The Elizabethtown College men’s and women’s swim teams narrowly missed witnessing the recent shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Friday, Jan 6.
Although one team member was kept at the airport in case of a second shooter after arriving later than the rest of the team, none of the swimmers or coaches was injured.
The team was in on its way to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and was in the process of leaving the airport when the shooting took place. The shooting occurred in Terminal 2 of the airport, while the team members met to leave from Terminal 1.
The team members flew to Fort Lauderdale individually and all met at the airport around 11:00 a.m. to get organized and leave for the hotel.
According to head coach Mark Williams, the team has gone to train in Florida every winter break for the last six years and landed at the Fort Lauderdale airport for the last five. He said he did not expect the team to come this close to being part of a shooting.
“I don’t usually dwell on events like that so I personally wouldn’t have thought something like this could happen while we were there,” Wilson said. “Still, with all the stuff that goes on nowadays I’m sure events like this are in the back of people’s minds.”
Around 12:55 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, 26-year-old veteran Esteban Santiago pulled a handgun from his checked bag and opened fire at a baggage claim area in Terminal 2 of the airport.
According to CNN, five people were killed and several others were wounded. The airport was put on lockdown, no planes were allowed to take off or land and many people in the airport were evacuated to the tarmac.
All of this happened as the Etown swimmers pulled out of the airport’s parking lot.
Wilson said that the students in the last van to leave saw several police officers and squad cars pull up to the terminal, but the students had no idea what was going on at the time.
“The shooting started while we were pulling out,” Wilson said. “We were five minutes into our ride to Boca Raton when the kids’ cell phones started lighting up saying there’d been a shooting, but we still didn’t know where.”
By the time the team arrived at the hotel, the shooting was already being covered on news stations.
Wilson had the swimmers call their families to inform them of what had happened and that they were safe.
The College later posted an update on Facebook confirming that all of the swimmers and coaches on the trip had reached their destination. Wilson mentioned how quickly news of events like this spreads and that many people saw the Facebook post before they even knew there had been a shooting.
Senior Sarah Alps’ plane arrived at the airport around 1:10 p.m., later than the rest of the team. Since the plane landed minutes after the shooting, Alps and many other people were kept at the airport as a precaution in case of a second attack. She was reunited with the rest of the team later that night.
“Looking back, I’m happy that my team mates were all out before they had witnessed anything, and I am happy they are safe,” Alps said. “I am proud of myself for being brave and extremely thankful that I am happy, healthy and alive and that I was able to train with the rest of team and enjoy the beach.”
In the time since the shooting, CNN also reported that Santiago has been taken into custody and faces several charges, including “using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence; performing an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that caused serious bodily injury; and causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm.”
Santiago’s motive was unknown at first. However, he later told the FBI that he carried out the attack on behalf of ISIS. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Wilson said that even though the team did not directly see or hear the shooting or its immediate aftermath, he is happy that things did not go the other way.
“We were a whole terminal over, but we could still see the terminal where it happened,” Wilson said. “Five minutes less and we could have easily seen something, heard something or even been part of it. We’ll never know.”