FORT LAUDERDALE-HOLLYWOOD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, FLA. (WSVN) - Thousands of travelers are returning to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to recover their belongings after they were forced to abandon them when shots rang out at a baggage claim carousel on Friday, killing innocent travelers and injuring many others.
Roughly 12,000 passengers were evacuated from FLL when shots broke out, just before 1 p.m., and nearly all of these people left behind their belongings filled with their personal and financial items.
Unfortunately, returning the belongings of 12,000 people is not an easy task.
It was absolute chaos when, authorities said, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago pulled out a loaded semi-automatic handgun and targeted passengers, killing five people and injuring six others.
Steve and Anne Hoffman were among the passengers who dropped everything and ran away from the scene. “There was this panic. ‘Run, run!'” said Steve.
“This wave of energy, you could just feel it coming toward you, the panic, the screaming,” said Anne.
“This woman, she grabbed me by the arm, and I didn’t know what to do, and I got lost,” said young passenger Melvis Urriaga.
It was well after the shooting but fear of the unknown outside of Terminal 2 sent people on a spontaneous scramble with little explanation. “We ran for our lives. It felt that way,” said Anne.
The shooting caused 12,000 passengers to evacuate the airport and duck for cover, leaving behind a total of 23,000 suitcases, bags and personal items scattered and piled throughout the airport. “I didn’t even consider taking anything with us,” said Anne. “It was just one of these situations where no one would.”
A total of 54 people were taken to area hospitals, but officials said only six of them sustained gunshot wounds.
Santiago has since been charged with an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death, which carries a maximum punishment of execution, as well as weapons charges.
Now, airlines are facing a logistical nightmare, as hundreds of passengers still do not have their belongings.
On Monday, Delta employees sorted through unclaimed checked bags. Officials said many of these bags have been returned to their owners, but it has been more difficult to sort through personal items like backpacks and even stuffed animals, many of which do not have any form of identification.
A passenger tweeted out a photo of Rufus, their daughter’s teddy bear, in the hopes she is able to be reunited with the plush animal.
Urriaga and her mother, Christina Garcia, returned to FLL on Monday in order to track down bags they abandoned at security after shots rang out, and they ran for safety. However, they have not had any luck finding their luggage.
“They haven’t solved anything,” said her mother. “We need our documents. We have our car in a parking lot in Atlanta. We have the keys to our house in our purses. We have all of our belongings there, and we can’t do anything.”
According to airport officials, the process to reunite these passengers with their belongings may take as long as a week. Although a private company was brought in to catalog each bag, to get these items to some 12,000 passengers will take several days.
“It is an extensive process to go through those many items,” said Director of Airport Operations Michael Nonnemacher.
Sunday night, dozens of suitcases and bags were loaded up into trucks and transported to a hangar inside the airport where a private company hired by FLL officials is conducting a massive sorting operation.
On Sunday, some travelers lucked out when they were reunited with their belongings.
“I had no idea. I literally had no idea where the bags were,” said traveler Carl Fountaine.
He and his wife were relieved to claim their missing luggage on Sunday after more than two days on their vacation.
However, they said they never received a single phone call from the airport or airline about their missing luggage. “It’s pretty outrageous,” said Nerelle Fountaine. “I mean, we’ve been planning this trip for a long time. We have three children, and we’re going on a cruise tomorrow, so we didn’t even know if we were going to make the cruise since we wouldn’t have had clothes to go on the cruise.”
The private company in charge of sorting the unclaimed luggage is creating a website for those with missing belongings so that they may attempt to identify and recover the items.
Officials said this situation, involving thousands of items, is nothing like they’ve seen before. “Something of this magnitude is something that I don’t think anyone can ever really plan for,” said Greg Meyer with the Broward County Aviation Department. “The lessons learned that we get from this experience, we will share with other airports around the country, and maybe around the world, because we’re not aware of any other incident quite like this.”
So far, the Hoffmans are pleased with the process. They have been able to retrieve their checked bags, and they happen to have photos of their missing carry-on items. “I was able to give them pictures of the bags. That might really help them find them, so we’ll see if that happens,” said Steve.
The website will be up and running in the next couple of days. Once this website is ready for use, we will update this article with more information.
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