Fear and Loathing in JFK Airport

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Running for your life is the most terrifying state of being you can ever experience.  Trust me, I know.  

High off of successful summer internships, Amy Chen (WG’17) and I were in Terminal 1 of JFK International Airport on August 14, 2016, waiting to board our flight to Copenhagen.  Like many Wharton MBA students, our quest to maximize travel during our two years of unemployment had led us to pass through JFK so often that we had become lulled into a sense of comfort with the place.  That is why, sitting alone near gate 7 that night after Amy had gone to look out a nearby window, my brain had trouble processing what I saw –  a stampede, one thousand people deep, heading towards me like a roaring train.   

Fear really is blinding.  There was only one thing that could make people run, en masse with panic plastered on their faces, through an airport – an active shooter.  I can’t remember seeing what others around me did after we saw the stampede. I just ran – like a chicken with its head cut off – first ducking under a set of chairs, then into the alcove leading down a gate ramp. Finally, when my synapses started firing correctly, out a nearby emergency exit and onto the tarmac, along with hundreds of terrified passengers and security agents that had chosen the same route.  

There was mass panic on a level that was previously unfathomable to me and I spent the next three hours running and hiding from what I was now sure were multiple gunmen, as more and more hearsay from TSA agents hit my ears.  People had reverted to their most animalistic instincts – shoving and climbing over others in their bid to escape anything that sounded like a gunshot and after getting caught in a second, even more brutal stampede I found myself sitting on an “evacuation” bus at the edge of the tarmac.  Children were separated from parents, a woman fainted from a panic attack, a young solo traveler was crying in my lap, and several people, including myself and Amy, were either bleeding or sporting tennis ball-sized, beet-red bruises from being trampled.  And that was just our bus of 70 or so people.  

Long story, somewhat shorter – over the next 5 hours and after much confusion, we were directed back to the airport and began draining process of reclaiming our wallets, passports, and baggage in the middle of the night.  Security refused to answer anyone’s questions, and it was only through social media that we slowly came to the realization that the entire, terrifying ordeal was caused by rumors.  There never was a shooter, but for most, that knowledge isn’t enough to erase the trauma endured that night.

In the week following this incident, as I had time to process my experience, I found myself filled with anger.  56 million people pass through JFK Airport every year, and the airport has a supposed $100 million security budget, but after what I saw, I am convinced JFK is completely unprepared to protect its customers from either self-induced panic or actual terrorism.  Why didn’t I see a single police officer until an hour into the ordeal? Why was airport security ushering people into enclosed terminal spaces at the same time officers were yelling at us to duck and run outside?  Why did tarmac employees initially bar emergency exits when there was a horde of people screaming for their lives on the other side?  Either JFK simply doesn’t have a protocol for mass evacuation (as many media outlets put it – passengers “self-evacuated” – now there’s a euphemism for stampede), or airport employees failed to follow the protocol.  Frankly, I don’t know which scenario is worse, but I do know that JFK was extremely lucky the stampedes didn’t result in any deaths like those that have occurred during Black Friday stampedes.

Judging by identical incidents in Florida Mall in Orlando, Twelve Oaks Mall in Michigan, and Los Angeles International Airport in the weeks following the JFK incident, it seems that American paranoia surrounding terrorism and gun violence has reached a head and it isn’t impossible that others at Wharton may find themselves in a similar situation.  If you do, please remember these crucial learnings from Amy’s and my experiences because they may save your life: 1) wear running shoes when going to high-target, crowded, and enclosed spaces, 2) keep your wallet, passport, and cellphone on your person at all times, but leave your luggage behind if you have to flee, 3) against instinct, don’t hide under a chair or in a corner because that isn’t going to protect you from getting trampled or from a bullet – run out the nearest exit and keep running.

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