FUN convention attendees caught up in the terror in Fort Lauderdale

Numismatist travelers recount trauma surrounding fatal shootings
By , Coin World
Published : 01/13/17
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Coin conventions, especially the Florida United Numismatists convention, are annual gatherings of collectors and professional numismatists sharing mutual hobby interests.

They can be chaotic at times and very exciting, but generally not life-threatening. 

Hobbyists don’t expect to be subject to repercussions from a gunman’s fatal attacks, as they were Jan. 6 at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, where travelers met untold panic and terror as events unfolded.

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Some 10,000 people were affected, as the airport completely shut down while heavily armed officers from multiple federal, state and local law enforcement agencies converged on the scene, even after the alleged shooter was taken into custody.

Coin World spoke with four numismatists who were at the airport at the time of the shooting and its aftermath — three who were in Delta Airlines’ Terminal 2 where the fatal shootings occurred in the baggage claim area and one who was trying to return her rental car.

Here are their stories.

Beth Deisher

Beth Deisher, who retired in 2012 after 27 years as Coin World editor, was talking with numismatist Patrick Heller shortly before 1 p.m. as she waited to board a Delta Airlines plane at Terminal 2 for her eventual return to Ohio via Detroit.

Then, Armageddon.

Uniformed TSA security agents came running through the gate area, telling everyone to get down.

Shortly thereafter, additional authorities ran into the gate area, announcing there was an active shooter and telling people to “run for their lives,” Deisher said. Travelers were told to leave their carry-on luggage and other belongings behind. To avoid the human stampede, Deisher said she laid down in one of the four-seat, bench-type seats, as Heller dropped to his knees while also shielding her.

The terminal floor rumbled as screaming travelers cascaded down a jetway to a staircase and flowed out onto the tarmac. Some people fell or were knocked to the ground, and some were injured when people behind stepped on them, she said.

Deisher said her limited mobility, from a painful bone spur in her back at the top of her spine, forced her to remain inside the terminal, but she encouraged Heller to head down the jetway.

Deisher said she phoned her husband to inform him there was an active shooter, but she was safe. It was the first of many texts she would send to update her husband and others of her situation.

Shortly, a TSA officer found a wheelchair in the terminal for her to use. Deisher said looking out the terminal window she saw thousands of people who had evacuated Terminal 2 and surrounding terminals onto the tarmac.

Some people eventually were cleared to return to Terminal 2, but soon thereafter, a false report of another shooter prompted an announcement over the public address system to evacuate again.

Deisher and Heller were briefly reunited, but were separated again as events unfolded and people were sent back outside.

Several hours would pass before buses arrived to transport the nearly 10,000 people from four terminals to the Everglades Port Authority, three miles away, since the airport was shuttered as a crime scene.

“We were escorted to the buses by armed guards,” Deisher said. “The second half of our harrowing experience lay ahead of us. We were unaware that 10,000 people would be dumped out at the Port Authority to fend for themselves and find transportation to a safe place.

“Throughout the eight-and-a-half-hour ordeal at the airport, I took no pictures, opting instead to save battery power on my iPhone. That decision proved crucial for surviving the remaining three hours it would take to make it to safety.”

Patrick Heller

Heller, owner emeritus and communication officer for Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Mich., said that after the first announcement to get out of the terminal, he and Tom Coulson, current owner and CEO of Liberty Coin Service, headed down the jetway from the gate where their flight was to originally depart.

Once on the tarmac, travelers stood between aircraft, or under them, to get out of the sun. People were on cell phones seeking and exchanging information about what was going on.

Heller said he sent group text messages to his wife and co-workers to inform them that he and Coulson were safe. Heller said his wife told him CNN was reporting details of the shootings and that she had seen him and Coulson on their news reports.

“She was more terrified than I was,” Heller said.

Less than an hour after leaving the terminal, Heller and Coulson returned inside the terminal after seeing others do so and met up again with Deisher.

However, authorities ordered a complete evacuation of the terminal and Heller said he, Coulson and Deisher headed out. Outside, he regrouped with Coulson, but both became separated from Deisher.

By then, Heller said travelers from other terminals were now on the tarmac.

Heller said he and Coulson were among a group that moved between Terminals 2 and 3 before being directed across the airport to the hangars.

