Scenes From the Terrifying, Already Forgotten JFK Airport Shooting That Wasn’t

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People wait for the reopening of the security check at JFK Airport on August 15, 2016.
Photo: Xinhua/Wang Ying

When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt’s superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun. The cascading effect was easier to figure: When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you’d run already, it was always right around you.

There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 2. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other — as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or “them,” to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos. The crowd seemed to rise up, squealing, and rush for the two small sets of double doors.

Probably there were other stampedes, some small and some large, throughout the airport, to judge by the thousands of passengers massed outside on the tarmac by about 11 p.m. — not a peaceful mass, but a panicked one. Some of them had been swept outside by police charging through the terminals with guns drawn, shouting for people to get down, show their hands, and drop their luggage, since nothing was more important than your life. Others had been on lines where TSA agents grabbed their gear and just ran, at least according to reports on Twitter. One man I talked to had darted down a jet bridge to take cover, inspiring others to follow, running and yelling. Only when he reached the end did he realize that the door was locked, and that, because there was no plane on the other side of it, he was actually suspended 20 feet or more in the air, like at the end of an unfinished bridge, with dozens or maybe even hundreds coming behind him. He’d have to smash the window, he figured, and try and open the door from the other side, then just jump. That’s when he heard the screams of the crowd storming toward him: “They’re coming this way!”

There was no “they.” There was not even a “he,” no armed person turning on a crowd. But what happened at JFK last night was, in every respect but the violence, a mass shooting. The fact that there was no attack at the center of it was both the weirdest and the scariest part — that an institution whose size and location and budget should make it a fortress, in a country that has spent 15 years focused compulsively on securing its airports, in a city with a terrifyingly competent anti-terror police unit, could be transformed into a scene of utter bedlam, stretching out from all eight terminals across the tarmac and onto the adjacent highways, by the whisper of a threat. Within minutes, the whole apparatus of the airport and its crowd-control mechanisms had collapsed into total disarray. When the thousands of us who had been racing away from shooters finally managed to catch our breath, long after midnight, the idea that the airport could ever manage a crowd, let alone a hysterical one, looked ridiculous. The fact that there had been, actually, nothing to panic about was an enormous relief, of course. But it made things all the more eerie the next morning, when we woke up feeling like survivors of a ghost trauma, a minor local-news story. For several hours, we were in the flood of panic and chaos of an ongoing act of terror. There’s no other way to describe it. That it was an overreaction almost doesn’t matter; in fact, that is how terrorism works.

By the time my flight landed, at about a quarter to eight, my wife, Risa, and I had been sitting on the plane — a Norwegian Air Dreamliner 787 from Copenhagen — for about eight hours. It was six hours later in Denmark, and seven where we’d started our trip home, which meant everyone was exhausted and everyone was irritated. Then the pilot came on the loudspeaker to say that we would be sitting on the tarmac for a while before we’d get to the gate. He couldn’t say how long it would be; some weather in the area had briefly closed the airport, he said, and while our gate was available to us, there were also a lot of planes waiting to take off between us and the Jetway, and we were going to just have to wait for them to move. It didn’t occur to anyone to wonder when and why weather had closed the airport considering we had just landed, but three PA announcements and 90 minutes later, when we finally did get to the gate, it was clear the pilot didn’t know any better, either. “You can open the doors now,” he told the flight attendants, tiredly.

The disembarking took forever. Risa and I were sitting about halfway back in coach and stood in the aisle for a good 15 minutes before we could even see anyone move. We had just gotten to the door when a woman in a yellow security jacket appeared on the jet bridge, ordering us back on the plane. She didn’t explain why, and it was hard to tell, even thinking back on it later, how much she knew — whether she was following security orders but knowingly keeping the threat from passengers or simply following a blunt command. “Per U.S. Customs,” she kept saying, but most of us seemed to treat her brusqueness as bureaucratic frustration. The flight attendants were especially aggressive. “Why?” one kept asking, over and over again. “I’m getting off,” another one said. Since we were about to disembark, we’d been shuffled into the first-class area, where the pilot was, too, cursing JFK and guessing the airport was keeping us on the plane to let the customs line shorten; he’d caught a glimpse of just how long it was through the windshield and the window of the terminal. But nobody was panicked, except maybe that security officer. The woman right in front of me complained a few times about being separated from her husband, who had left the jet bridge already with her passport. Risa and I were talking about eating, and whether we were more hungry or tired.

