I grew up in a country where carrying guns is unheard of and it’s simply illegal. I only saw guns on TV or heard of them on the radio. In my head they’ve always belonged to armed forces, not individuals. The whole gun thing had been something I couldn’t really fathom. Until the 6th January 2017….
Ok, it’s untrue- I still can’t fathom this gun thing…. But on the 6th of January 2017 I had my first closer encounter with guns as I got caught up in Ft Lauderdale crisis.
I was one of the lucky ones though- nobody shot at me. Yet it was the first time that guns, or rather someone misusing a gun, directly impacted my life.
Havana airport. Nothing too exciting, just a bit nervous about my check- in process as my airlines only checked me for my flight to Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) rather than all the way to Boston and I only had less than 2 hours between the flights. First time it happened to me. Boarded the plane ok-and it appeared I got ‘upgraded’ to the seats at the front of the plane! Flight was ok, no delays. As we landed in FLL we were told we needed to wait about 10 mins for a gate allocation. I was getting a bit worried due to my connection situation, plus a guy who had been kind enough to have checked my next flight details for me on his mobile told me the flight wasn’t showing on my airline’s website! Worrying…And then we were told that the delay was caused by a gunman in Terminal 2! We got to the gate, but were told that we couldn’t deplane , although the gunman had been arrested and taken to custody- there were concerns that there might be another one. No flights were allowed to fly in or out of the airport at the moment. So there I was, waiting. Some time later I saw people being evacuated on the tarmac. I have to say, I didn’t like the idea of being there, so exposed, especially as there was no news regarding whether there was the second gunman or not. Then I saw those people on the tarmac suddenly started running, what looked like in panic, in all directions! This, understandably, caused some upset and anxiety amongst the passengers. Several minutes later the door to our aircraft opened and two police officers with big guns barged in ,pointed their guns first towards the crew members who had opened the door for them, then towards the passengers and started shouting :’ Nobody move, put your hands up, everybody keep your hands up’! I wasn’t sure for a moment whether it was a joke, a film or what…Definitely not a reality as I know it: never in my life had I had a gun pointed towards me. But I slowly raised my hands up, feeling as if someone was totally taking the mick out of me. Then they shouted ;’Ok, you’re safe’ and they told the crew to keep the door shut. After they left, a lot of passengers started to cry and panic. Three women sitting behind me appeared very anxious and cried. I turned to them. I checked how they were doing- they said they were scared. At that point we heard about 5 people dead, 8 wounded, with a potential second gunman running around .One of the women asked if I was scared -I said I was ok. I felt surprisingly really calm. Really. I noticed I don’t panic in difficult situations. And I think it’s good- at least it was then. I didn’t want to sound what could have been potentially perceived as arrogant , but I wanted to be truthful to how I felt and said:
‘No, I’m not. And I’ll tell you why. I think we’re in the safest place possible now. We’re not at the terminal, we’re not exposed on the tarmac. We’re on this plane, the door is closed- it must be considered a safe place as they evacuated people from the terminal and let them come on board.”
I don’t remember my exact words and what else I said after that. I turned around again and sat in my seat. And…I meditated. I had pictures appearing in my mind, questions raised and feelings to observe.
‘What is someone started shooting at our plane now?”
‘ Can bullets go through a plane wall?” “They can probably go through a plane window”.
“What if the next person with a gun that barges through the plane door isn’t a police officer but a gunman wanting to shoot people randomly?”
I realised that there was nothing I could do about it though. I was stuck on the plane, I couldn’t go anywhere, I was trapped for I don’t know how long. So…I accepted. I even accepted the fact , no matter how rational or irrational it was at that time, that someone can just shoot me dead today. I couldn’t do anything about it. And I was amazed how calm and accepting I was.
When I arised from my meditation , I also realised that I couldn’t contact my brother as I couldn’t connect to the airport wifi and I was aware that time was ticking and he would be worried – if he was watching TV or something. But again, I couldn’t do anything about it and had to accept that he may potentially be very worried now. However, hours later , Customs and Border Protection offices entered the plane and announced something in Spanish. I was waiting for announcement in English , but no, there was none! They just left. But I could understand some and , looking around the plane and seeing people getting their bags ready, I was now sure it was time to leave the plane. It was around 4.45 pm and by then I’d kissed my flight to Boston good bye – actually I did long time ago ( my plan landed around 1.30 pm)
So I took my suitcase – was so glad I only had a hand luggage with me! – and left the plane. As I left, my priority was to contact my brother. Luckily I managed to connect to wifi and, ignoring all the ‘No mobile phones ‘ signs , I rang my brother. As I was listening to the ringing tone, I noticed I started shaking a little bit and I had the realisation that I was no longer on the plane, but stepped out on the terminal , I didn’t feel so safe anymore. Logic was telling me I was ok as CBP wouldn’t have let people out , but at that point my body was reacting differently. My brother picked up the phone and very cheerfully (!) said ‘Hi, so you landed? I’d be leaving in about ten minutes to pick you up!’. I was stunned. And speechless for a short moment. Then I said: ‘ Hmmmmmm…I’m in Ft Lauderdale. Didn’t you hear what’d happened?’ . And he said ‘no. I was busy, didn’t put TV on.” I felt relieved that he hadn’t got a clue! I brought him up to speed. I noticed that as I was telling him the story, my voice started trembling and I felt rather emotional and close to crying. I believe the emotions caught up with me. I didn’t cry though as I couldn’t afford to do it at that point- I felt it would be a long night for me, I needed to stay calm and collected.