“When I saw families out on the tarmac and walking across the airport I could see the parents trying to keep their children calm, with a high rate of success, at the same time they were trying to keep themselves from freaking out,” Heller said. “You could tell in the way the parents would look at each other when the children didn’t see.

“My wife said that between CNN and two local television stations she saw me eight times and Tom a few times. She was probably the one most worried that tragedy would befall us. She was really glad to see us home.”

Heller said he was in a group of approximately 500 people in one hangar.

“We tried to stay well inside the hangar, figuring we didn’t want to be among those by the door who were closest to the terminals,” Heller said. “What we were told was that the airport was considered an active shooting site, so we would have to stay there until the whole airport was cleared.”

When, several hours later, buses arrived to transport passengers to Port Everglades Authority, Heller said he and Coulson were able to arrange transportation to an airport across the state in Fort Myers after rescheduling their flight to the morning of Jan. 7.

Deisher had done the same thing.

Laura Sperber

Professional numismatist Laura Sperber and her business partner in Legend Numismatics, George Huang, were at the airport trying to return a rental car.

Sperber said she had driven within a few feet of a parking garage when the vehicle was suddenly surrounded by law enforcement officers from multiple agencies donned in tactical gear.

“They wouldn’t let us go any further,” Sperber said. “The response from law enforcement was massive — FBI, ATF, U.S. Marshals, sheriff’s deputies, even some from Florida’s Bureau of Wildlife.”

She said she had arrived at the airport close to 1:30 p.m., around the time that a false report of the possibility of a second shooter was issued.

Sperber said she had entered the airport property on a road different from the main entrance, to avoid traffic, only to be confronted by what looked like an “army” of law enforcement officers swarming the area, as FBI agents ordered her and Huang out of the car at gunpoint and began searching the car. 

“It was quite traumatic,” Sperber said.

Sperber said she and Huang were detained for several hours during the vehicle search before they were allowed to leave in the rental vehicle.

Sperber said she ended up taking a flight back to New Jersey from Palm Beach International Airport on Jan. 8.

Todd Imhof

Imhof’s experiences in Terminal 2 as the shootings began, and the aftermath, are events that he’d rather soon forget.

“It was not a good day for me, but much worse for others,” said Imhof, executive vice president for Heritage Auctions.

If one person from the four interviewed by Coin World could be considered as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Imhof would be it.

Imhof was working his way through the TSA airport security checkpoint when the sounds of gunfire erupted. Imhof said he was close to the top of the escalators leading to and from the Baggage Claim area for Terminal 2.

“I heard a bunch of snaps, but didn’t know where they were coming from,” Imhof said. “Everyone was ordered on the floor. Panic and pandemonium ensued. It was 10 to 15 minutes of sheer terror.”

Imhof says he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to forget the panic-stricken looks on the faces of people looking for cover or the crying children.

“I wasn’t in the line of fire but still felt like I was in one of those TV disaster movies,” Imhof said.

Imhof said he would not normally have been in that situation. In his duties for Heritage, he usually handles details and oversight for auctions involving U.S. coins, which were still being held at the FUN show.

However, Imhof said, he was asked to fly from FUN to New York City to help with the world and ancient coin auctions to be held in conjunction with the New York International Coin Convention, and his flights were scheduled on Delta Airlines. 

Normally, when working U.S. coin auctions, he travels on American, which would have put him at a different terminal.

On Jan. 6, Imhof was delayed leaving the convention center to the airport when his Uber transportation failed to show; he had then called for a taxi back to the hotel before going to the airport to check in.

Several hours passed, after the airport was locked down as a crime scene, before Imhof would be able to leave the airport.

During that time, he met an 85-year-old woman who spoke broken English and who had been on a cruise ship. 

Imhof said he stayed with the woman throughout the ordeal until she could be reunited with her granddaughter. 

More 2017 FUN Coverage:

Beards on coins exhibit‘Great Beards on Coins’ exhibit wins top award at FUN: Sam Gelberd is the recipient of the Heritage Auctions Award for Excellence in Numismatic for 2017 at FUN for “Great Beards on Coins.”

2017 FUN Convention2017 Florida United Numismatists convention in the record books: The bourse floor of the Florida United Numismatists convention Jan. 5 to 8 in Fort Lauderdale was bustling with collector activity.

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