Just moments after a gunman opened fire at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, killing five people and injuring at least another eight, a handful of poker players were waiting to board their flight to Nassau, Bahamas to play in the PokerStars Championship Bahamas event.
Included in that group were Asher Conniff and Jessica Dawley. The pair was sitting at their gate in Terminal 3, just a few hundred yards from Terminal 2 where the shooting took place. Word of anything happening at the airport first came from a fellow passenger who had seen something on social media.
Five minutes later, Conniff saw the news on his own timeline and quietly mentioned it to Dawley. Instead of chaos and panic, Conniff was surprised by how calm everything was around him.
“Life was going on as if nothing had changed and the number one news story was happening one terminal over in the same airport,” said Conniff. “Everything seemed so normal in the airport. It was the weirdest occurrence. And then you watch the news and it’s complete chaos.”
Other passengers seemed oblivious to what was happening just one terminal over and there was no mention of anything from airline staff or airport officials. Conniff even noticed that the TVs in the terminal that normally show news channels like CNN or MSNBC were showing a sports channel.
“It felt more like weird and I can’t believe they haven’t locked down the airport yet,” said Dawley. “Only a few people in our surrounding little sitting area knew about it.”
It took a little longer than usual, but eventually Conniff and Dawley and the rest of the passengers boarded the flight. Flying on JetBlue, every passenger had access to a personal seatback satellite TV. Some began tuning in to the coverage.
“We got on the plane and it was a whole other set of weirdness because everyone’s watching it happen and we’re there on a plane,” said Conniff.
“When were on the plane, (Allen) Kessler still didn’t know,” said Dawley. “The stewardesses did say a few things on the plane along the lines of ‘we know this is a hectic time so you can use your phones’, but never said that something was wrong or okay there was a shooting.”
Both Dawley and Conniff did take the opportunity to send texts to friends to let them know they were safe and on their way to the Bahamas.
“We were watching the news and we’re waiting to take off and we’re taxiing for a while, and we’re watching CNN and the guys says something along the lines of ‘So all air traffic has been grounded. No more air traffic allowed out ’ and we’re like, damn this sucks,” said Conniff. “Then he goes ‘Wait, it looks like there is one plane that’s still on the runway. So I guess that one plane may still take off’ and we don’t move at all and Jessica and I look at each and we’re like ‘this can’t be real’, but we remind each other, ‘You know what we’re safe, we’re alive’, five seconds later the wheels started turning.”
The flight took off an hour later than scheduled, but both players are grateful to have arrived safe and sound.
“It was pretty crazy. But the whole time the over-arching theme for us was anything that happens after this point, how can we complain?,” said Conniff. “We were just in an airport where five people got killed and it’s not us and we’re safe and we’re happy and who cares how long we sit in this plane or if we don’t get to take off?”