When they let us go, ten minutes later, the security guard stood at the door cautioning everyone to stay calm, but I figured she was chastising Risa for having cut in front of the woman without the passport. When we turned left out of the gate, though, the line was there to meet us. This wasn’t in passport control, or at the stairs leading down to it, but hundreds of yards closer, down the tiny hallway meant to bring us there. There were so many people you couldn’t see your way forward, especially with the low ceilings, or know really how far we were from the front. I thought, for a second, Shit, somebody is going to get rowdy.

I don’t know what sparked it. People could have been checking their text messages, or Twitter, where the stampede in Terminal 8 had surfaced. Or people could’ve just freaked, unprompted, on edge from months and years of terror hysteria. On September 11, there were awful miscues among the first responders, but the accounts of what it was like for those inside the building, below the planes and before the buildings collapsed, were like inspiring morality plays — orderly descent down the stairs, with people passing on the left. Fifteen years later, we know better than not to panic.

On the right of the hallway was that familiar line of people-movers, each of them stalled, when suddenly somebody realized that you could lap the line by walking down it like it was a highway shoulder in a traffic jam. Risa turned, smiled, and dashed off to take advantage. I made a show of protesting, hanging back for a second, and then followed her, but probably 50 people had swum into that lane between us in the meantime, and I couldn’t even catch sight of her to roll my eyes. Then the screaming began. I can’t remember what happened first — the flashing light of a fire alarm, the yelled warnings of a bomb and a shooter, the people turning around in a mob panic. I thought I saw smoke. I know I saw bags dropped, people falling to the floor and others stomping past them, through them, on them. Everybody was screaming. And I couldn’t find Risa. See her, really. Because there was no moving in the other direction. There was not even time or space to process what was happening, really. People were shouting about terrorism right next to me, as they ran next to me, but I wasn’t thinking about a shooter; I was just thinking, GO!

Passengers hide behind their luggage at immigration control following reports of an active shooter.
Photo: BRIGITTE DUSSEAU

The word stampede comes from the animal kingdom — gazelles running away from lions, horses running from some other threat. But there is really no other word for what happened last night at JFK, because panic turned us all into animals. And the airport, designed to contain and channel people, had never felt more like a slaughterhouse corral.

At some point, running, I turned, I think, into a cinder-block stairwell. There, the crowd was a little sparser, and you could slow down and take stock. There wasn’t anyone giving direction, but, downstairs, there were a few security guards who seemed a little more calm — they hadn’t just been through a stampede, anyway. But they also had no idea what was going on, or what to do. At the bottom of the staircase was a break room, I think for the tarmac workers who handle luggage and runway security, which meant there were maybe ten or 15 of them, in yellow vests, among the 50 or 70 passengers who had gathered there. Risa wasn’t among them. She’d been running down the hallway, she told me later, when the terminal turned and her crowd of sprinters met another crowd of sprinters, which everybody took to mean there were multiple shooters, attacking from multiple directions. Somebody called out they’d seen four of them. Soon she found herself in another stairwell, where there was one guard sobbing hysterically and screaming and another dismissing anyone who turned to him for help or leadership by yelling that he didn’t want to die tonight, either. Where I was, there was more variety: A few were responsible-seeming, measured and urging everyone to stay calm; others just yelled at us to back off; and others seemed like stoned teenagers on a summer job, excitedly shouting, “Fuck, a mass shooting!” That they wore yellow vests with the word “security” made them, to the rest of us, the face of authority. But to them, the vest was just a job uniform, enclosing another panicked person in a crisis situation.

