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With Vegas in mind, officers conduct active shooter training at Tampa International Airport

TAMPA — Black ribbons marked the dead.

Some passengers managed to run away. Those suffering wounds were cleared from the baggage area. But two people lay dead on the floor between carousels 9 and 10. Firefighters tied ribbons around their wrists, a quick way to tell other rescue workers not to waste time on them. Luggage was everywhere. So were bullet casings.

Moments earlier, a police officer, dressed in a T-shirt and baseball hat, pretended to open fire on passengers waiting for their bags at Tampa International Airport. It was all part of an active shooter exercise airport police conducted early Wednesday morning.

This one was inspired by a true event, borrowing details from the shooting that killed five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January.

The training was planned months before tragedy struck Las Vegas on Oct. 1. For those involved in Wednesday's exercise, Las Vegas' mass shooting underscored why the training was critical.

"It's not if, but when," said Tampa International Airport police Chief Charlie Vazquez. "If you're in denial that it's not going to happen here, then you're way behind the power curve."

Airport officials cordoned off a section of the baggage claim area on the red side of the main terminal for the exercise, which involved more than 100 airport, airline and Transportation Security Administration employees, most dressed in casual clothing. TSA agents double-checked each participant to ensure nobody brought a real weapon into the simulation.

On the other side of a temporary wall separating the fake from the real, actual passengers waited for their bags. Traffic flowed outside. On the loudspeaker, a woman warned of the exercise to those in the airport who weren't involved.

"This is a drill," she repeated.

Participants were told to imagine they had just arrived on a long flight from Alaska — the Fort Lauderdale shooter had arrived from Anchorage — and pretend they were waiting to collect their luggage. When the shooting started, they were told to act realistically: Run, scream, hide. Call 911 to test the response of the communications center (participants were instructed not to actually call 911 but to call the airport police dispatch number). Keep up the chaos to make the exercise as realistic as possible.

The pretend shooter, airport police Cpl. D.J. Colestock, walked to carousel 9 and picked up his bag. He rolled it into a restroom and emerged armed with a blue pistol loaded with blank rounds. On the crack of the first shot, people ran.

"Somebody get him!" a man yelled.

Colestock reloaded twice before running out of ammunition, surrendering to the four officers who arrived first. While officers apprehended the shooter, those who had been preselected to act as injured passengers wailed for assistance.

"Help me, I've been shot," one woman pleaded.

It took less than two minutes for officers to subdue the shooter. After Colestock was in custody, officers visited the wounded, escorted those who could walk out of the terminal and radioed for rescue workers.

Jeff Wynn, 44, who works for the TSA, was one of the passengers who pretended to die. He called the moments after the shooting, when he was left staring at the ceiling, "creepy."

"It got very realistic when it got quiet, after the officers finished their commands and got everyone out," he said. "It was scary."

The exercise was realistic for the officers, too. Even in a training scenario, adrenaline flows.

"You want to be able to internally take a breath, so you can still be able to do your job," said Bradley Dilley, among the four airport police officers who responded to the gunshots first.

He said the hardest part was staying patient. Dilley had to stay by the shooter as another officer cuffed him. Meanwhile, victims were crying out for help.

"Your instinct is to try to run to each fire all at once (instead of) putting each fire out one at a time," he said.

Exercises like Wednesday's have grown in popularity since the 1999 shooting in Columbine High School in Colorado, said Greg Crane, founder and chief executive of ALICE Training Institute, a company that provides active shooter training to civilians.

But, Crane said, training shouldn't stop with police officers. How deadly a particular mass shooting turns out, he said, can come down to the response of those caught in the middle. Most active shooter events begin and end before police arrive, said Crane, who spent 18 years as a police officer in the Dallas area.

The advice for civilians used to be to stay passive. But after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, Crane said, federal government guidance encourages those in shooter scenarios to "run, hide, fight."

That is, if escape isn't an option, taking the shooter on — distracting him, throwing things, getting physical, Crane said — could be the best chance at survival.

"There are two ways you will survive this event: You will remove yourself from the danger area, or you will render the area no longer dangerous," he said. "But if you're going to leave those lunatics in control of the situations, and you're going to stay passive and static in those situations, those situations just don't have good outcomes."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

     
     
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