Immediately, panic ensued as a wave of some of the hundreds of travelers in the packed terminal rushed toward us in the restaurant, cold looks of pure terror on their faces. Luggage strewn, phones dropped and chairs knocked over, they raced toward a door behind our booth, an escape to the tarmac.
This post is not intended to be anything but therapeutic. My wife and I are extremely grateful for our safety and deeply saddened by the tragic losses many families have had to come to grips with, following the senseless shootings in the airport's Terminal 2 baggage claim area last week.
Since that day we've asked ourselves dozens of questions - many of which have led us to wonder, "Have we become so de-sensitized by violence, or so self-centered in our own pursuits, that in a moment of tragedy we can't think of anyone else but ourselves?"
We'd dropped-off our rental car following a week in the Florida Keys with family and friends, at the garage across the street from Terminal 1. My preoccupation with added charges for not filling-up the car's tank upon its return, was interrupted by the consistent string of sirens and police cars passing beneath us as we crossed the enclosed pedestrian bridge to Terminal 1.
Truly, this was our first sign that things weren't normal. Aware but uninformed, we made our way to the ticketing counter at about 1:30pm. Fifteen minutes earlier, suspect Esteban Santiago had not only shot 13 people, but was now in custody in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2.
It was business as usual for our ticketing agent and for TSA at Terminal 1's checkpoint. Not until we found a restaurant toward the end of the terminal, did we learn what was happening a quarter mile to the west of us.
CNN's live coverage showed hundreds of people gathered on the taxi way outside Terminal 2. The screen graphics updated reports on the shooting, the suspect, the victims and eventually, the fatalities.
With little time before our scheduled boarding, Sheila and I ate our lunches at a restaurant booth, alternately used the restrooms and I periodically walked to the board outside the open-wall restaurant, to confirm our flight status.
There was a 10-minute departure delay, then a 20-minute departure delay, followed by a PA announcement indicating all airport services had been suspended.
We were not disappointed with that news - not even inconvenienced. Afterall we were enjoying lunch and excited to be headed home. But later we asked ourselves, "Why were we not more attuned to the fact that 13 people were shot in a part of our building only 400 yards from us, and yet we sat there and expected all would be normal?"
Furthermore, what plane is going to taxi off a runway with almost a thousand people gathered haphazardly at the end of Terminal 2?
A younger woman dressed in black slung her bag on to the table next to us. Exhasperated as she stared at her phone she said (outloud to anyone who would listen), "I don't see why my flight has to be delayed - all that stuff happened in a different terminal."
My wife and I looked at eachother incredulously as CNN confirmed the death toll in Terminal 2 was now five.
Then the gunshot - or what some believed to be a gunshot. For the record, investigators say no shots were ever fired except in Terminal 2 baggage claim that day. But you'd have a hard time convincing the thousands in Terminal 1 seeking safety and escape just after 2:30pm.
Shouting, screaming, chairs and glasses crashed to the floor; the stampede of terrorized travelers came toward us as Sheila ended her sentence "That sounded like a gun shot."
She stood up and I pulled her down, we laid on the floor up against the wall as people rushed by us and out on to the tarmac. We heard two more "shots" that broke through the roar of panic and door alarms, I remained pinned over Sheila, raced through four verses of the Lord's Prayer in her ear and stumbled through a "Hail Mary" - a reliance on our faith in God (because it's all we were sure of in that moment) and an effort to avoid my imagination of what was happening.
The woman in black laid beside us, whispering "Please stop, please stop" as if the "perpetrator" might comply with her soft spoken plea.
Those who chose to flee did so quickly. Within a couple minutes, all that could be heard was whimpering from those who stayed, and a high-pitched alarm, presumably from a secure door being breeched.
A man beside us crawled over to an interior half wall in the restaurant, peeked over and surveyed the restaurant and terminal. We joined him along the wall, stayed low and quiet, peered over the wall and confirmed no activity, then agreed it was time to run for the door.
He went, Sheila and I followed. He pulled the fire alarm on the way out to the stairwell and down the metal steps we went. When we hit concrete, we ran toward the thousand or so former Terminal 1 travelers who'd gathered on the taxi way - not far from the hundreds who'd emptied from Terminal 2 an hour earlier.
Gathering with the other travelers on the tarmac, we inventoried what we had (wallet, phones, purse) and agreed quickly to call two of our sons to let them know we were "Ok" and to communicate the message with the rest of the family.
Within minutes, the "Safety In Numbers" theory was shredded as people on the tarmac from Terminal 2 started running fearfully toward those of us from Terminal 1 - as if escaping from something. With no law enforcement presence, no answers as to what was unfolding and hyper-sensitive levels of fear, we too began to run - to the end of the runway and away from the airport all-together.
A few thousand of us stood at the end of the runway along 3 sets of railroad tracks. Several people slipped under the chainlinked fence along the tracks and hiked through a tall grass field toward the airport expressway, only to be met by 100 or so officers from every police agency in and around Broward County, and ordered to stay in place.
As we hiked the tracks to behind an aviation building, no one really knew or understood what had just happened, whether or not there was another shooter or if we were headed to safety. Soon though, an array of police and rescue vehicles appeared. The officers ushered us to an open lot, treated those injured by the hasty departure from the terminal, and most-importantly, established an armed presence between our group and the airport itself.
The next few hours were spent comparing notes and consoling with others. We rationed our water and phone batteries. We made necessary calls and alternative plans with family in Coral Gables. We counted our blessings again and again, and reminded ourselves that relatively speaking, what we'd been through was just a minor inconvenience.
Our waiter from the restaurant came up to us to see that we were all right. He's a kind man who'd called his own family to reassure them. As he spoke I thought "He's missed out on a lot of tips because of this - including ours," and made a mental note to mail him his tip this week.
We were processed by police and asked if we'd seen anything. Sheila insisted she'd heard gun shots. I heard what she heard but couldn't confirm they were gun shots. And then we were dismissed - and as dusk fell, away from the airport we walked, trying to make sense of our experiences.
Many people took that same walk that night - some without purses, IDs or phones. But we were all walking - something for which to be thankful. Police, free transportation and in our case, family, met us on the end of our walk off airport property.
We don't know what triggered the panic in our terminal. Maybe the bigger question is what triggered the complacency or lack of empathy for what had transpired in Terminal 2?
Is it that we're exposed to so much coverage of violence, that we're immune? Or is it that watching the coverage on television made it feel like it was far away?
I reminded Sheila that despite the shooting, there were no clues from any airport staff or the operation itself, that would've tipped us off to the enormity of the tragedy.
Regardless of how many factors enter the equation, up until last Friday, I'd become perilously unfazed by how quickly lives can change (or end) so quickly.