“Shots fired, active shooter! Everyone run for safety, run!” The officers called out last night as I deplaned Lufthansa flight 0404 from Frankfurt, Germany. I was waiting for my luggage, having just cleared customs and thought to myself, “WTF did I just step into?”
I took cover behind a concrete pillar beside a female officer with her gun trained forward, she had an expected anxious look on her face. I surveyed the scene. “Were shots fired?” I thought to myself, it was so noisy it was tough to hear much but as I ran for cover it felt like getting shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan, probably in my head more than anything. Very hectic.
I looked across the passport control area to see a mother running for her life with a baby in her arms, and two older people filming the whole scene of pandemonium with their smart phones, it was crazy.
Let me rewind a bit.
I was in the first group off the plane with a business class ticket purchased with air miles. I started scanning my passport into the automated machine when the first alarm in Terminal 8 went up (I was in Terminal 1), officers said there was an active shooter loose and told us to go back into the ramp walk way area, which most everyone did rather orderly. It was too few people to cause a panic, that would come soon.
A quick assessment and I realized my phone was fully charged, and I slid my high power 1000 lumens flashlight (I always carry one, it’s not an offensive tool, purely defensive) out of my top backpack pocket. I started chatting up the security ushers (not sure what to call them but most could not speak English that well). They knew zero, nothing, they were just waiting to be told what to do from the Port Authority officers.
I scanned two exit points, one would come with a jump and I was at least comforted that I had an out if needed. I let everyone know around me about the plan and they seemed a bit relieved that there at least was somewhat of a plan in place. Other than those two exits (one exit was not suited for kids or moms since there was a drop from the gate onto the concrete ramp where normally a plane’s door would dock) there were no choices, and it was cramped quarters for 50. It would get worse soon.
Photo: passport control at Terminal 1 after the first stampede.
Thankfully a uniformed officer came back and gave us the all clear, and back down the stairs into the passport area we went.
I scanned through, went to the border control officer and was stamped back into America, welcome home, and what a welcome it would be.
While waiting for my bag all hell was about to break loose.
Note: I’m very glad I had my mobility in this situation. I had no roller bag, only my backpack, which held all my important documents, money, spare phone battery (crucial item, comms are a critical must have), light, and other expensive items. No urge to ditch my backpack, it went with me the entire episode, including over the barb wire fence, more about this later. If you have a roller in an emergency fucking abandon it, nothing is worth your life or your loved ones lives, anything in luggage can be easily replaced, you and your family cannot. I can’t stress this enough, as I actually saw people trying to grab bags and run. Crazy…
Five impatient minutes into the baggage carousel wait, at least half a dozen officers ran into the area, guns drawn, yelling “Shots fired, active shooter, everyone run! Run for your lives!” As you can guess, this didn’t encourage an orderly departure. Now, to continue where I left off in paragraph two.
As I leap frogged back using cover, it was chaos. The passport control area now had hundreds of people waiting in line and the herd broke loose and ran, they burst through the alarmed security doors and onto the airplane ramp. I ran out onto the dark tarmac and felt relief. It was instant relief, because I, we all, now had many options to escape and use cover. I was outside and went to speak with an officer to get a read on the situation. Nobody seemed to know anything and nobody was communicating anything to the passengers, which made for an even edgier situation. You could feel the electric charge of panic in the air.
Ten minutes later I tried to argue with an officer against sending people back, that was their idea, herd the people back inside and off the ramp, not good. We have a term in Special Ops, “Get the fuck off the X,” and it’s for good reason. Running back towards the threat, into a confined space with little options for exit was not good. After a heated exchange with the officer (I was the last one outside), I went inside with him (my only regret of the night), up the stairs and into chaos.
A man was crying because he was separated from his wife and children, women and men were crying, babies and kids were in tears, people were hurt from being trampled and still nobody knew what was going on, or what to do. No communication from any official staff or uniformed officer. It was complete chaos.
Note: JFK’s Port Authority needs a good active shooter response plan where passenger safety is concerned. The officers on scene acted bravely with the threat but they had no plan to deal with passenger safety, this was blaringly clear to me. No communication and plan for passengers and you have all the ingredients for mass exodus, which happened twice that night. Panicked passengers just add to their workload and the stress level of everyone. End note.
At the top of the stairs I found another exit that was open and again told everyone if something happened we’d go out these doors. No sooner than I got the words out another wave of panic induced people to charge in our direction, in what was already a crowded standing room only space. Something had to give. “Follow me!” I yelled and out we went, down the stairs which exited onto the tarmac and under the baggage area, it was the area underneath the terminal where bags are loaded up the conveyor into the baggage waiting area. A group of us ran for cover again. We stopped behind a wall, and at this point I could see the expressway and the taxi cab line of terminal one and all the onlookers. It was clear there was no immediate threat here, and I wanted to get the hell out of there, too many nervous people waving guns and no plan or communication. I was thinking of assault rifles, explosives; the officers with 9mm hand guns would be no match.
I was confident that I was in charge of my own destiny at this point. I told a group I was with that we could climb the fence and get out of the area, I pulled my black North Face rain jacket out of my pack and threw it over the razor wire and encouraged a lady to go up first, she insisted I climb so she could watch how I did it. Up and over I went, tearing my pant leg with a few minor cuts, no problem. I then coached that little lady over, she was on top and got nervous, she cut herself and looked down at me, I said, “Do it, now,” and she did. She was a survivor for sure, so proud of her for confronting her fear and overcoming it. Hopefully I can hug her one day. We helped a few more over, along with some waiting bystanders, and then some officers ran over to yell at us and broke up the mass fence exit. But, we were out and gone, off the X and I would do it all over again.
I was in Manhattan 30 minutes later.
Some things to consider for your own travel safety
Consider your mobility when traveling, travel light, win the fight (I just made that up). Put valuables in easy to carry items on your person, this way there’s no risk of you having the urge to go back or drag a roller. It will only slow you down.
Always, always carry extra phone batteries and a SIM that works. I have a US and international sim on me and the tools to swap it out, always. Communications with the outside world can give you a bigger situational awareness (Example: I reached out to a stranded friend of a friend through Twitter DM to SMS and coached her on what to do long after I had gone over the wire.
Carry a high powered flashlight, Surefire makes the best, cough up the money, the light will last you.
Have a simple plan, simpler the better, and brief your loved ones. If authorities don’t have a plan then implement yours, as I did last night. The first time you brief your plan should not be when bullets start flying.
Your plan should, at minimum, include getting away from the scene. Use cover not concealment (tables, curtains, etc) to get to a safe place. Cover stops bullets (concrete, brick, dirt) concealment does not.
My biggest realization, in the heat of the situation, was that I couldn’t help everyone, only a small group near me and this left me feeling helpless.
I hope this little bit of information helps, and you and your family are safer for it.
Brandon Webb, former Navy SEAL/CEO Force12 Media.
Later reports confirmed there was no shooter on scene, it appears the threat was called in or possible that an officer accidentally discharged a firearm which triggered the panic. If I were a terror cell, it would be one heck of a way to evaluation action and response times of all involved, and exploit weaknesses.
The good news is this can also be a valuable learning tool for the Port Authority of New York to improve on their response plan.
It was one hell of a homecoming last night!
Click HERE to read more about surviving an active shooter or terrorist attack.
Image courtesy of New York Daily News