FORT LAUDERDALE – Five people were killed in a shooting Friday afternoon at the Fort Lauderdale international airport that also sent others to the hospital. Officials said the suspect 26-year-old Esteban Santiago is in custody.
The bloody rampage began when Santiago pulled a gun from his checked bag and opened fire Friday afternoon at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport, killing five people and injuring eight, authorities said.
Santiago’s rampage sent people scrambling through the terminals and across the airfield at one of the country’s busiest airports, shutting down all flights for hours while paramedics and federal and local law enforcement officers flooded the scene.
26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, was apprehended unharmed. Santiago was in federal custody Saturday morning following a lengthy interview by Broward County sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents.
He will face federal charges, officials said.
Police did not immediately identify a motive for the attack at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which occurred just before 1 p.m. and also left dozens of people injured in the chaos that followed the shooting, but said they had not eliminated the possibility that it was terrorism.
“We are looking at all avenues,” George L. Piro, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Miami division, said at a briefing Friday night. “We have not ruled out terrorism, and we will be pursuing every angle to try to determine the motive behind this attack.”
Relatives of the alleged shooter told news outlets that Santiago had a history of mental health problems, including some that followed his military service in Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard.
“Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn’t feeling too good,” his uncle, Hernan Rivera, told The Record newspaper.
George L. Piro, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Miami division, described a bizarre encounter the bureau had with Santiago just months before the shooting.
Santiago voluntarily walked inside an FBI office last November, Piro said. Santiago clearly indicated at the time that he was not intent on hurting anyone, Piro said, but what another federal official called incoherent and erratic statements led agents to ask local police to take him for a mental health evaluation.
Federal law enforcement officials said that Santiago had told the FBI that the CIA was forcing him to watch Islamic State propaganda videos to control his mind. After interviewing Santiago’s relatives and conducting other reviews and checking with other agencies, the bureau closed its assessment of him.
On Friday night in Anchorage, law enforcement officials descended on a small house where Santiago’s name was on the mailbox, along with the names of two others. A neighbor interviewed there said that Santiago had lived with a woman and two small children.
Santiago, a U.S. citizen with ties to New Jersey and Puerto Rico, had picked up his bag from the carousel and gone to the bathroom to load his gun before returning to the baggage-claim area and firing at people, said federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Travelers are allowed to bring firearms with them to flights as long as the guns are unloaded, locked in a hard-sided container and in checked baggage, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Ammunition can be brought onto flights but also must be placed in checked baggage.
The firearm was the only bag that Santiago checked when he traveled alone from Anchorage, en route to Minneapolis and then Florida, said Jesse Davis, chief of police at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, where passengers routinely check their weapons. “We’re a big hunting state, so we get quite a lot of that,” said Davis.
“Everything appeared normal,” said Davis. Santiago checked in for his Delta flight more than four hours early, which was unusual, said Davis, but “didn’t call attention to himself at all.”
A federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said that the suspect did not appear to say anything during his first interactions with police that suggested a political or terrorism-related motive. According to some witness accounts, he reloaded at least once and fired on horrified passengers, then lay down on the floor in a spread-eagle position and waited for authorities to arrest him.
President Obama was briefed on the situation and spoke by phone with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief to extend his condolences on “the tragic loss of life,” said Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council.