police cars roared past him, sirens blaring. That's when the magnitude of the situation hit him. Even though he had received training for these types of incidents, Sisley said, it all seemed unreal.
"I'm shocked," he said. "And I'm worried."
Panic spread rapidly. A traveler identified only as Ben told CBS' Miami affiliate that he was boarding a shuttle outside the terminal when he saw "everyone in a big pack just running as far as possible away from the shots."
Lea, the financial adviser from Minneapolis, said police officers responded less than a minute after the shooting began and took the suspect into custody after he ran out of bullets.
"It was absolutely surreal," Lea told NBC. "People were scared and frantically running to avoid being shot. People were tripping over each other. They were trying to make a fast exit out of the door."
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