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8.5 Hours

On January 7, I woke up to my picture on Buzzfeed’s front page. How did it get there? Here’s what happened to me on January 6 at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

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2017.

We tried to stay calm in the face of chaos. Huddled under the staircase, I fixated my attention on my purple suitcase lying just outside our hiding spot.

He’ll see it. He’ll see it and he’ll know where we are. He’ll see it and he’ll kill us.

My heart thudded in chest and I tried to focus on my breathing. In and out. In and out. The woman next to me yelled at her husband to get lower, to hide better. Two young women clutched each other hands, crying quietly, whispering to each other in a language I didn’t understand. A man murmured nonsense to himself, clutched his eyes shut, prayed this wasn’t real. Everyone around me was a stranger, but suddenly we all shared something in common: in that moment, we all thought we were going to die.

2005.

When I was seven, I impressed my older cousin with my knowledge of guns. He was playing Call of Duty, mindlessly killing avatars on the screen, talking to someone on the other side through a headset. Feeling as if I were the third wheel between him and his controller, I tried to butt in, asking questions and giving suggestions about where to hide and whom to shoot next.

“Can you even name a gun?” he asked me, not intentionally rude, just a little bit annoyed.

“AK47?” I squeaked, knowing the name, from somewhere, somehow. I tugged at the hem of my grey and green Scooby Doo t-shirt nervously. My friends at school had just started lose interest with the Mystery Inc. gang, but I found myself trying to keep on solving mysteries with the talking Great Dane for as long as possible.

My cousin paused, smiled at me.

“Wow, most girls don’t know anything about guns.”

Feeling proud of myself, I rattled off more names: rifle, shotgun, Glock. I had heard them in books, movies, seen the names appear as my cousin picked out the gun for his next round of the video game. I didn’t know what they did, how they changed lives. And neither did my cousin, who at 11 years old felt completely disconnected from the action he was committing through a controller, on a screen. After all, are you really affected by murder if the person on the other side doesn’t seem real?  

2017.

When my plane landed at 1:27 pm in the Fort Lauderdale airport, at first, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It took a second for people to check their phones. Another second for the texts to pour in. Another for the web pages to load.

Then people started asking questions and panicking when they weren’t receiving any answers.

“You probably know more than me and the pilot,” the flight attendant told a passenger, who was bouncing her baby in one hand and cradling her phone in the other. “You have access to the news!”

I grabbed my tennis bag out of the overhead compartment and slung it on my back, trying to balance my cell phone and carry-on as I pulled up Safari, intent on figuring out what was going on. Finally, the flight attendant spoke up.

“There has been a report of shots fired at Fort Lauderdale airport,” she said into the speaker, “but don’t worry, we flew into the JetBlue terminal and the shots were fired at Delta. And they have caught the gunman.”

My phone lit up with texts. My parents wondering where I was, if I was okay, call them please. My aunt, unaware yet, how was my flight? Do people still clap after it lands like they did in the 80’s and 90’s? My grandparents, who were picking me up at the airport, we can’t get in, the roads are blocked off, are you okay? What’s going on?

They herded us off the plane like cattle. We followed the crowd, no one asking questions. I made my way to baggage claim. On the surface, everything was functioning as normal, but the air seemed tense and people seemed on edge. And they weren’t letting anyone in or anyone out.

2012.

I leaned back in the front seat of the car, finally relaxing for what felt like the first time in weeks. There was something about leaving school early, knowing that I was going home instead of suffering through algebra problems, that was calming. At least, freshman year, when SATs seemed a long way off and the Common Application was barely on my radar.  

My dad pulled into the driveway and called my mom to let her know we were outside. We were going to my 6-year-old sister’s school holiday concert, which was always a big deal in my rather small town. Sammy was the youngest and shyest of my siblings, but she had a solo in the concert and had practiced the single line over and over again the course of the month.

Suddenly, I noticed my dad’s expression drop.

“What is it?” I asked.

“There’s been a shooting at an elementary school,” he said, handing me the phone. I scrolled through Twitter and clicked on an article link. The shooter had committed suicide and was believed to be mentally unstable. He had killed, at that point, ten children. All between the ages of 6 and 7.   

I pictured my little sister, whose biggest act of bravery was singing a line in a holiday concert. I pictured her hiding in a closet, terrified, unaware of what was going on around her. The school in a lockdown. The gunman not thinking about her life, what she has to offer, what she could give. I felt sick.  

We drove to her elementary school and took our seats in the gymnasium. Around us, parents and grandparents sat in their seats, warily watching their kids perform. The principal stood by the door, diverting his attention between the students and the exit.

