Mitchell Bryant, 11, (right) and Taylor Bryant, 10, of Chilliwack play on their devices in a hangar at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where they spent six hours after a gunman killed five people in a shooting rampage on Jan. 9.

Chilliwack family recounts terror after gunman opens fire at Fort Lauderdale airport

Gary and Stacy Bryant and their two children caught up in melee that saw Esteban Santiago kill five

Gary and Stacy Bryant and their two children were on their way home Monday from vacation in Mexico when they arrived at Terminal 2 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

What should have been a simple stopover for the Chilliwack family at a U.S. airport on a flight between Mexico and Canada turned into a terrifying experience as they were caught in another American mass shooting rampage.

Five people were killed on Jan. 6 when 26-year-old U.S. Army reservist Esteban Santiago seemingly randomly pulled out a gun and fired at people in the airport.

In addition to the five killed, six people were hospitalized after the shooting.

Gary, Stacy and their 10-year-old daughter Taylor and 11-year-old son Mitchell waited in line for 45 minutes to check their bags for Delta Air Lines flight back to Canada.

Just as they were ready to empty pockets and place belongings into the X-ray conveyer, Gary said he will never forget what came next: the screams from what sounded like hundreds of people.

“I turned to look back from where we had just come to see a flood of people running towards us screaming, ‘run!'” he said.

From that point on, Gary said the behaviour of staff and other passengers, and the lack of any evacuation plan was disturbing.

“There was no clear indication from anyone from the airport where we were to evacuate to as all the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] agents that were at screening had vanished within seconds so the boarding area was in complete turmoil,” he said.

From there, the family fled along with everyone else, not knowing what was happening or where to go.

“Everyone was pushing and shoving, we were watching people being trampled and being unable to help as the crowd was so heavy and panic fed we did our best just to stay together.”

Things finally started to calm down as police and military presence increased, but that’s when panic began again as parents separated from young children tried to reconnect.

What frightened Gary was the lack of security or attention to all the baggage around. He pondered what if there was a bomb among the crowds gathering with their unchecked luggage?

“Had a suicide bomber been part of the attack they could have walked into the heaviest crowd and pushed a button, or pulled a weapon and started shooting,” Gary said. “We were out of the terminal, but at no time during the entire event was everyone ever safe.”

More than 1,000 people were eventually gathered into a hangar where the Bryants spent more than six hours waiting.

Eventually the family moved on to Miami the next day and, after some delays, got a flight home.

What still bothers Gary is firstly that TSA agents abandoned their posts and the passengers, something that fed the panic and fear. And secondly, that during the entire incident they never saw a single representative from Delta except for one gate attendant who got folks onto the tarmac.

paul.henderson@theprogress.com

@PeeJayAitch