Penn State professor offers firsthand look at Fort Lauderdale shooting

People take cover on the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport onJan. 6, after police say Estaban Santiago opened fire near the baggage claim, killing five.
People take cover on the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport onJan. 6, after police say Estaban Santiago opened fire near the baggage claim, killing five. TNS

When bad things happen in the world, it’s easy to think of it as something far away and not affecting lives locally.

But on Jan. 6, when shots erupted in a Florida airport, it wasn’t as far away from Centre County as one might think. Mark Ballora, associate professor of music technology at Penn State, was there with his family on the way home from a cruise vacation celebrating his mother’s 80th birthday.

“Needless to say, the experience at the airport was not the way we had planned to end this idyllic vacation,” he said.

The five people killed have been identified by Broward County officials. Ranging in age from 57 to 84, hailing from Iowa, Ohio, Georgia and Virginia, the three women and two men came to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to embark on cruises just like Ballora.

His mother and his brother’s family were on another flight. It left from a different terminal before the shots erupted and the airport was shut down. While Ballora and his family were not near the shooting, they were part of the evacuation when authorities reacted to rumors of a second shooter.

He and his family were at their gate, waiting for a flight to Baltimore, when the reports started to come across the terminal televisions.

“We knew there were casualties and that the gunman had been apprehended. Where we were, things seemed fine, and Southwest made an announcement that they would continue to board flights,” he said. “We were to board in about 15 minutes, and I was reading a tablet. There was the sudden sound of people running, and people everywhere dove to the floor. There were shouts of ‘Get down! Everybody!’ ”

Ballora describes a chaotic scene as people were hurried out to the tarmac.

“People were tripping and scrambling over each other, belongings were left behind. Thankfully, my wife and I were able to grab a hold of our things as we made our way out. Many families were separated,” he said. “A distraught young woman asked to use my phone to call her family, as she’d left her phone at the charging station inside. People gathered behind some storage containers on the tarmac. Children were crying, and many were trying to reconnect.”

Then they had to deal with the logistics of dealing with the closed airport — booking hotels, finding transportation. Ballora and his wife were lucky. They had their cellphones on them, but others had run from the terminal without phones, credit cards, car keys or bags. The Miami Herald said thousands of items left at the airport have been returned to their owners, but about 23,000 things were left behind, from teddy bears to cameras.

The airport reopened the next day, and the family made it to Baltimore at last.

“We drove home, feeling considerably luckier than many who had been there. It was a frightening experience,” Ballora said.

Ballora takes issue with how it was handled.

“I remember when I was in grade school and we had fire drills, the watchwords were ‘move quickly, quietly and calmly.’ Now I understand why. The mayor’s description of an evacuation out of caution strikes me as akin to ‘We needed to evacuate the theater, so we yelled ‘fire!’ ” he said. “There was nothing calm or orderly about the situation. It was confusion at all levels, with armored police everywhere, guns drawn, yelling and waving people around, sometimes at cross purposes with each other.

“To be sure, this was an uncertain situation, and they were compelled to take quick action. As we left, I remember that, to a person, everyone thanked them for their help. But it’s unfortunate there were apparently no plans in place for a situation like that. At the very least, a bullhorn would have allowed someone to give directions. As it was 40 people were injured with sprains, broken bones and the like.”

He also bristled at statements about not talking about gun laws so close to the tragedy.

“...what better time is there to talk about gun laws, and wouldn’t that be a good way to honor the victims?” Ballora said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott did say Thursday that someone adjudicated to be mentally ill should not have access to firearms, according to the Miami Herald. Shooter Esteban Santiago was hospitalized in November for psychiatric reasons.

“The reality is that we live in uncertain, volatile times. And living life as a predetermined set of policies and routines just isn’t good enough. Too many of the standards scripts no longer apply,” Ballora said.

“The bottom line is that the quality of life is not measured in checking boxes, filing out the right forms and doing as you’re told,” he said. “What our society needs now is people who can think, and who can empathize, and who can have the wherewithal to recognize situations and do what is necessary to help, rather than just dodging responsibility by saying ‘It’s someone else’s job, not mine.’ If these times frighten us, we need to recognize that the first place to look for solutions is within ourselves, and our own hearts and consciences.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce