Page Laska and her family were among many who spent three hours and 12 minutes on a crowded flight from Minneapolis to Fort Lauderdale on Friday morning — and it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Laska disembarked, quickly grabbed her bags from the Delta terminal and hopped on a shuttle headed for a nearby hotel with her 8-year-old son Garrett. Her husband, Dennis Anco, and 11-year-old son Benjamin, who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a motorized wheelchair, waited outside the terminal for a handicap-accessible cab.
“Pops” rang out, as Laska’s husband recalled, and crowds rushed the automatic doors outside the terminal.
Laska didn’t see her son or husband for three hours. She later learned her husband lifted his 11-year-old son from his wheelchair and ran across the ground floor of the airport, well past its four terminals and the chaotic masses toward a parking lot for safety.
Laska exchanged phone calls with them in the moments that followed — Laska from a hotel and Anco and Ben, both uninjured, from a crowd stranded at Fort Lauderdale International Airport. It was after a gunman, likely a passenger on their Delta flight, opened fire Friday, killing five and injuring six.
“I told (Ben) they had gotten the shooter, that everything was going to be fine, that I was going to see him,” an emotional Laska told The Palm Beach Post on Saturday. “I said it, but part of me thought that was going to be my last phone call with my son.”
Laska and Anco strained to recall the ordinary and forgettable seconds between grabbing their luggage — the first bags to roll by on the conveyor belt — and Esteban Santiago pulling out a semi-automatic handgun and opening fire on the crowd.
“It must’ve been five minutes or less,” she said.
It was enough time for Laska, and 15 of her family members who had all flown from their native Minnesota to Fort Lauderdale for a cruise, to board a shuttle and leave before the shots rang out. They were last off the plane, but first out of the sliding doors.
“We missed it by seconds,” Laska said. “That’s not to say we aren’t completely aware that we could’ve been one of those people that didn’t make it … There must be a guardian angel watching over us.”
Ben still shudders when he hears loud noises, his mother said.
“He heard a baby cry, a high-pitched cry, and panicked,” she said. “I tell him he’s safe, but it’s a hard thing to talk about. It’ll take time.”
Laska and Anco didn’t immediately realize that Santiago was on their flight until it was reported that he flew from Anchorage to Minneapolis, then from Minneapolis to Florida before carrying out the mass shooting.
Nothing was out of the ordinary during the flight, Laska said.
They didn’t recognize Santiago’s face or photo, and said he clearly didn’t stand out.
“It’s tough to even think about it,” Laska said. “We want to move on, not dwell on it.”
Ben was reunited with his wheelchair after Delta staff, along with Laska’s niece Alli, searched for it overnight.
“Ben doesn’t walk,” Laska said. “That wheelchair is his legs.”
Amid the choas of lost luggage and stranded travelers, an emergency coordinator with Delta told the family locating Ben’s wheelchair was a top priority, Laska said.
The staff told the family they sorted through more than 1,000 bags in search of the 250-pound wheelchair before delivering it Saturday morning — in time for the family cruise.
Said Alli: “That people would do all of that to get Ben’s wheelchair shows us in such a tragedy, there’s a little glimmer of hope.”