As I was talking to my brother on the phone, there were further announcements via speakers about no rooms being available anywhere downstairs at the moment, so we would be processed and kept upstairs for the time being. Few moments later there was another announcement :
“ Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic and remain where you are- in about 5 minutes there will be controlled explosion of suspected package. Please remain where you are.”
The plot was getting thicker and thicker. I updated my brother and told him that he could forget about me coming over tonight and that I’d keep him posted as things were developing from here.
And then I was just waiting for another couple of hours or so with hundreds of passengers, went through all the checks and then were sent to a room to leave ALL my belongings and then told to go outside the terminal where I joined I don’t know how many people out there.
We were cordoned off by police and/or army (?) , so no one could go on the other side of the street at that point. I was looking at them and I felt more and more aware of the fact they all had guns. Big ones. I felt fear that I was outside and I felt that struggle inside me between ‘I’m exposed, I’m an easy target and I’m feeling vulnerable!’ vs. ‘You’re safe- if you weren’t they wouldn’t have let you go outside. They have guns, they’ll protect you.’ Guns. I looked at them a lot from a very short distance. I felt uneasy. I was thinking that if I were to piss those uniformed people off (which, of course , I wasn’t going to do!) , they could easily shoot me dead (which, of course, was a stupid thing to think as their job was to protect me!). But that was my thought process in that still surreal situation.
After few more hours outside, when we were finally allowed to go inside the terminal and collect our belongings, I faced few more hours of waiting to get on buses, which were to take us all from the terminal to Port Everglade. As I had no clue what it was , I spoke with some officials and I understood that it was in the ‘middle of nowhere’ , but I could take a taxi from there to a hotel. That wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but I thought” ‘Ok, I know the lingo, I have some $$$ in my pocket and a credit card, I’ll manage’. So I waited. And waited. Then waited a bit more. And it was pushing midnight where it really hit me: ‘I’ll be in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, in a city I don’t know , in a country where people can have GUNS’! That was the moment when the whole relationship between guns and killing people actually sunk in! I decided I’d do everything NOT to leave the airport! I didn’t know how, but I was determined I wasn’t leaving. I was properly scared. For me at that time probability of being shot in the middle of the night in a city I didn’t know in a country that allowed carrying guns, was rather high!
Looking at all of it now, it’s easy to just say I was stupid and naive and I wasn’t even in direct danger- yeah, maybe. But then, when emotions were running high, when just few mere hours before somebody took lives of 5 innocent people with a gun he had been allowed to have, things were looking different to me.
I was lucky. The authorities, who seemed to have been changing their minds as time progressed, allowed us to stay inside the terminal! I found myself a lovely piece of floor just in front of my airline’s counters, so I could start sorting out my flight out of there first thing in the morning, and I had few hours sleep, using my hand luggage as a pillow.
I was lucky and although I never flew to Boston, I managed to get a flight to New York some 43 hours later instead. I spent those hours out of the terminal with some of the kindest, helpful and amazing people I’ve met in my life. I met some more in NY too, after my brother, sister-in-law and little nephew picked me up from La Guardia.
I was lucky that the only people who had pointed their guns at me where CBS officers.
And I am lucky I live in a country, where carrying guns is illegal.
I still can’t wrapped my brain around the fact that people can carry guns . I just simply don’t get it. But it scares me when I hear about tragedies such as San Bernardino, Orlando or the latest Las Vegas. My heart goes to all victims and their families.
It scares me that guns are legal and easily available to (almost) anyone. I don’t live in America and I don’t know all the ins and outs in relation to guns and gun laws, but I’m glad to hear that people seem to have now started asking questions and wanting to talk about gun control more.
I like travelling to America a lot and I so look forward to my next trip in just few weeks time. My family and my best friend live there and I always cherish my time in this great country. But now I’m very aware of the fact that people are allowed to carry guns there.
Here are some links to talks, articles and snippets of TV shows I’ve come across recently:
The Guardian: 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days: America’s gun crisis – in one chart
Jimmy Kimmel on Mass shooting in Las Vegas
Trevor Noah: It’s Time To Start Talking About Gun Control
Dan Gross: Why gun violence can’t be our new normal
Peter Van Uhm: Why I chose a gun
Dr. Gary Slutkin: Let’s treat violence like a contagious disease