Law enforcement officials say the attack began at about 1 p.m. at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and witnesses described a frightening, grisly scene in which passengers raced to any door or shelter they could find or tried to assist the wounded.
Police are still searching for a motive in an attack that sent bystanders scrambling to safety on the tarmac and prompted the airport to suspend services.
The shooting occurred inside Terminal 2, which serves Delta Air Lines and Air Canada. Although some earlier reports suggested the alleged gunman – who was arrested – arrived in Fort Lauderdale on a Canadian flight, officials in Ottawa confirmed that was not the case. Air Canada said all of its customers and employees were accounted for and safe.
The alleged gunman was identified as Esteban Santiago, 26, and he was said to be carrying U.S. military identification, according to a spokesperson for U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who spoke with officials at the Transportation Security Administration.
Federal law enforcement officials said they were investigating whether Mr. Santiago was mentally disturbed and heard voices in his head telling him to commit acts of violence.
One official said he had visited the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, recently and made disturbing remarks that prompted officials to urge him to seek mental-health care. Officials said it was too early to tell whether the shootings were inspired by terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. The officials said he had viewed extremist materials on the internet.
Mr. Santiago served from 2007-16 in the Puerto Rico National Guard and Alaska National Guard, including a deployment to Iraq from 2010-11, according to the Pentagon. A private first-class and combat engineer, he received half a dozen medals before being transferred to the inactive ready reserve in August of last year.
Chip LaMarca, a member of the local government of Broward County, where the airport is located, was briefed on the shooting by the Broward Sheriff’s Office and said the gunman arrived at the airport aboard a flight and had a gun in a checked bag.
“After he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting. We don’t know why,” Mr. LaMarca said.
Mark Lea, a witness, said the gunman did not speak as he “went up and down the carousels of the baggage claim, shooting through luggage to get at people that were hiding.”
Mr. Lea said the killer had a handgun and went through about three magazines of ammunition.
“People started kind of screaming and trying to get out of any door they could or hide under the chairs,” he told MSNBC.
“He just kind of continued coming in, just randomly shooting at people, no rhyme or reason to it.”
He said the attacker then threw down his weapon and lay spread-eagle on the ground until he was taken into custody.
Bryan Santiago, the brother of the alleged gunman, told the Associated Press that Esteban Santiago had been receiving psychological treatment in Alaska, where the flight originated. He said he did not know what his brother was being treated for.
A law enforcement official said Mr. Santiago told the Federal Bureau of Investigation in November that the government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch videos of the Islamic State.
The official, who spoke with the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said FBI agents in Anchorage interviewed Mr. Santiago and then called police, who took him for a mental-health evaluation. The FBI’s Anchorage field office said it was assisting in the Fort Lauderdale investigation and declined to comment further.
Air Canada in a statement said it was deeply saddened by the shooting, but that its customers and staff had made it to safety. It said passengers on its departing flights were safely evacuated onto the tarmac and arriving flights were held.
When informed of reports indicating the gunman had arrived in Fort Lauderdale on a Canadian flight, Air Canada said: “We can confirm that we have no record of such a passenger by that name, or checked guns, on any of our flights to Fort Lauderdale.”
Global Affairs Canada said the man who was arrested “did not fly from Canada and was not on a Canadian flight.”
“There is no Canadian connection,” it said in a statement.
WestJet said its customers and employees were also accounted for and four of its flights had been affected by the airport’s shutdown. Air Transat, which had flights scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, did not respond to requests for comment.
Planes already in the air and headed for the airport were delayed or diverted and those that had yet to take off for Fort Lauderdale were held on the ground.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is the second-largest in South Florida.
John Schlicher, another witness, described the shooter as a slender man who was “directly firing at us” while passengers waited for their bags. Mr. Schlicher said his wife gave first aid to someone who had been shot in the head, and his mother-in-law used her sweater to tend to another victim, but that person was already dead, he told MSNBC.
Law enforcement officials did not release information on Friday on those injured or killed in the shooting.