Rev. John Schlicher said he lay on the ground praying, thinking he and his family would die at the hands of a gunman who killed five people around him in Florida at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6. "Even in the midst of evil, there was peace - a peace I can only attribute to God," the United Methodist pastor said, his voice shaking.
"Only by the grace of God, I am still here. Michelle is still here. Jane is still here. We are so grateful but so heartbroken," he told UMC news.
Schlicher is the pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. He and his wife and mother-in-law had flown to Fort Lauderdale that day on their way to a long-awaited cruise. He told the West Ohio Conference they were in the baggage claim area at the airport when he heard a gunshot and heard people screaming, "Get down, get down."
Schlicher immediately hit the ground and called 911. Separated from his family, he said he started to pray. "We thought we were going to die," he said, as he watched the gunman fire on people around him. He said the gunman even reloaded.
He told MSNBC through a phone interview the afternoon of the tragedy that two people to his right and two people to his left were shot. He said he saw the gun more than he saw the shooter, but noticed he believed the attacker had on a blue Star Wars shirt. "I didn't see facial features. I put my head down and prayed."
When the shooting stopped, five were dead and nine wounded. The gunman was identified as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago of Anchorage, Alaska, who served in Iraq with the National Guard but was demoted and discharged last year for unsatisfactory performance. Schlicher said the gunman said nothing during the attack: "He just was firing."
Schlicher's wife, Michelle, wrapped her mother's sweater around an injured man's head as survivors tried to help the wounded.
"We checked on the people around us, but they were gone," Schlicher said.
West Ohio Area Bishop Gregory Palmer, who spoke with Schlicher at about 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 while the family was still at the airport with other passengers, spoke of his gratitude for the actions of the pastor amid the tragedy.
"We grieve for the loss of life in the Ft. Lauderdale Airport shooting. Our hearts go out to all of those who have been wounded and traumatized physically, spiritually and emotionally," he said. "We applaud the pastoral presence of the Reverend Schlicher and his family who in the face of the crisis extended themselves to help others."