Ten-year-old Courtney Gelinas had just returned from a Caribbean cruise with her family and was waiting to board a flight home when police say Esteban Santiago began firing his handgun at travelers near the baggage claim, CNN reported.
Courtney and her family were caught up in the chaos that ensued.
“A rush of people screaming for their lives came rushing like a tsunami toward us,” Courtney’s mother, Kim Lariviere, told CNN. “We threw our children underneath the seats and laid on top of them.”
As soon as it was safe to do so, Lariviere rushed out of the airport with her children. The family ultimately crawled through a hole in a runway fence and hid in a rental car building with 50 other families until it was safe to come out, CNN reported.
But in the midst of the terror, Courtney lost track of her beloved bear, Rufus. The girl’s grandfather had given the teddy bear to her when she was an infant and died soon after, Lariviere told Today, and the bear had been Courtney’s constant companion ever since.
“My daughter has never slept a night without him,” she said. “Every flight, every water park, camping, slumber parties, everything. He is irreplaceable.”
Courtney was devastated to learn that Rufus was gone. She hadn’t been able to sleep well without him, shedding countless tears over his loss. The family had experienced enough trauma, and Lariviere was determined to reunite her daughter with her bear.
“This bear is part of our family,” she told CNN.
After dozens of fruitless calls to the airport’s lost and found, Lariviere took to social media, tweeting a picture of Rufus in a red hoodie with the message, “Looking for Rufus from Terminal2 D8. Crying daughter cannot sleep.”
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office retweeted the picture, hoping to spread the word and intensify the search for the lost bear. Finally, after nearly a week away from his girl, Rufus was found on Tuesday.
Airport employees spotted him in a hangar where the nearly 20,000 items left behind the day of the shooting were being held, Today reported. Courtney and her mother rushed to the airport to pick him up and bring him home.
“It feels super good,” Courtney told CNN. “Thank you.”
The family has been stranded in Fort Lauderdale since the shooting, and hopes to make it home to Ontario, Canada, soon. While Courtney and Rufus are back together where they belong, the family will bear the scars of the tragedy that took five lives.
“I don’t think we’re going to feel normal for a while,” Lariviere told CNN.