Nobody knew anything. We’d pushed past a bunch of security and out onto the tarmac, which seemed both safer and scarier in its black openness. But all of a sudden, all the guards were urging us back inside, not because they knew of any threat out there, but because they were following another protocol: It’s illegal for civilians to be out on the tarmac, so we had to get back inside. Not that anyone bothered to explain that logic, or anything else; the best information anyone could give was “active shooter.” Probably ten different guards said that to me, and nothing more. Where were their radios, I kept wondering. Why don’t they know what to do with us, or at least what to tell us? Surely an airport like JFK would have a contingency plan for a situation like this, which would call for passengers to be taken to a particular place or dealt with in a particular way. If there is such a plan, I saw no evidence of it last night, nor any sign of meaningful or helpful lines of communication between the various parts of the airport operation or the security forces that flooded in after the first reports of gunfire. It was several hours in, after the second stampede, that I even encountered my first cop, a member of the Port Authority police; by the time I left the airport several hours later, I still hadn’t seen a single one of them address the crowd to give any kind of information or direction, and hadn’t seen a single NYPD officer. It was an event, in the end, of mass crowd hysteria, and yet, crowd control had fallen entirely to the people who scurry around on the tarmac beneath the planes, literally never encountering passengers in their work. One of them told me, later, that 500 cops were presently clearing the terminal; not a single one, at that point, had been deployed to deal with the crowd outside.

The complete breakdown was terrifyingly clear as soon as the security guards managed to stuff us back inside. The only place to go was that break room: a cinder-block bunker with one tiny door and no cell reception. It wasn’t hard to reimagine it as a perfect corral for a machine-gun killer; in fact, everyone kept imagining it, and kept telling the security guards that. In response, we were told that both entrances were sealed — the door upstairs I had come through and the one out to the tarmac — but we kept hearing those doors open and slam shut. Guards were rushing back and forth, themselves panicked, and each time any one of them made a sudden movement, the rest of us seemed to swell up, too, and surge forward for the door. Guards and passengers kept screaming at each other; if the security had been armed, a shooting wouldn’t have just been possible but likely. A mother was wailing about having been separated from her child and being told to keep calm by a yelling husband and a handful of angry guards. A Danish father with a big red beard had gathered his family behind him, like he would be a shield, and darting his head out into the hallway every so often to take stock of the threat. People were shouting about where to hide, and a woman in the back was screaming to move the soda machine to block the door; a security guard, ignoring her, walked up to it to buy a Coke.

At this point, I didn’t just believe there was a massacre of some kind unfolding, I knew it, most clearly in my legs, which didn’t stop wobbling at the knee for the 45 minutes I was in that room. I didn’t think there was an imminent threat, exactly; I hadn’t heard any shots in that first stampede, which felt like a sign that the shooter or shooters had been far away, and I had enough faith in the NYPD to think that, say, an hour later they’d have things under control. Then I kept remembering: Where was the NYPD? And where was Risa? I had no cell reception but kept sending her text messages. She was doing the same, and calling me, each call straight to voice-mail. And then my phone died. I don’t think I’ve ever been more panicked in my life. I knew it was unlikely that, in a terminal this large, a shooter would show up where I was. But of course, you also expect it has to happen to you. What could I do? I just stood there and waited for it.

Finally, by some reasoning nobody explained, the guards let us out on the tarmac again. The air was sweet with jet fuel. At first, people seemed to be sticking close to the terminal walls, maybe out of caution or maybe because all the security guards were yelling at us to stay away from the planes, whose jets were still humming over head. A few people nervously lit cigarettes, which couldn’t have been safe, and the crowd shuffled back and forth, some looking for people they’d lost in the chaos, and others following their rhythm since they didn’t have any other idea what to do. I saw our plane, noticed the jet engine had been manufactured by Rolls Royce, then looked down the line, to an Air Korea jet that had deployed its inflatable slides to let passengers off when the first reports came in. The tarmac was teeming.

As soon as I found Risa, it felt like, they were hustling us back inside saying the runway was unsafe. Was that because shooters were out there? “I really don’t want to go back into a crowded room with all these insane people,” I said. “I just want to get out of here,” Risa said. “Can we just get to the highway somehow? Or jump in the water?” she laughed. “I think they’d shoot us,” I said. Not that I knew who “they” were. I still hadn’t seen a single proper cop. We had cell reception, by that point, and Risa’s phone, but there was no real news, only word that terminals were being evacuated after reports of a shooting. It wasn’t clear how many terminals, or how many shooters.

