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Officers mishandled response to Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, report says, leading to chaos

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at FLL (Graphic Content)

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.
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Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.

Poor communication by the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Broward County Aviation Department, along with other mistakes, following a deadly January shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, led to mass chaos for the estimated 12,000 people trapped at the airport, according to the sheriff’s office’s draft report on the incident.

The 99-page report, released last week, assessed the agency’s response to the Jan. 6 rampage by war veteran Esteban Santiago. He has been charged with emptying 14 rounds of ammunition into the airport’s Terminal 2 baggage claim area, killing five and injuring six others.

About 2,000 officers from different departments across South Florida responded to the incident, creating a massive influx that led to havoc at the airport and confusion about who was in charge. According to the report, the airport became an “impassible parking lot” after officers abandoned their vehicles.

Compounding the problem was an overwhelmed, 30-year-old county radio system that crashed several times after the shooting. Messages at times were shortened or distorted, adding to the hysteria. At one point, reports of “victim in Terminal 1,” turned into “gunshot victim in Terminal 1,” leading police on a wild hunt for additional shooters, the report found.

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Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were a gunman shot and and wounded multiple people on Friday, January 6, 2017. David Santiago dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Although officers were able to reach and detain Santiago 85 seconds after the initial shots were fired, they failed to set up a large enough crime scene or to confine the investigation to Terminal 2. Witnesses were held in an area of the airport within view of the shooting victims, adding to the trauma.

The situation worsened 90 minutes after the initial shots rang out, when reports emerged of shootings in other terminals, additional victims and then of a potential male suspect in a white shirt. Although all turned out to be false, the intercommunication led to 12 hours of chaos.

Passengers run for cover following a shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel declined to comment on the report via spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright, who said Israel had not yet reviewed the draft and will be briefed on the report once it’s finalized. A date for a final version has not yet been set.

Greg Meyer, a spokesman for the airport, sent an email to county commissioners Monday night stating that BSO did not interview or discuss any aspects of their internal after action report with BCAD officials.

“The report levies harsh criticisms against the Broward County Aviation Department [BCAD],” Meyer wrote. “The Airport strongly disputes these comments.”

Airport officials will respond in more detail to the report at a later date.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel declined to comment on the report via spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright, who said Israel had not yet reviewed the draft and will be briefed on the report once it’s finalized. A date for a final version has not yet been set.

The sheriff’s office draft-report findings focused largely on a leadership failure during the second wave of threats, leading to confusion that exacerbated the situation long after the actual shooter was detained. Among the findings:

▪ Staging areas were set up “on the fly” and not broadcast to field personnel.

▪ BSO’s mobile command vehicle was stuck among abandoned cars and lost internet and cell phone capabilities, rendering it “useless” and unable to help control the situation, the report said.

▪ Several different units identified themselves as the leading agency on the incident, leading to confusion about who was in charge.

▪ No emergency or information hotline was set up; as a result, the 911 system was inundated.

▪ Plain-clothes Federal Air Marshals, some of them in ski masks, drew their weapons and started running toward the crowd without identifying themselves, adding to travelers’ fears.

▪ Passengers were stranded on the tarmac for up to 10 hours without basic necessities, such as water, food or shelter. Some of those travelers faced medical emergencies due to “extreme delays” in securing transportation for stranded travelers. Passengers received no information for hours, the report found.

Passengers were stranded on the tarmac for up to 10 hours without basic necessities, such as water, food or shelter.

▪ Airplanes were allowed to take off immediately after the shooting occurred, even though it was unclear if the airport was under a coordinated terrorist attack. “This could have resulted in catastrophic loss of life,” the report said.

▪ Broward County Aviation Department and Transportation Security Administration personnel acted inconsistently, the report found. TSA staffers abandoned and compromised security areas. The aviation department had no communications plan for an event of this magnitude, according to the report’s findings.

BSO criticized the inaction of the aviation department, which denied SWAT teams access to blueprints of the terminals, it claims. The aviation department lacked a plan for a full evacuation of the airport and put low priority on evacuating the thousands of stranded passengers, the report said.

Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief refuted those statements in an interview Monday, saying FLL airport director Mark Gale “did not get that type of request” for blueprints of the airport.

