Inside the mass panic at JFK

The mass panic at JFK, for me and my boo at least, started as a Customs line from hell.

We were grounded on the tarmac for two hours after landing. The lightning storm had delayed departures, so all arriving planes had to wait for those to clear in order to get to the gates.

A stockpile of international planes dumped their passengers into Terminal 1 within the space of 15 minutes. What resulted was a Customs “line” (read: horde) that backed up through the hallways.

I took out my book, attempting to create a little zen bubble that would carry me through the next three hours in this line.

And then, the veritable sounds of a stampede reached my ears. Shouts, too.

Luckily enough, my unthinking reaction was to dive rather than run. Both my husband and I launched ourselves to a space along the wall behind chairs.

After a moment when things settled, people started calling out for the family members they were separated from. Carry-on bags, shoes, mobile phones and passports were strewn across the length of the hallway.

We get up and start moving. Then, a second wave of panic. More running. My husband and I bolt up an escalator to a gate. At this point, the adrenaline has activated my apocalypse ninja sensibilities. We look through an emergency exit door into the main terminal. People are bolting there, too.

The police arrived and directed everyone past the main Customs hall, up the stairs and into another hallway. It was incredibly surreal that hall cleared of people, with belt barriers knocked over helter skelter and personal belongings strewn everywhere.

When we’re finally led back down to go get our passports stamped and get the f*ck out, there are no Customs agents. Meanwhile, there are police along the baggage claim side preventing anyone from entering. Everyone in that hall is mad jittery.

Then “EVERYBODY DOWN!” comes from the police.

Let’s hold up a second, and make use of some hindsight. The rumored “shooting” happened in Terminal 8. We’re in Terminal 1, behind baggage claim, behind Customs. The panic didn’t “spread.” The panic was communicated. Authorities conveyed an immediate threat to hundreds of people behind three layers of immigration security — twice.

Around 7–8 officers advance from the back of the room with their guns drawn, threading through people laying on the ground. It was nothing short of cinematic.

Hearing no gunshots, we and others got up and sprinted through the emergency door and out onto to the tarmac. We were directed to walk to the other side, where hundreds turned into thousands gathered.

From this point forward, order was re-established and people were calmed down. It was a smart move to get everyone outside, rather than shuffling them from one claustrophobic corridor to the next.

We were clever in our positioning and ended being close to the front of the re-established Customs line. To our astonishment, our bags were actually waiting for us on the belt.

So, yeah, that happened. And I have some thoughts about it.

Stampedes are a thing

This was my first human stampede. Or rather my first stampede of any kind outside The Lion King. There was massive fear in that corridor. Everyone wanted to get as far away as possible from the perceived threat, rather than hide from it or wait to see exactly what it was.

I don’t know what the experts say, but I highly recommend our strategy. Get to the sides. Hide behind something more solid than yourself.

Authorities don’t necessarily know what they’re doing

At one point when we were out on the tarmac, three buses came. People crushed onto them. We eyed these buses with wary regard. Squeezing into an un-air conditioned metal box with no control over where we were going and no information about where was just not appealing. But a bigger tip-off was there were 3 buses and thousands of people outside. We knew they would have nowhere near the capacity they needed to fix this situation with that particular strategy.

By all means, follow authorities when they are confidently directing you away from danger. But try to sniff out half-baked plans that you can sense will be compromising.

American police sure know how to escalate a situation

This whole thing most likely started in a bar in Terminal 8 with people shouting “Run! Bolt! Go!” and banging on things. Given the tense situation in our world, I can understand how this thunderous Olympic expression was not understood and the joy was understood to be fear, and a threat was communicated to authorities. But things got really gnarly and scary when the guns actually did arrive… in the hands of screaming police.

It seems the police are quite well versed in intimidation, and not so much stress management, crowd management, or effective communication.

A glimpse of the future

Mind you, this whole mess of a catastrophe was exacerbated by the weather. For me this was a sampling of the coming (present?) era of climate chaos and subsequent mass displacement of people thrust into immigration limbo. Add underfunded infrastructure and millions of weapons into the mix, and you have the recipe for some truly hellacious life experiences. It’s flippin’ terrifying.