Inside the customs room was quiet chaos. I couldn’t quite see, but it didn’t look like there were any passport agents at the desks. People were swarming toward them, though. Risa found a security guard, one of the people in maroon blazers that asks whether you’re a U.S. citizen or foreigner, and then tells you what line to go to. “Are there actually agents at those desks?” she asked. “Are they actually processing people?” The woman held up her hand to signal, “Don’t talk.” She was holding her breath and her eyes were trained at the corner of the large hall, at the top of the staircase. We turned, and saw a woman in a hijab extended her arms. Then she started yelling. The crowd erupted. I saw the family she was calling to. Risa saw a child running toward the mother in response. We didn’t think there was a threat — or anyway, that she was a threat. But the crowd was one. This time, we had a second to think, but the logic of the stampede was irrefutable: We had to get out. Risa darted to the left of the two doors and was immediately pinned against the wall, pinched up against one of those long desks for filling out paperwork. A woman just in front of her had fallen to the floor and rolled herself into a ball. Risa was urging her to get up, but I don’t think anyone else noticed her. The screaming was everywhere — more present, somehow, than the physical press of people. You can navigate bodies, even if it means barreling through them. Screams are like a tidal wave. When we got outside, there were those who dove right for the ground, those who ran to hide behind jet wheels and luggage carts, and those, like me, who just kept running, out toward the water.

Outside, this time, there were cops, rushing over with guns and taking up positions. They looked weird — not blue NYPD, but black-suited, as I remember it, with block text on the back of their bulletproof vests: FEDERAL BORDER POLICE. Like a lot of liberals, I’d spent the last couple of years more or less loathing the police, after a lifetime of feeling suspicious and uncomfortable; suddenly, I felt this desperate, yearning love for them. This is when you want the police; this is when you want to love the police. But we didn’t get police, or at any rate the police we would’ve picked. Somewhere on Twitter, it was reported that the NYPD was “assisting” the Port Authority in responding. “Assisting”? I don’t know anything about the Port Authority, really, aside from what you see casually in the news, but it seemed absurd that the people charged with protecting us were from a completely illogical organization formed decades ago out of political expedience to avoid the appearance of tax-payer funding and now operating mostly, to listen to the tabloids anyway, as a cronyism and patronage arm of the New York and New Jersey governors’ offices. Where was my fucking billion-dollar NYPD anti-terror force?

Back toward the water, away from the crowd, we looked again at the phone, which was beginning to be more reassuring, a few people retweeting what looked like statements from the Port Authority that they could not confirm an attack had even happened. A few minutes later, there was a stronger statement that they could find no evidence of a shooting — no victims, no shells. But hours later, even after I’d already seen Deadspin’s eye-rolling post that the whole fuss was caused by Usain Bolt, news outlets like the Daily Mail were promoting their stories with clickbait-y tweets like “JFK evacuated and local highways closed after reports of shooting.” All the facts in that sentence are true, and were true then, long after the Port Authority made its statement. But they were also meant to deceive, and it was hard to know, at the time, whether to take them as refutations of the reassuring news or updates lagging behind the actual timeline — or made to lag, rather. And it is easy to see why law enforcement might be reluctant to share information in real time in a situation like this, since every piece of news is, at best, provisional, and likely to be distorted by panic as it passes through a crowd into something that sounds very much like someone shouting “fire.” But in the absence of that information, and guidance, everything sounds like fire.

Or, it does for a while. After that second stampede, out on the tarmac, passengers moved in to comfort and inform each other, as best they could. Those who’ve lived through real disasters and those who study them often talk about the improvised communities of support that spring up in real time to help. But last night, in a false disaster, it took the complete passing of a threat before that variety of kindness sprang up. The Port Authority cops finally spread out into the crowd, armed with water bottles, but still not making any announcement or address. Passengers swapped stories with each other, and with the security guards, who all seemed pleased to be relieved of their duty to manage all of us, and able to offer insider wisdom like the insight that the airport would of course clean up and reopen soon because so much money was at stake — $10,000 a minute, one of them said, or was it per flight? I can’t remember. We all expected the details to be clarified in tomorrow’s papers — and the tragedies and the traumas, too. We hadn’t really gotten used to the idea that nothing real had taken place, or that what had happened to us would be judged unreal by the rest of the world. The crowd was heaving with anxiety, even then, and Risa found her way to a young teenager who was still melting down. She had been traveling with her mother, but her mother hadn’t been able to comfort her. She was 14, she said, when she finally caught her breath, from Norway, and on her first trip to New York. She was thinking about moving here, she said.