The tweets from Ari Fleischer started just before 1 p.m. Friday: “I’m at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Shots have been fired. Everyone is running.”
Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, had just stumbled into a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Authorities say 26-year-old Esteban Santiago pulled a gun from his bag and opened fire in a baggage claim area. Five people were killed and six were injured by his bullets, investigators said, with dozens more injured in the chaotic scramble to escape.
Around the same time, Fleischer had just gotten off a flight from New York. He only had a carry-on bag, but was headed down to baggage claim to meet a driver.
He says nature’s call may have saved his life.
“Just as I was leaving the bathroom, I heard tap-tap-tap, tap-tap, tap. Multiple gunshots ringing out,” he told The Washington Post. “And there was a small group of guys, we all stopped at the opening leading out to the area right above the escalator. We all realized it was gunfire and it was coming from the level below us at the escalator.”
“. . .I would have been in the middle of it. It was right below me.”
Fleischer and the other men didn’t think they were out of danger yet. In fact, they were near one of the worst places for an active shooter situation – a bathroom with only one way out.
If the gunman came up the escalator, they could be trapped.
The area between the bathroom and an airport exit appeared clear. Fleischer said he told the group “‘that’s where we all need to go. . . .And that way you can be out on the street and have multiple choices of which way to go.”
So he and the other men dashed across the open area. Abandoned luggage was strewn about. People were running away from the gunfire or huddled in a doorway. Fleischer had a view of the lower level, where the gunshots came from.
“There was a trail of blood,” he said.
“You could follow the path of it,” he said. “I looked down and I could see one of the victims and he was bleeding profusely.”
Fleischer passed two police officers who were discussing details of the shooting: one shooter, five dead.
Around that time, Fleischer whipped out his phone and fired off three tweets over 24 minutes.
“I’m at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Shots have been fired. Everyone is running.”
“The police said there is one shooter and five victims.”
“All seems calm now but the police aren’t letting anyone out of the airport — at least not the area where I am.”
He made contact with his driver, but needed to find another ride because the driver and others were being interviewed by police and couldn’t leave the area. So Fleischer left the terminal and tried to find a cab or another way out of the airport.
He fired off more tweets before a reporter from the Daily Beast approached him and gave him a ride to his meeting.
Fleischer worked for the Bush administrations from 2001 until 2003. He was Bush’s spokesman during the Florida recount in 2000 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He told The Post he was fine after Friday’s near miss, although after he was safe, there was a reminder of how close he was to danger.
“A young father with two toddlers came up to me and said he was walking right behind me earlier and he saw me veer off to go to the bathroom,” Fleischer said. “He went down the escalator and he got halfway down when he heard the shots. He said he grabbed his two toddlers under both his arms, turned around and ran up the down escalator.
“I had been 5 to 10 seconds in front of him before I veered off.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Sari Horwitz, Cleve R. Wootson Jr.