Witnesses reported that the gunman, an Army veteran who once said the US government was controlling his mind, drew a gun from his checked luggage when he arrived at the Florida airport on Friday evening and began picking off travellers until he ran out of ammunition.
Panicked witnesses ran out of the terminal and spilled on to the tarmac. Others hid in toilets or crouched behind cars as police and paramedics rushed to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.
Bruce Hugon, who had flown in from Indianapolis for a holiday, was at the baggage carousel when he heard pops and saw everyone drop to the ground. A woman next to him tried to get up and was shot in the head.
“The guy must have been standing over me at one point. I could smell the gunpowder,” he said.
The gunman was identified as Esteban Santiago, 26, of Anchorage, Alaska, who served in Iraq with the National Guard but was discharged last year for unsatisfactory performance. His brother said he had been receiving psychological treatment recently.
A police officer said that Santiago had walked into the FBI office in Anchorage in November to say that the US government was controlling his mind and making him watch Islamic State videos.
Police took him for a mental health evaluation, according to the official.
FBI agent George Piro, who is in charge of the Miami field office, confirmed that Santiago had gone into the Anchorage office and said he indicated he was not intent on hurting anyone.
“We’re looking at every angle, including the terrorism angle,” he said, adding that Santiago would face federal charges and was expected in court tomorrow.
It is legal for air passengers to travel with guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag – not a carry-on – and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in.
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage aboard a Delta flight on Thursday night, checking only one piece of luggage – his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.
Chip LaMarca, a Broward County commissioner who was briefed by investigators, said: “After he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting.”
The gunman was taken into custody after throwing his empty weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, one witness said.
“People started screaming and trying to get out of any door they could or hide under chairs,” the witness, Mark Lea, told MSNBC. “He just continued coming in, just randomly shooting at people, no rhyme or reason to it.”
The gunman said nothing as he “went up and down the carousels of the baggage claim, shooting through luggage to get at people that were hiding,” Lea said. He went through about three magazines before running out of ammunition, Lea said.
He was arrested unharmed, with no shots fired by law enforcement officers.