This is part two of a two-part series on the January 6, 2017 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. This is a personal reflection of Major (Ret’d) Gino Falconi who was aboard one of planes that was scheduled to land just after the shooting. Read part one by Jeff Sole here.
Our flight from Toronto to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday January 6th, 2017 was scheduled to depart at 8:45 a.m. The passengers were looking forward to holidays or a cruise, which was departing from the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal, seven kilometres away. The Air Canada flight was delayed in Toronto, because the pilot needed a mechanical check before the plane could take off, and then the plane needed to be de-iced. So, the 8:45 a.m. departure didn’t get off the ground until almost 10:00 a.m.
This delayed our scheduled 12:15 p.m. arrival to 1:00 p.m. After the plane landed, it was moved to a taxi way rather than the ramp. Our pilot announced “I have been instructed to turn off the engines and await further instructions. The airport has been closed.” The pilot’s door opened and we were able to see two airplanes stopped in front of us and civilians on the tarmac, not airport staff, who had rushed out of the terminal. Fellow passengers began receiving messages from concerned family members on their cell phones indicating that there had been a shooting in Terminal Two, where we were to have picked up our luggage.
Having little factual information, many rumours spread through the airplane from these cellphone messages. “There are still shooters being sought. There is a danger that a bomb may have been placed in the airport. Bus drivers have refused to come to the runway to evacuate passengers, since they are worried for their personal safety.”
The pilot would come back into the plane stating that we had more information than he did. Although, he was informed that 37 planes were behind us waiting to taxi and all flights outbound were cancelled.
After six hours, Air Canada allowed the passengers to select one item of food (a wrap or chips) from the flight attendants tray gratis. Since Air Canada realized they weren’t going to get moved from the runway for a number of hours, this was the food that would have been sold on the return flight that day.
After Terminal One was secured, our plane was allowed to move to the gate at 8 p.m. By then we had been waiting for about 12 hours. Our main source of information during the last seven of those hours had come from social media.
The pilot’s announcement finally came telling us to grab our carry-on luggage and quickly move through the airport, being careful not to trip or fall. As we rushed out of the plane, we saw messes of strewn luggage, purses, knapsacks, and food that were dropped by fleeing passengers preparing to check-in for their flight departure. We were informed that no one could stop, photograph, or even use washrooms until we were in the luggage pick up zone. The bomb scare warning had caused an emergency evacuation throughout the hallways in the terminal, reminding us of a war zone.
There were more armed FBI, National Guard, SWAT troops, Army, and Sheriffs in the terminal than we had ever seen. The FBI had locked down the whole airport.
The airport PA system kept announcing that all outbound flights were cancelled. Those with checked bags would have their bags examined and returned in the next two days. Everyone was to proceed to shuttles where they would be delivered to the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal (seven kilometres west of the airport). Since our flight had been third on the taxi way, we were able to pick up our luggage at the Terminal One carousel.
At least 5,000 people, many with luggage, were directed to the departure vehicle lanes in front of the terminal. There was no apparent organization at this level. A hodgepodge of various loaded buses (no cabs or private cars being allowed in the huge cordoned off area) would pass by the terminal. Three buses would be preceded and followed by security vehicles with emergency lights flashing. This heightened the tension felt by the civilians forced to leave the terminal. The assembled security force of heavily armed guards, with no obvious command structure, forced the ever-increasing crowd to remain back off the road. The Sheriffs and National Guards did not even attempt to organize lineups, so, people would surge through and elbow themselves past those who had waited for hours. The few bus convoys would make a round trip to the cruise port. It became obvious that there was a shortage of buses. We stood at the curb in high humidity among frustrated, yelling adults, crying children, and people lying down against boarding both exhausted and thirsty, questioning the various guards as to when an empty bus would arrive in our area. A civilian airport staff member was finally able to get the convoy with three empty buses to stop in our area of the terminal. It had taken more than three hours for us to get onto a bus. Despite the fact that the massed security force was stationed at 15 foot intervals, apparently observing the crowd, airport staff who had completed their shift casually walked through their ranks to the parking lot to drive home, evoking the idiom that the left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. In an era of constant communicating around the world this was amazingly bad in its handling.
It took an hour for our (overcrowded) bus to deliver its passengers to the Cruise Terminal due to barriers erected to control movement away from the airport. The approach to the terminal was jammed with personal vehicles picking up passengers not able to fly out of the airport and cabs hoping to take patrons to their hotels.
Here disorganization again reigned. After standing in line waiting for hours, we all needed to use the washroom, although none of them had been attended to. A Sherriff indicated that there might be cabs if we followed a walkway. Finally, at 1 a.m., we were helped by a Red Cross volunteer to hail a cab and head for our hotel.
Observations and Recommendations: Lessons to Learn
An evacuation of this magnitude to move crowds from three terminals needs to be better organized. Once we moved out of the terminal no one took charge. A more obvious command structure needed to be in place once personnel had left the baggage claim area. Many branches provided security forces, however no co-operative training among the branches was evident. Bus drivers had to be assured that they were safe to enter a secure area. More buses should have been available in this kind of disaster relief scenario.
As well, the decision to deliver all of the stranded passengers to one small terminal in the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal should have been re-examined.
Travelers must always have enough cash in the local currency for emergency expenses such as cab fares, they should carry protein bars, medications that will tide them through a longer period than expected, and enough layers of clothing for cooler night-time temperatures.
Thoughts of Mackenzie Institute Board Members: Brian Hay and Garry Thompson:
An ‘on scene’ command and command structure should be established and agreed in advance, all responders should have a mutually agreed set of SOP4, offsite/off hour rehearsal exercises should be held every six months, and airport staff should be trained in response requirements.
At the Federal level, firearms and ammunition should be shipped separately, and handled under “Special Service.”
In discussion, it seems evident that no such event or crisis had been envisioned, let alone rehearsed. This is likely true of all but the largest of airports in the western world. Much of the delay and chaos came from the mistaken belief there were “other shooters”, which turned out not to be true. Experienced counter-terrorism professionals need to study this event and create better SOPs.