‘Is someone coming for us?’ Inside JFK’s imaginary terror attack

This is what happens when fear of terrorism sends an American airport into meltdown

It began with people sprinting down the row of gates, away from the security checks. Suddenly no one was sitting waiting for their flight anymore – everyone was running.

I was waiting by Gate 4 in Terminal 1 of JFK, about to board my flight to London. When I saw the stampede I blindly dashed into the Alitalia business lounge.

Total panic had set in.

The lounge was empty – no one manning the desk or sitting at the tables. In the end of the lounge was a cupboard and a small group was piling in and shouting to lock the door.

Video I took on my phone, running through the lounge and into the cupboard. 

“Go, go, go, get in,” a British guy said in front of me.  I pushed the last of them in as if I was getting on a busy subway and closed the door behind us.

From that moment it was silent, apart from the sound of an alarm, beeping. My companions in the cupboard were whispering about what to do and huddling by the window which looked out on the tarmac and runways.

One guy weighed up whether we could use the ladders to climb into a hiding place above. The consensus was that the crowd had been running from a shooter. One of our group was certain he had heard a popping noise during the dash – a shot or something similar.

I wondered if I had heard the same but a distance sound in an airport terminal could be anything. Scepticism battled genuine fear.

There was a period of waiting and listening for sounds outside the door. At one point there was movement in the lounge. “What the fuck was that?” someone asked.

The man behind me said he’d locked the door by pressing the button on the handle. A young woman – his sister or girlfriend – called 911 and told the operator where we were. About 10 minutes later she called again.

Outside on the tarmac, people were filing away from the terminal building – on the face of it not a promising sign given that we were stuck in a cupboard just above them. Then they began running.

Groups of people fell to the ground, apparently instructed to do so by cops. A few extra police vans pulled in at speed, lights flashing. People took cover behind the vans. This was the height of the meltdown.

If by this point the authorities had ruled out a shooter at the airport, they hadn’t told cops outside or the crowds around them.

Every time an officer came near our window a girl nearest the glass pointed her phone torch at them and waved. Eventually one clocked us.

When people began dropping to the ground the woman called 911 again. “Is someone coming for us? … Send someone to get us. Just send someone to come get us.”

Some minutes later they did. A knock on the door and an armed officer shouting “Get your hands on the air. Keep your hands in the air.” The door opened and we walked out single file, through the lounge and then through the empty terminal.

“You can put your hands down now,” a cop said as we passed through security in the wrong direction. Outside hundreds of people were waiting in the sweltering Queens night.

Terror occurs largely in the imagination. Fear of things that don’t exist, or exist only remotely or at incredibly long odds.

Atrocities like Paris and Brussels beget non-atrocities. What happened at JFK was an attack of terror without any need for a shooter or a bomb.

As two of my friends pointed out by text as soon as they heard, panics like this achieve much of the same thing as real attacks. This is the state of fear and panic terrorists want us to be in, and – sadly, pathetically – we are in it.

Outside, people were beginning to relax. Two terminals – 1 and 8 – had been closed down, but there was no evidence of a shooter.

A French air stewardess was telling someone on the phone that a friend of hers had heard shots. “No shell cases,” replied her Air France colleague, “So what did they hear?”

A middle-aged couple from Vermont told me they had fallen to the floor during the rush. “We crawled under a bench, and stayed there for about 15 minutes,” Vincent said. His wife said most people had taken cover but a few young men were walking around, looking for members of their family.”

“The people in the bag shop just ran away – all of them,” said an elderly Englishman. “The girls who were working in the shop were laying on the floor crying,” he said, chuckling. “We can laugh now,” said someone else nearby.

In the taxi rank, a guy is shouting at someone, “Stop spreading this fucking hate”. Nearby a grey-haired American woman wearing gym pants was calming someone down. “A bit of excitement. Something to tell your grandchildren. ‘The world used to be crazy.'”