CLOSE CALL

Ari Fleischer on Breaking the Ft. Lauderdale Airport Shooting News

The ex-Bush spokesman broke the news of the shooting on Twitter and told The Daily Beast he was headed to the baggage claim where five were killed but took a detour.

01.06.17 9:10 PM ET

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida—Ari Fleischer, the pugnacious former press secretary under President George W. Bush, may have given the world the first news of the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting.

“Shots have been fired. Everyone is running,” he tweeted just before 1 p.m. local time from the airport. That tweet sent social-media-glued reporters into paroxysms, trying to get more information on the violent scene.

I drove the three miles from my home to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport where hundreds of law enforcement vehicles from dozens of federal, state and municipal agencies already dotted the curbs; witnesses were quickly ushered back into the terminal and press workers were pushed back from the entrances.

And that’s where I found Fleischer, standing safely curbside, outside the next-door terminal as police crawled the scene. He was late for a meeting in town and having difficulty finding a ride, so I offered him the shotgun seat of my Subaru if he’d tell me what he saw and heard.

Fleischer seemed slightly shaken but composed, relieved that the situation seemed contained but bewildered that it had almost swallowed him up.

“You’re not a kidnapper, right?” he asked. No, I replied, but I did disclose that as a reporter, I’d been pretty consistently harsh on Fleischer and his politics. But that wasn’t what was on either of our minds at the moment. He hopped in and told me his account as I eased the car past the security cordons.

Fleischer was in that Delta terminal, Terminal 2, where the shooting happened.

“I had just stepped off my flight from New York and was going to head down the escalator to the baggage claim, but had to make a pit stop,” he said. “Thank God I had to make a pit stop.”

Fleischer and several others had been in a restroom upstairs when the shooting happened, but it was an unmistakeable sound, coming from the baggage claim downstairs.

“Pop-pop-pop, pop-pop-pop,” he said. Some of the travelers deliberated whether to stay in the restroom, but he thought movement would be best, so he and several others made for a nearby exit.

The scene was surreal: Upstairs, life went on pretty much as usual at the departure gates. “Somebody got shot down there, I guess,” a skycap at the nearby Southwest terminal curb had told me with a shrug.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

But downstairs, the shooting had occurred at a Delta baggage carousel, there was screaming and carnage. “I saw blood on the concrete” downstairs, Fleischer said; one of the shooting victims had fallen just outside the terminal entrance, he surmised.

As we made our way to the tony beachside neighborhood where Fleischer’s meeting was, police cruisers and ambulances continued to stream south, toward the airport complex, sirens blasting. Fleischer’s wife called his cell phone, asking if he was still at the airport. Social media and TV news were full of reports of multiple shooters now emerging in different terminals, she said. Law enforcement quickly said in a press conference that those reports were wrong, and the sole shooter was in custody. But in the meantime, Fleischer and I wondered about the safety of the fellow travelers we had just left behind.

For Fleischer, this was a waypoint on a planned trip to Tampa for the college football championship—where many of his consulting clients would be.

“I’m happy to be out of politics after 21 years,” he said. “I wanted a completely private practice. Now half my business is in sports.”

Fleischer has become something of a zelig for tragedies like this: He was with Bush on September 11, 2001 in Florida when terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. In an eerie echo of his airport dispatch, Fleischer on 9/11 anniversaries has tweeted his remembrance of how the day unfolded in 2001, including bouncing around the U.S. aboard Air Force One.

Would the fiery commentator, ubiquitous on TV defending President-Elect Donald Trump, be telling MSNBC or Fox News viewers what he saw at the Lauderdale Airport? “No more interviews,” he said. “The story is bigger than me.”

He thanked me for my Navy service, advertised on my license plate, as I helped him with his bags at the destination. “This sure is one way to get a source.”