When Deb Nielsen got a text from her vacationing daughter, the Scarborough woman’s thoughts were of the mundane travel headaches the 21-year-old might be experiencing during her first airline flight: lost luggage, a missed connection, a bumpy flight.

“I’m OK, but something happened,” MacKensey Nielsen’s text read.

Deb Nielsen texted back, asking her daughter to call. That’s when she learned that MacKensey had been in the baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida on Friday when a man began firing a handgun, killing five people and wounding eight, authorities say.

Three of those who were killed stood near MacKensey, she told her mother.

“The woman beside her got hit and dropped to the ground and then (MacKensey) dropped to the ground,” Deb Nielsen said. “She said, ‘I was so close, I was touching them.'”

MacKensey caught sight of the shooter, she told her mother, but in the chaos, didn’t get a good look at him. Both MacKensey and her boyfriend, Jacob Collette, 24, dropped to the ground as those who were shot also fell to the floor in the baggage claim area.

Collette planned the trip to Florida that was supposed to be a dream vacation for his girlfriend. The couple, who live in Saco, flew from the Portland International Jetport on Friday morning and landed in Fort Lauderdale at midday. After collecting their luggage, they were going to get something to eat and then make the connection for their cruise ship, where they would spend the next week soaking up the warmth — escaping, for a bit, another cold Maine winter.

MacKensey Nielsen was nervous, but also excited Friday morning for her first trip on an airliner, her mother said.

“It was something that was going to make memories,” Deb Nielsen recalled telling her daughter, the fourth of her five children. “It did. Just not good memories.”

Deb Nielsen kept in contact with her daughter all Friday afternoon, and said that the couple had been interviewed by the FBI and were finally told they could leave the airport around 6:30 p.m., nearly six hours after the shooting.

Their cruise ship had sailed, so the two were headed to a hotel to deal with what had happened and figure out what they would do next.

“The thing that stuck in her mind was the people that were around her,” Deb Nielsen said One thing is certain, Deb Nielsen said: there will be no flight back to Maine for the couple.

“They’re waiting to see if they’ll get on another ship,” she said. “If they don’t, we’ll drive down because she doesn’t want to fly.”

Deb Nielsen believes God played a role in sparing her daughter, and said that she and her husband, Allen, were praying for those families who didn’t hear from loved ones Friday afternoon.

A family of four from Warren also was in the baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when the gunman opened fire.

Trisha and Jack Martin and their sons, Ryan, 18, and Ben, 14, were unhurt, family members said.

Ben Martin is a student at Medomak Valley High School and Ryan Martin is a student at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

Trisha Martin told a family member she was standing next to a man who was shot in the head and killed by the gunman.

The Martins became aware of the shooting when they heard popping sounds.

The Martin family had flown out of the jetport early Friday to Atlanta, and from there to Fort Lauderdale. They planned to leave on a vacation cruise Saturday.

Casey Prentice, the owner of Evo restaurant in Portland, also was in the airport when the shooting occurred Friday, but not in the baggage claim area.

Prentice told WCSH-TV that he was in the Sky Lounge at the airport when people ran through, yelling “shots fired.”

He said the doors from the lounge to the terminal were locked down, but people began to run out of the terminal onto the tarmac, the station said. Prentice soon followed, according to WCSH, and sat with his back to a concrete wall.

John Choudhari of Portland said the airport was a scene of utter chaos for hours after the shooting, stretching into the night.

Choudhari, 26, a sports clerk at the Portland Press Herald, and his girlfriend, Jill Bradbury, 22, a waitress, had spent five days in the Bahamas and were on their way back to Maine on Friday.

The Portland couple’s itinerary took them to Fort Lauderdale, where they were to take a flight to Boston. They were eating lunch in an airport restaurant when people started getting alerts on their phones about the shooting, he said.

Choudhari and Bradbury decided to go to their gate, where at about 2 p.m., they were told to get ready to board their plane.

“Then we just saw hundreds of people streaming and running and TSA agents who had their guns drawn and they were telling everyone to get on the ground,” Choudhari said, adding that he and Bradbury dove underneath chairs in the waiting area. “We had no idea what was going on. People were stacked on top of each other.”

Then, he said, another TSA agent told everyone to run, so the throng streamed out of emergency doors onto the tarmac.

“I sprained my ankle pretty bad doing it, but at that point, I didn’t care,” Choudhari said.

Trucks rolled onto the tarmac and people were told to hide behind them as rumors spread of second and third shooters and panicked families became separated, Choudhari said.

Finally, as things calmed down, airport workers distributed bottled water to the people and they eventually were led back into the terminal. Initially, Choudhari said, the stranded passengers were told they wouldn’t be able to reclaim their belongings Friday, until people complained about medications and cash left behind. Finally, he said, they were led in small groups back into the terminal to recover their items. By 9:30 p.m., the airport was still crowded with people trying to make arrangements for the night after all flights were canceled.

Choudhari said he managed to book a room in Port Everglades and the couple has reservations on a flight from West Palm Beach to Boston on Saturday night, although he noted ruefully that depends on the weather, with Boston expected to get snow.

Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette contributed to this report.

 


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