US airport slayings expose security weakness

US airport slayings expose security weakness

Esteban Santiago, 26, the suspect in the deadly shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is transported to a local jail on Saturday. (AP Photo)
Esteban Santiago, 26, the suspect in the deadly shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is transported to a local jail on Saturday. (AP Photo)

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA: Without a word, the gunman moved through the baggage claim area, picking off travellers until his handgun ran out of ammunition, leaving five dead and eight wounded in the Fort Lauderdale airport.

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 to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.

Authorities said a US 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.

The fact that the suspect used a gun he had stored in his checked luggage raised new questions about airport security and whether officials need to change the rules in a country where guns outnumber people.

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.

A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that Santiago had walked into the FBI office in Anchorage in November to say that the US 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 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 were 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 on Monday, Piro 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.

Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage aboard a Delta flight on Thursday night, checking only one piece of luggage - his gun, said Jesse Davis, the 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-eagled 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 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 killer went through about three magazines before running out of ammunition, Lea said.

Broward County Sheriff Scott 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 authorities hoped to reopen by 5am Saturday local time but urged travellers to check with their airlines on flight status

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

The attack also exposed another weak point in airport security: While travellers 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.

"The fact is that wherever there are crowds, such as at our airports, we remain vulnerable to these types of attacks," Nelson said.

President-elect Donald Trump said it was a "disgraceful situation that's happening in our country and throughout the world" and that it was too soon to say whether the airport incident was a terrorist attack.

Santiago's brother, Bryan, told the AP that his brother had been receiving psychological treatment in Alaska. He said Santiago's girlfriend alerted the family to the situation in recent months. Bryan Santiago said that he didn't know what his brother was being treated for and that they never talked about it.

He said Esteban Santiago was born in New Jersey and moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2. He was sent to Iraq in 2010 and spent a year there with the 130th Engineer Battalion, according to Puerto Rico National Guard spokesman Maj Paul Dahlen. He later joined the Alaska National Guard.

The Pentagon said Santiago had gone AWOL several times during his stint with the Alaska National Guard and was demoted - from specialist to private first class - and given a general discharge, which is lower than an honourable discharge.

Friday's incident was not the first shooting involving weapons from checked baggage. In 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army terror group retrieved guns and grenades from their bags after landing in Tel Aviv and killed 26 people.

Jeffrey Price, an aviation-security expert based in Danver, said that banning guns in luggage might have prevented Friday's attack but wouldn't stop a determined killer.

"What's to stop him from driving to the airport, parking his car, getting his gun and going into the airport and shooting people?" he said.

The Transportation Security Administration has been confiscating more guns from carry-on bags in the US. Screeners took away 2,653 guns in 2015, up 20% from 2014. The TSA frequently tweets photos of the arsenals that it scoops up at checkpoints.

Officers tell people to take cover at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after a gunman opened fire, killing five people. (AP Photo)


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