Chaos at the airport

Santiago, the alleged shooter, arrived on a Delta Air Lines flight from Anchorage, Alaska, with a connection in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, at FLL at 12:15 p.m. on the first Friday in January. He checked only a semi-automatic handgun.

After collecting his handgun from Delta staff, Santiago entered a men’s bathroom and loaded the firearm, then opened fire near the center of the Terminal 2 baggage claim area. Within a minute and a half, six deputies reached the lower level baggage claim, removed Santiago from the scene, set up a crime scene and started treating victims and securing witnesses in coordination with BSO fire rescue, the report found.

IMG_APTOPIX_Airport_Shoo_2_1_MBADLIPD_L287283098
Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017. Santiago is accused of fatally shooting several people at a crowded Florida airport baggage claim and faces airport violence and firearms charges that could mean the death penalty if he's convicted. Amy Beth Bennett AP

For the first hour and a half, “the events taking place were standard for any crime scene,” despite some shortfalls, the report said.

But at about 2:20 p.m., a Customs Border Patrol officer walking between Terminals 2 and 3 heard what he through were gunshots. Shortly afterward, a message was sent through the radio channel of “Border Patrol reporting shots fired in Terminal 2.”

That set off a domino effect after a passenger overhead the message and set off running, calling that “they are shooting in two again.” Employees and TSA officers joined in the stampede that then included other passengers, as well.

False alarms and incomplete radio transmissions set off sporadic stampedes. In one instance, a traveler who tried to hide in a police car was bitten by a K-9. Reports of a victim at Terminal 1 morphed into reports of a gunshot victim at Terminal 1, leading police on a chase for additional shooters. Reports of “shots fired” at the Palm Garage also sparked a sudden influx of law enforcement, causing people to run in all directions.

Eventually, bands of hundreds of people clumped in groups on the tarmac. At times they set off running, fearing a shooter was near or in their group. Officers found travelers hiding in closets, under cars and underneath the concourses.

IMG_037_FLL_Airport_DS_2_1_0DAC47VA_L285985306 (1)
Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where a gunman shot and and wounded multiple people on Friday, January 6, 2017. David Santiago dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

“The perpetual relaying of unconfirmed threats and communications difficulties ultimately brought the FLL airport to a complete closure,” the report said.

By that evening, the parking garages had been cleared, SWAT teams were searching for travelers inside the airport and officers started moving stranded passengers to Port Everglades. Some 47 buses were used to transport the “tried, scared, angry and hungry civilians that, for the most part, were relatively well-behaved,” the report said.

Changes for the future

The emergency response to the incident, and the speedy reaction by multiple first-responder units, was “commendable,” the report found. Still, the events shed a light on how unprepared the sheriff’s office and the aviation department were for a serious active shooter situation.

BSO said the aviation department, more concerned with profits, refused to halt operations in Terminal 2 after the initial shooting and didn’t use the public address system “citing financial loss.”

“Decision makers must understand the priorities of life vs. the business mindset of revenue loss and during an active critical incident,” the report said.

Decision makers must understand the priorities of life vs. the business mindset of revenue loss and during an active critical incident.

BSO draft report

Broward Mayor Sharief said she disagreed with some statements in the report, including statements that the aviation department and law enforcement “did not coordinate.”

“Based on what we are seeing, there are some inflammatory statements in there we feel are not true,” she said in an interview Monday.

To better prepare, the report recommended that BSO and airport staff be trained more frequently in realistic disaster drills that simulate true situations. Only the SWAT team was truly prepared for an incident like the airport shooting, the report said.

The greatest area of concern following the shooting is the airport’s lack of preparedness for a situation with a mass number of victims or evacuees. The report recommends review and revising the airport emergency plans.

The report also called on BSO to put a single person in command of law enforcement, fire rescue and emergency services as soon as an emergency is declared, while still working together with the airport’s emergency operations center. Better cooperation between the different entities and communication channels could have minimized much of the fallout, the report said.

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Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where a gunman shot and and wounded multiple people on Friday, January 6, 2017. David Santiago dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

The report appeared to draw some anger at County Hall and showed continued tensions between county and BSO officials as they head into budget negotiations in September.

The county hired a consultant to conduct an independent after-action report that is expected to be completed in July.

Miami Herald writers Jennifer Lu and Andrea Januta contributed to this article.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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