How can one man’s folly be another’s worst nightmare?
I’ve never been scared of flying. In fact, unlike most people who have a fear of flying, I look forward to it. I seldom sit down and rest; I’m always on the go. I feel guilty being idle. So, sitting on an airplane, forced to do nothing but watch in-flight entertainment or read a book is just the perfect beginning (or end) to a vacation. What I dislike about traveling is the hustle and bustle of the airport: the big crowds, the interrogative looks from customs agents, the violation of my privacy, sifting through my personal belongings—I can do without all that.
I was on my way to Fort Lauderdale airport Friday singing songs with my daughter in the car trying to keep her from falling asleep before our flight home. We were laughing and taking pictures; an ordinary day. We checked in at the self-serve kiosks. Everything was totally normal until it all of a sudden wasn’t. As our boarding passes were being printed, I heard a gun go off. Or, I thought, perhaps a car backfiring. Because, let’s be honest, my mind doesn’t go straight to guns…until Friday. I had never heard one go off in my whole life (and I hope to never hear one again). I’m not quite sure if my memory serves me correctly from here on out, but at that point in time, it felt like the whole airport was quiet. There was a moment when it felt like time stood still. And then, chaos errupted.
Everyone hit the deck. The screams, the wailing, the crying, the fear. More gun shots. I grabbed my 3-year-old daughter and we fell to the floor. I didn’t know the protocol from experience; my knowledge on what to do in these situations comes strictly from movies. Thank goodness I’ve seen a dozen or so of these terrorist movies so that I knew to stay completely still and just keep calm. I looked around and thought maybe I should crawl over to the counter and make my way behind it. I thought about it, and although it would’ve probably been the safer option, I didn’t want to put my 3-year-old daughter at risk. Or, was sitting still more risky?
My instinct as I heard the gun go off for the eighth time was to run. But, what if the shooter was right outside the door? I didn’t know where the sound was coming from, but I did know that it sounded awfully close. I kept picturing what the gunman looked like – imagining him – arm erect out in front of him, walking, shooting aimlessly, yet hitting targets. What if he walked by us? Or worst yet, toward us? I had no clue where this was going on and if it was going to stop any time soon. What if there were more of them? What if this was a planned terrorist attack? I had so many thoughts, but all of them seemed to be floating in my mind like surreal, rhetorical questions, because this wasn’t happening to us. It couldn’t be happening to us. This wasn’t our story. It couldn’t be.
People were walking into the airport, business as usual. Their faces as they walked into the airport were stunned, confused and then, as though the scene started to make sense to them, scared. I looked around and saw hundreds of people laying low, calling friends and family, crying into their husbands’ shoulders, petrified for their lives. I picked up the phone and called my dad. He had dropped us off so he couldn’t be far. I needed him to stop the car and wait. Wait until I knew what was happening. Wait until I could think more clearly. Wait. Just wait. ‘Don’t leave us here,’ I thought.
I called my husband. He immediately gave me information he had been able to find on Twitter. Smarter man than I am, I hadn’t thought to check the Internet. He said there was a gunman, and asked what terminal I was in. Terminal 2. I was asked where the gunman was and then as though I was waiting forever to read his response, those bubbles taking forever to form words. The gunman was in terminal 2. What was surreal turned very real instantly. Where was he? What was happening?
After a few back and forth conversations with my dad, mom, and husband, I was panicked and quite unsure of what I should do. I couldn’t run; the gunman could be on the loose. I looked around—my check-in area was a ghost town. People had abandoned their luggage and took cover. Where? I don’t know. Azalea was calm and having fun playing in my lap, just resting. She didn’t really know what was going on, but the scurry of the police and army men alarmed her. ‘What is that loud noise?’ she had asked when the guns went off. ‘They are playing the drums outside, fun right?’ What else could I say? I smiled, I caressed her hair, I hugged, and I kept her tucked tight between my legs. At one point she asked me where the bad guys were—I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to scare her. “There are no bad guys, my love. The police work at the airport to keep us safe.” I wish I believed that.
My husband called again. ‘Get out of there,’ he said calmly. My whole body went hot. ‘Get out of there. They are looking for a second gunman.’ I called my father. He had been circling the airport. He said he was right outside. I told him to stay still, we were coming out. I got up, grabbed my daughter and ran. We drove off and as the airport faded into the background, my heart released and I burst into tears. It’s over. We’re safe. We listened to the news in the car ride back to our apartment. Within 10 minutes of our fleeing the scene, the whole airport was on lockdown. I don’t know how my dad was able to circle the airport, but I am thankful he did.
I watched the news all that afternoon. The apprehended gunman was a 28-year-old mentally unstable man. He opened his luggage after landing from his flight from Alaska, went to the bathroom to load up, aimed his gun and shot, and shot, and shot, and shot, and shot. He killed 5 people. Five innocent people at random. Why? Who knows. Voices. ISIS. He injured nine others. He scared thousands of people. He affected thousands of people. He changed thousands of people. Why? Just because he could.
My worst nightmare was realized. Illogical, irrational fear of random violence—no longer illogical or irrational. The sound of a gun firing is loud. I didn’t know just how loud. Now I do. I never knew what a crowd of horrified strangers looked like. Petrified faces of terrified people, scared for their lives. Now I do. I don’t know if I’ll be scared at airports again. I hope I can just walk through those doors, head to a self-serve kiosk, and check in, business as usual. I’m sure the image of the scene from Friday’s events will come blazing back to my mind with uncontrollable force. But, for the sake of my child, my face will be calm. My smile will be big. I will be strong.
Unfortunately, many at that airport did not share my happy ending. Many lost a friend, a family member. Many witnessed far worse than I did. My heart goes out to them. I’m sorry for what they’ve lost. I’m sorry for what they had to live through. I wish we could have had a better yesterday, but for now let’s wish for a better tomorrow.