A 26-year-old New Jersey native suspected of killing at least five people and injuring another eight at a South Florida baggage claim terminal Friday chose one of the busiest airports in the country, during one of the most congested times of the year, to perpetrate the attack.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where Esteban Santiago allegedly opened fire in the Terminal 2 baggage claim area Friday afternoon, ranked as the 21st busiest airport in 2015 based on passenger traffic. It took the No. 15 spot in 2015 for passengers flying to or from a U.S. destination.
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The airport, which does not have its own police force and relies on the Broward Sheriffs Office for law enforcement, has also ranked highly in past years for the number of guns seized at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.
In 2014, FLL tied with Tampa International Airport for the seventh most TSA gun seizures in the U.S. There were 49 incidents.
Santiago is believed to have landed at FLL around noon with a checked gun in his baggage, loaded the weapon in the bathroom and returned to the terminal, where he began shooting.
The gunman chose an airport that was guaranteed to be busy.
In 2016, FLL welcomed 26.4 million passengers between January and November alone, an increase of 8.4 percent over the same period in 2015. About 80 percent of those passengers were traveling to U.S. destinations.
November, the most recent month for which information is available, signaled the 32nd month of growth in total passenger traffic. It was another accomplishment in a banner year at FLL.
26.4 million Number of passengers that passed through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport from January to November 2016
In September, the airport was the site of the first commercial U.S. flight to Cuba in more than 50 years. FLL also scored multiple coveted routes to 10 destinations on the island via JetBlue, Silver Airways, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
Though it is best known for its selection of budget carriers, Fort Lauderdale diversified its portfolio considerably in 2016. By the end of the year it had added an Emirates Airlines route to Dubai — Broward County’s first link to the Middle East — inaugurated a Fort Lauderdale-Paris route via Norwegian Air Shuttle and announced a partnership with British Airways for nonstop service to London’s Gatwick International Airport beginning in July 2017.
The airport ranked 24th among large U.S. airports in J.D. Power’s 2016 North America Airport Satisfaction Study, which measures these factors: terminal facilities, airport accessibility, security check, baggage claim, check-in/baggage check, food, beverage and retail.
On a typical day, FLL operates more than 700 flights, including nonstop service to more than 70 U.S. cities and international service to the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Mexico, Latin America, Europe and Canada.
Santiago arrived at FLL on a busier-than-usual Friday, during the congested winter season and three days from the start of public school classes after the winter holiday in South Florida. Prior to the holiday, FLL was expecting to welcome 1.57 million travelers from Dec. 18 to Jan. 2 alone.
Some of those were cruise passengers traveling through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on their way to Port Everglades. While the nearby port is typically empty on Fridays, this Friday it welcomed two ships at Port Everglades for the busy winter season, Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess and Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam.
One group headed for a cruise, the tech crew of a Chicago-based band called 7th Heaven scheduled for a shipboard gig, was on a flight diverted to Miami International Airport. The band was set to play a Royal Caribbean cruise leaving Port Everglades on Saturday with about 300 fans.
But the shooting scrambled those plans midair. Nick Weber, the band’s video tech, said the pilot described a “security breach” in explaining why their American Airlines flight would be landing at Miami International instead. Weber and others were waiting for their luggage when someone received a text saying the rest of the 7th Heaven contingent had landed in Fort Myers.
“Where is Fort Myers?” The answer to groans: “Two hours away.”
Zach Scott, the group’s lighting engineer, said 7th Heaven’s scheduled trip to Fort Lauderdale brought a string of messages from concerned fans and friends. “The whole band’s Facebook page right now is: Hope everyone is OK and everyone is safe.”
Around 4 p.m., the band posted an announcement there: “Diverted and landed in Miami. Ok.”
Miami Herald writer Doug Hanks contributed to this report.