A FUN attendee’s ‘terrifying’ Fort Lauderdale airport experience

David Pistello was on his way home from FUN when the deadly shootings took place
By , Coin World
Published : 01/10/17
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The 2017 FUN convention in Fort Lauderdale was in full swing when shots were fired in a baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. 

Just about five miles away from one of the biggest coin shows of the year, five people were killed and a dozen or so more were injured by a single gunman, a disembarked airline passenger using a gun he retrieved from his legally checked luggage. Esteban Santiago, 26, was taken into custody at the airport and has been charged.

The shooting sent alarm through Coin World’s offices in Sidney, Ohio, and Chicago, as a number of Coin World editors, account managers and marketing professionals were at the show. A number of them had plans to fly out of Fort Lauderdale that very day. 

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We’re relieved to report that all Coin World employees returned home safely, but several had harrowing experiences as the events of that Friday afternoon unfolded. 

One of them was account manager David Pistello, who was on his way to the airport and home to Chicago that afternoon when he heard the news break. It turned out to be the start of a very long day.

Pistello’s experience follows, in his own words.

Pistello was invited to lunch with some Coin World colleagues before heading to the airport for his 4:50 p.m. flight, but didn’t want to deal with bringing his bags to a restaurant and opted to go straight to the airport.

I checked out of the hotel just before 1:00 p.m. [the shooting was first reported at 12:55 p.m.], got in Uber and everything was fine for about a mile or two. Once we passed the convention center, we started to hear some fire engines and squad cars.

So we started hearing some sirens and really didn't think too much about it. We got to the airport with no problem, traffic was moving relatively smoothly. We get off on the departures ramp and I get a text message from [a Coin World colleague at the FUN show] and it says, “Are you okay?” I had no idea what was going on, and I replied, “Why?” Before I got a reply back to him, my nephew texts me and says, “Uncle Dave, big shooting at Fort Lauderdale airport. Are you there or are you still at work?” I said “I’m literally right in front of the airport.” So now I knew that there was a shooting.

We drove right past Terminal 2 [where the shooting took place] and there are some squad cars and stuff, but traffic was getting through. American Airlines was Terminal 3, which is right next to 2. I asked the Skycab guy, “What's going on?” and he says it's under control and everything is fine. So I get out of the car.

I get out of the cab, kind of little skittish about it, but I get out of the Uber and I just kind of stood there a little bit, scoping things out.

Pistello entered the airport, got past the check-in counter and to the security checkpoint.

I go to the TSA lady and I asked her what was going on. “There was a shooting or something?” And she said, “Yeah it’s under control. The suspect has been caught. Everything is fine.” In there, there were floor-to-ceiling windows right behind her and I saw a couple of planes take off. I stood there a little bit longer, a few seconds, and then the intercom came on and said, “Attention there is a situation in Terminal 2, but it's under control.” Business-as-usual, basically.

Pistello got through security, and headed to the E concourse. His was gate E7.

There was a big window where people had gathered. I was looking out the window with them and it was the window that faced Terminal 2, the back of Terminal  2, and there were people out on the tarmac. So that must have been down at the baggage claim where the shooting happened. We were all talking and nobody really had any details. Everybody was getting text messages from the outside. So I started conversing with them and watching for about five or 10 minutes, then I stepped away to go across the hall where there was one of those Hudson newsstands. So I'm in there and then all of a sudden I just start hearing, “Shooter! Shooter!” in the concourse, and there’s this stampede of people.

Everybody started scrambling. The cashier closed the metal doors and locked it. There were about 15 of us still in there, and I'm still in there, and we went to the back of the store, and we're hiding behind magazine racks.

I didn't hear any gunshots, just all this chaos on the other side of the door and we're only in there maybe like a minute and a half or two minutes, then there was pounding on the door and they said it was security and SWAT.

That was the scariest two minutes of my life. It was terrifying.

We later learned there was no shooter in Terminal 3. The only shooting that took place was the one in Terminal 2. 

I have no idea who called, "Shooter! Shooter!" It could have just been a random person that was scared.

The newsstand manager opened the door, and everyone followed security’s instructions, going out a side door, down some stairs and out onto the tarmac.

So we went down and I left my suitcase.

Even when we got outside, the first 15 minutes, when we are along the building, I was shaking. Everybody was.

Pistello and the rest of the evacuees were then led away from the terminal building, out into the middle of the tarmac.

There were probably two or three thousand people — families, toddlers, little kids because of the holiday week, coming back from cruises and stuff.

We were out there for about four and a half hours. They came out with water, they set up a port-a-potty and all this other stuff. The whole time I'm getting text messages from friends that are watching CNN and telling me what's going on. Everybody else was doing the same thing.

Near the end of the four-and-a-half hour wait on the tarmac, security alerted the crowd that a suspicious item had been found in the airport and that it would be safely detonated.

Shortly after that, all the security came back and said, “Everybody, your hands in the air and follow us.” They guided us back into the terminal from the lower level. They brought us through baggage claim to the front outside, where there would have been cab pickup. All the couple thousand of us are all out there. We waited another two-and-a-half hours. It was a long time, but at least we weren't in the back of the airport now, we were in front of the airport and were a little bit more relieved.

We started seeing some people across the street in the parking garage and found out that they announced that they were releasing people that have vehicles in the parking garage. You can get out of here, but no new vehicles could come in. They were going to have shuttle buses come pick us all up and drive us to Port Everglades, which is the pier where the cruises leave from. It's right next to the convention center. They made an announcement that for anybody that had luggage in the concourse, they were hiring a contracting company that was going to come and collect all the random luggage.

Shuttle buses finally started arriving, and Pistello and fellow Coin World account manager Brenda Wyen, who he had located during their time on the tarmac, were able to get on the first bus.

The buses only held about 50 people, so it was going to be a process getting 3,000 people or however many there were, away from there. We were fortunate to get on the first bus.

The bus was escorted by police away from the airport, to the port. From there, Pistello and Wyen made their way back to the convention center, and into a cab to their hotel.

We finally got to the hotel at about 10:30 or 10:45, so it was a long day. Like, 10 hours total.

But it could have been longer, as Pistello learned the next morning when he turned on the local news.

I was getting ready to leave and I turn on the news. They had a newscaster that was out of Port Everglades. This was probably 7:30 in the morning and they've been there, saying so the last people were just leaving. If we didn't get on that first bus there was a possibility [we could have been at] that airport all night waiting to get to [Port Everglades].

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