Sheresse Pierre Louis said it would be nice to get her suitcase back from the Atlanta airport, but she absolutely needs the purse she ditched in Fort Lauderdale when a gunman opened fire in the terminal.
“I have to have my phone,” she said Sunday on a trip back to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International in hopes of recovering her abandoned bag. “My work lap top is in that purse. My work cellphone is in that purse.”
The 42-year-old administrator at a Miami law firm had been waiting for a flight to Atlanta, with her checked luggage already aboard the jet, when the shooting prompted what eventually was a full, frantic evacuation of the airport.
Pierre Louise found herself in an unprecedented and massive pool of passengers parted from their bags and, two days later , still with only hazy information as to when their possessions might be returned. With thousands of travelers ordered to flee after the shootings, airport officials say they’re left with more than 23,000 purses, backpacks, bags and other items that people brought with them to fly and then abandoned in the chaos.
And while the airlines can use luggage tags and other tracking material to retrieve checked bags like Pierre Louis, the abandoned items collected by the airport weren’t intended to leave their owners hands longer than it took to pass them through a security checkpoint.
An unidentified contractor is sorting through the retrieved items at a warehouse off of the airport property, and Broward County issued a statement Sunday night saying passengers will be contacted when workers can identify their bags. Those with no definite evidence of ownership would be posted online to be claimed. The release offered no schedule for returning the bulk of the items but described a “challenging” process that “would take time.”
Despite the retrieval process underway off site, Sunday seemed to mark a shift closer to normalcy at the county-owned airport. Check-in lines that snaked outside in the morning gave way to typical modest waits in the evening.
Shortly after noon, Synthia Barnes had already spent about 90 minutes in a 200-person line for a 1:30 p.m. Delta flight back to Chicago. That was just for the opportunity to get in the back of the actual 100-person line at the ticket counter. “I’m ready to go home,” the hotel manager said.
She had arrived at the airport more than three hours ahead of her scheduled departure and wasn’t nervous about missing it. As she waited, Delta employees called out passengers with tickets for flights flirting with departure times, public reprieves that seemed to ease the anxiety of others still waiting for later flights. “It’s a small inconvenience, compared to what happened,” said Frank Lassiter, one spot in line behind Barnes, as he waited for a Kentucky flight after a Keys fishing trip.
By 5 p.m., some five hours later, the lines where Barnes and Lassiter once inched toward the ticket counter had entirely disappeared.
Julie Witter was more worried about whether the airline would allow her to board a flight home.
The King George, Va. resident was at the Land Shark restaurant in Terminal 1 Friday after the shooting when police officers began ordering everyone to evacuate. There was no time to grab her backpack from the table as a mass of people surged toward the exits, and Witter left the airport without her driver’s license or any other photo identification.
But Witter rectified that a few steps way from the airport entrance, where Florida set up two mobile processing centers from the state motor-vehicle agency. Inside, clerks were issuing temporary photo IDs and even driver licenses to passengers left with nothing proving who they are.
“People are coming up and saying: ‘But I don’t have this, and I don’t have this,’” said Deborah Dobson, program manager for the mobile credentialing service. “But I say: ‘It’s ok. We can find you.”
With links to driver-license records in all 50 states, the buses issued more than 70 temporary cards through Sunday afternoon. “I’ve got a temporary Florida ID for my scrapbook,” Witter said.
Like thousands of other passengers, Witter was prepared to leave Fort Lauderdale without her missing carry-on luggage.
Robert and Marinella Monk had four bags with them in Terminal 2 while they waited for a Delta flight home to Fort Walton Beach airport on Friday. They described hearing shots and then crouching under the seats where they were charging phones. When a stampede of people were fleeing, they joined and headed down the stairs of a jetway, across the runways and into a commercial hangar. Their bags, with a passport, credit cards, and Marinella’s driver’s license, remained back at the seats.
On Sunday, a Delta employee told the couple they needed to check in at the airport’s lost-and-found desk in order to retrieve the abandoned bags. The bad news, the clerk said, is that it wouldn’t be open until Monday. Steps away, a Broward sheriff’s deputy confirmed the instructions in front of a reporter, as well as the discouraging scheduling news.
That turned out to be inaccurate information, with a spokesman later confirming there was no place at the airport Sunday for claiming abandoned items. The misguided instructions had sent the Monks to the outer edge of Terminal 1 only to confirm that the lost-and-found office wasn’t staffed.
“Nobody knows anything,” Robert Monk said. “We’re just continuing to kick the can down the road.”
The Monks said two of their bags actually had tags identifying them as owners, while the third contained Marinella’s passport. They said they called the county-issued number given to them by Delta for recovering their items, and had spoken to various representatives without getting an answer on when they’d be returned.
Greg Meyer, an airport spokesman, said some abandoned items have been returned to passengers but that most will have to wait.
“Many of those people won’t be getting their items until after they get home,” he said.
Like the Monks, Pierre Louis said she was frustrated that nobody from the retrieval process was on hand Sunday to talk to passengers about their missing items. “There is not a person from this mystery company anywhere on site,” she said. “It’s not only unprofessional. It shows a complete lack of empathy.”
But for someone who just days ago placed a cellphone call from a tarmac to let her mother know she wasn’t shot, Pierre Louis said she was keeping her airport trials in perspective.
“I’m happy,” she said, “that I’m alive to be annoyed.”