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Woodstock couple thank friends and family for support after their experience at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when a gunman opened fire

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

It was a journey they never intended to take.

But it taught them a valuable lesson. You never realize how many people have your back until you really need them.

A Woodstock couple saw overwhelming support from their network in the Friendly City -- and beyond -- after a harrowing experience at the end of their winter vacation.

Chris and Tami Coyle, a pair of local teachers, were at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6 when a gunman opened fire.

It was a whirlwind weekend that left them shaken, but thankful.

The Sentinel-Review reached out to the couple to see if they’d be willing to share some of the journey.

Above all else, the Coyles wanted to stress their gratitude to friends and family, near and far, who sent messages of love and support, offered them places to stay, and made sure they were never alone. Hundreds tracked the couple's journey by following Tami’s updates on Facebook.

“Our family and friends guided us home, basically,” she said.

They were at the airport to return home after a cruise. An airport shuttle dropped them off at Terminal 2 that morning, a quick one-minute walk from their terminal next door.

After the usual airport routine, the couple sat down to have lunch. The waiter was so friendly, Tami recalled, but he dropped some hints that seemed sinister.

When he told them to ‘keep an eye out,’ Chris immediately jumped onto his phone to Google the airport.

They quickly saw headlines about the shooting in Terminal 3, the same area they had just walked through. Five people were later confirmed dead. The news was starting to hit CNN on the televisions in the restaurant.

“Nobody was running around, nobody was desperate to leave, everybody felt like ‘ok, it says he’s been captured, it’s isolated to one terminal, we’re all safe,’” Chris said.

But then the waiter came back. Tami asked if he was coping OK.

“He just said, ‘the more people I tell to keep an eye out, the safer we are…because these guys often travel in packs.'"

His ominous words made Chris and Tami a little nervous, but given the calm environment, they went through the usual motions of buying water for the flight ahead.

Chris was waiting at the entrance to the shop when Tami looked over.

“All of a sudden he just says, ‘Tam! Get down!’ So I hid behind this snack shelf with this other woman, we just kind of turtled down. Next thing I know, Chris is diving down on top of me,” she said.

Chris said he’ll never forget that image.

“All of a sudden, coming around the bend, I don’t even know if it was 20 or 40 blue-shirted security guards sprinting full speed towards us, and not looking calm and collected,” he said with a wry laugh.

People scrambled to find hiding places, and others started running.

“At that point we thought there was a shooter loose and we were in jeopardy,” Chris said. Authorities have said that rumours of a second active shooter led to the evacuation of the airport.

They decided to flee along with everyone else, and Tami was briefly separated from Chris when she went to grab her phone from the floor.

They found each other quickly, but it was a moment of fear not easy to forget.

A security guard ushered people through an exit door, down a set of stairs onto the tarmac.

“I was running over people’s passports, purses, shoes. People just dropped everything and ran,” Tami said. Luckily, their carryon baggage was small and easy to handle, so they kept it close. Others weren't so lucky. Airport officials later said that 23,000 items were found inside the facility.

Thousands of people were milling around on the tarmac as four helicopters circled above. A single portable toilet was later wheeled onto the runway. But no one had any information.

Then the SWAT team showed up.

“One guy from the team is calling us over. He’s got a rifle and his finger’s on the trigger. He wanted everyone sitting down in rows,” Chris said.

They sat like that for hours, focusing on supportive texts and messages of comfort on social media. The pair called their parents and best friends to assure them they were safe.

“I just wanted to hear their voices,” Tami said.

“We felt very vulnerable out there in the open,” Chris added.

At one point they heard a cheer and applause when a mother was reunited with her child, who had been separated in the chaos of the evacuation.

Then the SWAT team advised there would be a controlled bomb detonation on the other side of the airport.

“We never saw that or heard that, but others thought they heard a poof,” Chris said.

As the sun started to set, the crowd finally started moving. They were brought under the airport, out to other side, to wait for shuttle buses.

“We were herded into the bowels of the airport, looking up at the luggage tracks,” Chris said.

Once outside again, it was several more hours before anyone was allowed inside to use the bathroom or charge their phones.

Even when shuttle buses arrived, weary crowds made the situation feel harried and panicked. Tami and Chris hung back until the crowds had dissipated. To add insult to injury, the bus that showed up for them was a Sherriff’s bus used for transporting inmates. There were no windows and gated metal partitions.

Buses headed to an emergency centre manned by Red Cross volunteers, whom Tami described as lovely and helpful at a very tense time.

Thankfully, close friends had booked the Coyles a nearby motel for the night. They fell into bed, physically and emotionally exhausted, well past 3 a.m.

The same dear friend had called the airline on Tami and Chris’ behalf, rebooking them on a flight that left Monday. But as the couple woke up on Saturday morning, with no toiletries or clothing and still feeling rattled, they decided it was time to leave the trauma of the last day behind.

“Authorities had said, if you can get out (of Fort Lauderdale), get out,” Tami said.

So the travel-savvy couple and their friend back home hatched a plan. They’d rent a car, drive to Orlando, stay overnight, and fly back to Buffalo, where their car was parked.

They picked up a few necessities at Walmart and went to Cracker Barrel for comfort food.

The next day, Sunday, Chris and Tami hopped on the flight to Buffalo, with a layover in Newark. They only had a moment of pause at security, when those same uniformed guards brought back memories of Friday’s panic.

But the stopover in New Jersey brought new challenges. Winter weather had walloped the region and their connection was cancelled. The next flight they could get to Toronto or Buffalo or anywhere close to home wasn’t until Tuesday night.

“I lost my mind,” Tami said with a chuckle. The ticketing agent told them it was only a two-hour drive to Buffalo's airport, before realizing it was “close to Canada.”

The journey is closer to 6 hours, but the seed had already been planted. Moving toward home was better than standing still, so Chris and Tami decided to hop in another rental car.

The couple made a beeline to Buffalo. As they drove, Tami juggled both phones in her hands, full of incoming messages from long-lost friends and even a former student offering a place to stay.

It was one of those times that social media was invaluable.

“It wasn’t just us that lived this, they lived it too, trying to get us home, wondering what our next move was,” Tami said.

“We are truly blessed to have such amazing people in our lives.”

And they’re not about to look for pity.

“We can’t say enough about how fortunate we were, we know there were people in that mess that were in a lot worse spot than we were,” Chris added. “We aren’t feeling sorry for ourselves.”

The cherry on top was a low tire pressure indicator when the couple got into their car at the Buffalo airport. They drove around looking for a gas station with an air pump in the early morning hours on Monday.

But by that point, nothing could deter them – home was near. Chris was even able to help a young lady who was struggling to top up her own tires with air.

Home now and after a few full nights of sleep, the couple said they are doing well.

Though it was a terrifying ordeal, they’re not afraid to travel again. But fully charged phones and a portable charger will always be a packing priority from now on, the Coyles said. And they'll probably throw a change of clothes into carryon baggage, too.

Talking about it has actually helped both Tami and Chris to process what happened. They met with a therapist, which was as an important part of the healing.

But what will remain with the couple is the outpouring of love they received from back home, even from Facebook friends they hadn’t spoken to in years.

“All the messages we got were so uplifting, and kept us more focused and determined on getting home. The support was amazing and kept us from crying all the time,” Chris said.

“It’s pretty special to feel the world reach out to you, and that’s what we felt.”

mstacey@postmedia.com