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Panic and prayers in Fort Lauderdale airport

As a gunman takes five lives in south Florida, 'we are just praying that God is going to take care of us,' a Christian artist from Costa Rica says in video.

“I’m just sending you a message telling you that I’m fine. As you can see, it has been … crazy.”

Roy Leandro spoke into his phone as he took a selfie video in Terminal 4 of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in south Florida. Behind him, hundreds of passengers sat on the floor of the immigration screening area, bleary eyed and confused. A few stood, looking nervously toward the exits.

“So all of the people we have here are hiding, and I am hiding here,” Leandro said. “We are just praying that God is going to take care of us, (that) everything is going to be fine. And now people are asking for silence, so we will see what is going to be next.”

Leandro, a Christian artist from Costa Rica, was on his way to his homeland Friday after spending time with his wife in her native Denmark. As he waited to check in for his flight to Central America, a Delta Airlines passenger drew a gun from his checked luggage in Terminal 2 and opened fire, killing five people and wounding eight more. Police took 26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska, into custody. Santiago, a U.S. Army veteran, had received psychological treatment recently, the Associated Press reported

Stranded passengers were bused to a convention center after an airport shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (PHOTO BY ROY LEANDRO)
Leandro, who worships with the Sabanilla Church of Christ near Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, travels the globe on one-man mission trips. He has visited assisted living facilities in the U.S. and Scandinavia where he paints portraits of their elderly residents.

The idea came from a trip he took to visit his sister in Sweden about eight years ago. 

“I told her I was not interested in doing tourist stuff,” Leandro said during an interview with The Christian Chronicle in 2011. Instead, he wanted a chance to serve others — perhaps volunteering at a nursing home. He envisioned busing tables and sweeping floors, but workers at the home were fascinated by his art.

When he interacts with seniors, “what I want to do is make them feel happy and comfortable with their own image,” he said. “I want them to know, ‘You are a piece of art.’”

For Leandro, the ordeal in Fort Lauderdale came in the midst of an already long journey that had begun three days earlier in Denmark.

Although he has applied for permission to live in Scandinavia with his wife, the process is not yet complete, he said, so “I have being traveling back and forth to be with her the most I can.”

From Denmark he flew to Norway, where his connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was delayed 12 hours. When he arrived in Florida, he had missed his connecting flight to Costa Rica. Rebooking was complex, he said, because of Costa Rica’s Turrialba Volcano, which was spewing ash into the air, causing airlines to cancel flights.

At a convention center in Fort Lauderdale, stranded passengers attempt to contact loved ones and rebook flights after the Jan. 6 shooting. (PHOTO BY ROY LEANDRO)

He managed to secure a seat on a Friday night flight to San Jose, but had to sleep overnight in the Fort Lauderdale airport as he waited. On Friday afternoon, as he prepared to go through security for his flight, he saw news of the shooting on his phone.

Then he was nearly crushed in a wave of passengers who flooded into the terminal as police shouted at them, Leandro said.

One man yelled that he couldn’t find his child. Meanwhile, “some children kind of walked over me to finally get inside,” he said.

About 300 people crowded into the terminal’s immigration area, entering from the opposite direction that passengers usually travel through the facility. 

“Some people came in there crying in panic — especially some families with children.” he said. “But (soon) people realized that we were safe.”

The passengers spent about three hours in the immigration area, unsure of what was happening, before exiting the terminal, Leandro said. More hours of confusion followed as they attempted to reclaim their baggage and rebook flights. Leandro helped translate for some of the passengers who spoke only Spanish.

Eventually, authorities brought in buses and took the passengers to a convention center. There, at about 5 a.m. Saturday, Leandro was able to borrow a phone and book a flight to Costa Rica that left two hours later.

To let his family and friends know he was OK, Leandro posted a photo of himself to Facebook.

“Don’t let anyone put fear in your soul,” he wrote in the caption. “I’m perfectly fine. God is with me!”

His friends from around the globe posted responses of relief and praise — in Spanish, English and Danish. 

“Congratulations Roy,” one of them wrote. “You must be born again!”

Corrections: This story originally contained errors on terminal numbers (Terminal 4, not 3) and the location of photos (the convention center, not the airport).  

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