Sevier County witness: 'Just got lucky that he didn't kill us' - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Sevier County witness: 'Just got lucky that he didn't kill us'

Posted: Updated:

Ryan DeSear and his family were mere feet away when the gunman started firing.

First one shot from the pistol, then another, and another. He was a good-looking man, appeared to be in his mid 20s and he just kept firing as the DeSears and others waited Friday afternoon to collect their luggage in baggage claim at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida.

"We're really shaken up," DeSear told 10News on Friday night, some nine hours afterward. "it was a very, very, very bad scene. We were right there where the shooting occurred and we just got lucky that he didn't kill us, to be honest with you."

Police have identified the gunman as Esteban Santiago, mostly recently of the Anchorage, Alaska, area. The former Army soldier was being held Friday night in Florida.

DeSear, regional manager for Ripley's Entertainment, is well-acquainted with trauma. He, along with thousands of others, went through the Gatlinburg wildfires the night of Nov. 28.

Ripley's operates an aquarium in the middle of downtown. It made it through the disaster all right and subsequently reopened. But the experience was distressing for DeSear and aquarium employees, along with the many others who work in downtown Gatlinburg.

At the time of the fires, the DeSears were supposed to be getting ready for a cruise. They put it off because of the fire.

On Friday, they planned to fly into Fort Lauderdale and then catch a cruise ship Saturday. They had just landed in Florida and were standing at the baggage carousel waiting to collect their things when the shooting started.

As DeSear watched in horror, the gunman began to shoot. Everyone "hit the deck," he recalled.

"He had a steady aim. He didn't miss. He killed people execution-style," the Sevier Countian recalled.

The DeSears had collected one bag already. DeSear said his wife and son hid behind a luggage cart.

"I could see everything. Every move he made. Every person he killed, but I couldn't do anything. You certainly couldn't get up because he would have killed you instantly," he said.

DeSear thought about fleeing through the flaps that the baggage tumbles through but then dismissed the idea.

The gunman appeared to unload a 9mm clip. He tried to leave, then came back, then took off running. Officers began firing at him.

To DeSear, watching from a distance, it appeared Santiago gave himself up.

Around DeSear and his family were the bodies of five people. Police say another eight people suffered injuries. Crowds panicked, many fleeing through the airport amid false reports of a second gunman.

After the shooting, the DeSears spent hours on the floor, spreadeagled, as police ensured the area was safe. Then, they spent more time talking with investigators about what they'd seen. DeSear said he's given video he took to federal investigators.

DeSear's son turns 12 on Saturday. That was the whole purpose of this vacation -- to celebrate his birthday. Their luggage was within the crime scene, so they don't have it.

The DeSears planned to spend Friday night in a hotel and then decide whether to proceed with their journey.

"I’m beginning to think we’re a little cursed," DeSear told 10News. "I think we're going to stay away from all of travel for a while."

He said, however, that the family is resilient and grateful to be alive.

"We are very, very lucky people," he said. "Our home didn't burn up and we are still alive, all of us, and there's not many people that can say that.

"Angels are watching over the DeSear family, I can promise you. We've seen a lot, but we're still here and we're still cranking."

WBIR contributed to this story. 

Powered by Frankly