Life and death at Fort Lauderdale’s airport

Beloved Marietta woman slain in gunfire; Westminster school counselor survives

As he lay on the floor, huddled among 10 strangers dodging bullets at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Westminster School counselor Steve Frappier felt strangely confident he would survive.

His survival would come down to a matter of centimeters — the exact width of a laptop. The computers often are touted for their thinness. Frappier’s was just thick enough.

“For whatever reason I wasn’t panicked,” he said.

Frappier, 37, had already made one seemingly benign decision that helped save his life. As he waited at the Delta baggage claim in Terminal 2, Frappier stood near the end of the carousel, away from the crush of passengers eager to be on their way. Many appeared to be headed for a cruise ship, judging by their colorful, relaxed outfits, Frappier had noted.

The slight young man later identified as Esteban Santiago, 26, was dressed similarly, in a baby-blue shirt, as if trying to blend in with the tourists, Frappier said.

But Santiago had flown all the way from Alaska determined to kill. When he started firing his 9mm semi-automatic handgun, he aimed into a much larger group — about 30 or 40 people, Frappier estimates — that had been waiting at the front of the carousel. They had no time to run.

Even after hearing several loud popping sounds, few people reacted.

“It’s an airport. You hear all kind of sounds,” Frappier said. Then, an unidentified man’s voice bellowed, “He’s got a gun. Get down!”

Five people were fatally shot, including a beloved Marietta woman traveling with her husband. Olga and Ralph Woltering were meeting family — children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren — for a cruise. Despite their ages — she was 84; he, 90 — they traveled often.

But their home was Marietta’s Transfiguration Catholic Church, where they were known for their beaming smiles and big hearts. Olga, who met her husband while he was in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in England, maintained her British accent, calling friends and strangers alike “lovey” or “love.”

“To call Olga and Ralph pillars of the Transfiguration family would be an understatement,” said church member Dan Blankowski. The couple, married more than 60 years, joined the church in 1978.

“They could always be found at 5 p.m. Mass, in the front, on the Tabernacle side and always happy and approachable,” Blankowski said.

When they weren’t there, they were likely traveling or at a social function, said friend Linda Connolly of Marietta. The Wolterings were always the life of the party, she said, recalling a church function just a few months ago when the couple owned the dance floor.

“They were doing the electric slide,” Connolly said. “And they stayed on the dance floor the whole evening. They were always on the go, never stopping.

Many who knew them best were too choked up to talk about their loss. Ralph Woltering was not hurt, but friends say they don’t know how he’ll get by without Olga, the young woman from the small town of Ipswich, north of London, whom he met on a ballroom floor six decades ago.

Family members declined interview requests, asking for privacy as they grieve, though daughter Debbie Holcombe released a statement late Saturday.

“Olga Woltering was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and good friend to many. She, along with our father Ralph, is the cornerstone of our family, and while she’s absent in our lives now, she remains in our hearts, thoughts, and memories for ever,” the statement read.

“Her bright smile and loving manner will be missed by all who had the fortune to know her,” the statement continued. “She rarely seemed to meet a stranger; rather she had a smile or a hug for all. She was a blessing in the lives of family and friends.”

Frappier said he knows how fortunate he is to be able to tell his story, harrowing though it is. He saw a man die not 10 feet away from him, shot in the head. A woman, whom Frappier presumes was his wife, was slumped over him.

The killer said nothing as he calmly, methodically shot into the crowd.

“I’m hearing the screams of people getting hit,” Frappier said.

He said he thought the ordeal would be brief. Santiago would run out of bullets quickly, he figured, assuming the police didn’t get him first.

Indeed, the shooting stopped, briefly. But Santiago had merely stopped to reload. Frappier said he heard the same voice from before, the voice that first warned people in Terminal 2 to get down on the ground. It told them to stay down. The shooter hasn’t gone anywhere.

“I can see (Santiago’s) hands,” Frappier said. But he didn’t see the shooter turn his gun in his direction.

Suddenly, Frappier said he felt something hit his back. He assumed it was a piece of luggage from the conveyor belt.

It ended quickly, within 90 seconds. Swarms of law enforcement officers took Santiago into custody without incident. Frappier said he remembers hearing them say it was OK to get up.

“The first thing I notice is the people who aren’t getting up,” he said.

Five were dead, six wounded.

Frappier said he noticed his cellphone battery was nearly dead. From his backpack he pulled out his laptop computer to charge it. For the first time he realized how close he had come to dying.

A bullet had passed through his MacBook. FBI agents later located it in an interior pocket of the backpack. The computer had saved him.

“The trajectory of the bullet would’ve entered my body,” Frappier said.

The shooting exposed major breakdowns, not only in airport security but in how we deal with the mentally ill. Santiago had reportedly sought help for his deteriorating mental condition. It’s believed he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq.

“There has to be some light come out of this darkness, and maybe it’ll be stopping people like (Santiago) from falling through the cracks,” Frappier said.

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