FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Yards from where workers finished the cleanup from the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, a girl was reunited Tuesday with the teddy bear she left behind while fleeing.
Courtney Gelinas, 10, smiled as Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport spokesman Greg Meyer opened the trunk of his SUV to reveal Rufus, the teddy bear the Windsor, Ontario, fifth grader had received from her dying grandfather a decade ago. When Meyer handed her Rufus, she held the bear tight.
Courtney was with her parents and siblings and about to board a plane home when officials say Esteban Santiago fatally shot five people one floor below them Friday. Rufus, a brown bear dressed in a red devil costume, was left behind as the family fled onto the tarmac with hundreds of others. Her mother, Kim Lariviere, said Courtney has not slept well since.
“It is exciting and I am happy to have him back,” the bashful girl said as she pressed against her mother’s legs.
The airport has returned a “substantial” portion of the 25,000 stranded items left behind by fleeing passengers, including luggage, cellphones, baby strollers and “lots of Hello Kitty backpacks,” Meyer said.
The airport was nearly back to normal Tuesday. The long lines from the weekend caused by delayed flights are gone. Only the area around the baggage carousel where the shooting happened remained sealed off as workers replaced carpeting, Meyer said.
Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran with the Puerto Rico National Guard, remains jailed without bond on federal charges. Santiago, who had been living in Alaska, could face the death penalty if convicted. Officials say he had arrived on a connecting flight from Anchorage, retrieved his gun from its checked carrying case and began randomly shooting people.
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Courtney lost Rufus in the confusion. Lariviere, a middle school teacher, said she, her husband, firefighter Locky Gelinas, and their other daughter, 7-year-old Kacie, had come to the airport to return from a holiday cruise to the Caribbean. They had settled near the gate for their flight to Detroit, Windsor’s neighbouring city, when Lariviere said “a rush of people screaming for their lives came like a tsunami at us. We threw our children under our seats and we lay on top of them.”
After a about a minute, Lariviere said her husband decided they needed to run, so they went down a jetway and then took stairs to the tarmac. After about an hour, they were allowed back into the terminal only to have to flee again minutes later when false rumours of another gunman caused another stampede to the exits.
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She said the family split from the mass, feeling that would be safer, and began walking around the airport’s perimeter until they found a hole in the fence and a police officer let them through. They walked to a small rental car office, where the employees helped about 40 people who had fled the airport book hotels and drove them there.
She said Courtney felt so much stress Friday night, she vomited “all over the floor” even though she hadn’t eaten.
She said she never lost hope that they would find Rufus, “but we are in a hotel with nothing. Everything we are wearing is from Walmart. We knew he had to be here somewhere. It was just a matter of waiting.”
She said it was unnerving to return to the airport and pass by the black curtains shielding the area where the shootings happened.
“It could have been anybody down there. My deepest respect and condolences to all of you who are without their grandmothers and their moms and their brothers, uncles and aunts,” Lariviere said, weeping.
She said she and her husband have been open and honest with their daughters about what happened so they wouldn’t find out about it when they return to school.
“I don’t think we are going to see normal for a while. I don’t think it has registered what we went through on Friday because we are still here, still living it. I think when we get home, we’ll feel it,” she said.