When fear stalked Terminal One at JFK

JFK airport evacuated after reports of shots fired
JFK airport evacuated after reports of shots fired

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Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio was at JFK when word of shots fired sent airport into chaos as travelers ran for cover
  • He and wife huddled with terrified strangers, later got stampeded by panicked mob; strikingly police offered no guidance
  • D'Antonio was flying to give talk on Trump. He says too many of us live in fear, and Trump has promoted this for his benefit

Michael D'Antonio is the author of the new book, "The Truth About Trump." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The first sign of trouble came when an emergency exit alarm began to sound. It was 10 p.m. last Sunday night at Terminal One at JFK International Airport in New York.

Minutes after the alarm began half a dozen Norwegian Air flight attendants came running toward me shouting.
    I wanted to think they were being playful and yet their movements and voices made me tense. In light of terror attacks and the elevated rhetoric around the issue of security, everyone who visits an airport these days feels more anxiety than usual.
    Michael D'Antonio
    Then the fear turned into action. First a few and then large numbers of people began running to take cover in shops and behind banks of seats. No one seemed aware of an actual problem, but with every moment fear spread and more people ran.
    The confusion became panic when people began saying flights were being diverted away from JFK. As someone shouted "Get down! Get down!" my wife and I fell to the floor and squeezed under seats. I placed my briefcase by her head and considered the chance that the books inside might stop a bullet. A pistol shot? Maybe. Rifle fire? Not likely.
    The siren continued to sound. I could hear crying. After a few minutes on the floor we looked for a more sheltered place to hide and found one in a corner, behind a screen. About a dozen people followed us to this space where we were out of view but would also be trapped, without exit, should the threat turn out to be real.
    On my right a frightened woman told me she was recovering from back surgery and we wriggled so she could get comfortable. I called 911 and gave a report. Minutes passed. A young woman in the center of our group telephoned her family and began sobbing. My wife and I held hands.
    Out in the gate area, where a hundred or more had been milling about pre-flight, bags and food were scattered amid empty seats.

    The police arrive

    Finally the first officers, guns drawn, came into view.
    As the security officers worked down the length of the terminal, checking shops and locked doors, media images of Nice, Orlando, Brussels and Paris came to mind.
    I was, and may still be, one who refuses to let the bad guys "win" by refusing to travel. But there was more than a little irony in the fact that we had come to JFK for a flight to Oslo, where I was to discuss, of all things, the fear Donald Trump's candidacy for the presidency evokes abroad. (I have written a new biography of the GOP candidate for president.)
    Now we were terrified of the kind of attack Trump says he'll prevent with strongman policies like the "extreme screening" he promises for refugees.
    Eventually it would become clear that no shooting had occurred. The incident was the product of panic, perhaps brought on by reports from people who mistook something they saw or heard.
    But I didn't know this as officers approached my group with their guns drawn, and shouted for people to raise their hands.
    Many in our group froze. It's hard to keep your wits about you when guns are pointed at you. With more urging the hands all went up. We were ordered to stay in place and the officers continued their search. No officials told us anything about what was happening. No announcements came over the public address system.
    Gradually, as more uniformed and plainclothes officers appeared, a bit of calm was restored and we emerged from our hiding place. An airline staffer at the gate who seemed overwhelmed by fear, told me that shots had been fired on the ground level of the airport. He was certain about this. A few minutes later there was once again a surge of panic. Crowds of people started running again..

    Panic and a stampede

    Although no order was given to evacuate, it became clear we should. Pushed along with the crowd we wound up outside where we stood and watched events taking place. One last wave of panic came and more running ensued. (This time it was triggered by movement inside the terminal.)
    My wife was knocked to the pavement and trampled. With help from other evacuee she got to her feet and we walked as fast and as far as we could go.
    Even as it was happening, I kept wondering about whether any real security threat had arisen. In the crowd of walkers I heard people say that they had, in fact, heard gunshots. It was agreed, by some, that attackers were going from terminal to terminal. No one in uniform had any information to share.
    Amid the chaos of crying people, flashing lights, and shouts for help, not one police officer or security official offered a single instruction to the crowd that carried us along. We comforted a few people in Transportation Security Administration uniforms. One TSA officer told us he had barricaded himself in an office.
    In the hours between 10 p.m. and midnight, thousands of us were terrified, a few of us were physically injured, and all suffered some degree of psychological trauma from what we now know was an essentially panic.
    It was mass hysteria, fear, and not attackers, that swept from terminal to terminal. Worst, in my mind, was the failure of the airline and security staff at the terminal. Never did anyone offer instructions or direct any of us to safe areas. Civilians were left to fend for themselves without a word of communication from law enforcement officers.

    Where the blame lies

    A day after the chaos at Terminal One I returned to look for our lost baggage. Scenes of the surging, panicked crowds, flashing emergency lights and the shadowy terminal walkways fresh in mind, I found that my voice shook as I spoke to Norwegian airline workers who chalked up events to "human nature" and mused about how no one was to blame.
    I disagree with the "no one to blame" assessment. I think, instead, that several discernible factors set the conditions for what happened.
    First and foremost is the mood of terror established by actual attacks elsewhere.
    Second must be the lack of training and planning by airport and security officials, who seemed to have no plan for responding to the panic.
    Third is the inflammatory talk of Mr. Trump, who has deliberately amplified anxiety and fear for his political purpose. After the attack in Brussels he said, "I'm a pretty good prognosticator. Just watch what happens over the years, it won't be pretty. We're going to get worse and worse." After Nice he reiterated this point tweeting, "When will we learn? It is only getting worse."
    Time and again Trump has suggested that refugees are streaming into the United States in great numbers and they are not properly screened. Neither claim is true. People entering the United States are screened and the refugee numbers are minuscule.

    A nation in fear

    And when others urge calm and respect for American ideals, Trump whips up anxieties and suggests policies like religious tests for foreign visitors in clear violation of the Constitution and our shared ideals. (It's noteworthy that in the midst of the chaos, when my wife was trampled, the people who helped her to her feet were members of a minority group Trump has maligned.)
    For months Trump's critics have warned that his kind of talk aids those who would have us live in fear. On Sunday night, for two hours, they were proven correct.
    I was terrified that my wife and I might be killed by an attacker who, in the end, didn't exist.
    What do I take away from this experience? I would say that too many of us are too afraid, and that our anxieties have been increased and exploited by irresponsible political rants. The Republican running for president has joined in making frightening times worse than they need be.
    And because of his repeated mistake, for one night at JFK, the terror won.