I felt small and out of control, almost guilty that I was safe and so removed from the tragedy in Connecticut. Lucky that my family was safe. Thankful that my sister and brother were young and unaware. Earlier that morning, I had stressed over what shirt to wear to school because there was a boy who I thought was cute. I decided to go with a new, blue long sleeve because “it made my eyes pop.” I don’t remember why I cared.

My sister stepped up to perform her solo.

2017.

“Go to the Cypress garage, you can get out and meet your grandparents on the other side.”

I dragged my suitcase behind me, the wheels jumping over speed bumps and cracking on twigs. I dragged my suitcase behind me, the wheels jumping over speed bumps and cracking on twigs. The Florida humidity hummed through the air and I let out a breath. I suddenly wished I was back in the swamps New Jersey with Bruce Springsteen rather than the Everglades of Florida with who Jeb Bush.  

I tried to follow the directions to the Cypress garage, but the airport attendant’s directions were pretty vague. I was surrounded by garages and could see no real way to get out, and as far as I was concerned, my grandparents were still being blocked by traffic and road blocks.

My mom called, and I talked to her on the phone as I tried to reach the other side of the garage.

“I’m fine,” I told her, “I’m meeting grandma and grandpa outside of the airport. They couldn’t get in.”

Suddenly, a woman walking in front of me screamed.

“They have their guns out!”

My head snapped up. Police officers were running ahead of me, their guns raised and on high alert. I turned around and ran, my heart pounding. My vision was blurred and body seemed to be moving on autopilot. What was going on? Was there another shooter? I hadn’t heard a shot.

I spotted the alcove under the staircase. I dropped my suitcase and dove under it, the woman, her husband, and another man following behind me.

I watched the chaos unfold around me, Police Officers and SWAT team members running in front of our hiding spot, talking rapidly into their radios.

A possible second shooter. Second floor of the Cypress garage. A man with a white shirt on.

I stared at the staircase next to us. The shooter could come down any moment. Shootings lasted, how long, 10 minutes? It felt like hours. I took a deep breath. No, we would be fine. There were trained officers all around us. We would be fine.

I grabbed my phone off the ground next to me and whipped the dirt off the screen. My mom was still on the line. I hung up and opened my text messages.

I’m fine. I love you. I hit send and closed my eyes.

2016.

It was the worst mass shooting in our country’s history. Forty-nine people at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. It was a hate crime, a tragedy, a nightmare for so many.

All we can do is pray.

I watched Florida Governor Rick Scott in disgust, stumbling through his speech about the victims of the shooting.

All we can do is pray.

That’s not true. That’s not true at all. There’s a reason why Florida has more mass shootings than any other state, and it’s not because the residents pray the least.

I flipped the channel to CNN. They were reporting on the shooting, just as everyone else was. Except instead of showing Rick Scott, they were doing an interview with Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign. He urged congress to impose stricter gun safety laws—in states like Florida, he said, they’re far too lenient.

“You don’t need a background check prior to transfer a firearm between two private parties. In Florida, they don’t regulate assault weapons or 50 caliber rifles, or large capacity ammunition magazines,” he explained.

There’s a reason why Florida has the most mass shootings.

All we can do is pray.

I felt sick as I watched him, lying back into the couch in defeat. The shooting could have been avoided, right? It seems like they can always be avoided.  I was working on a congressional campaign that summer, trying to get Josh Gottheimer elected to the fifth district in New Jersey. The incumbent Scott Garrett held an A rating by the NRA. Maybe I was helping, maybe I was making a difference. I hope I was.

All we can do is pray.

2017.

A police officer squatted in front of our hiding spot, his gun out, his radio crackling.

“You’re going to be okay,” he told us over and over again, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

I wanted to believe him. It was easier to believe him.

It felt like we were there for hours, but it could have been five minutes. Finally, the officer turned to face us.

“We’re going to move you to a safer location,” he said, “leave your bags behind. You’ll have to run fast.”

He looked at me.

“Are you with anyone?”

I shook my head.

“Okay, you’re going to run last with me.”

One by one my companions left. As the last person left, I moved towards the opening, waiting for the officer to come back for me. My heart pounded and I got ready to run.

I’m running in track meet. I’m in high school, running in a track meet. I’m not running for my life. I’m not running for my life.

The officer came back.

“Grab the back of my vest,” he told me. “Get low, and run.”

I took a deep breath. I grabbed his vest. I remembered my mom told me to “serpentine” if I ever needed run to safety in a dangerous situation. I almost laughed.

We ran.

I hid behind a van with about 100 other people. We watched the manhunt for the second gunman unfold around us. Then they moved us to baggage claim. The TVs in the airport were still on, CNN reporting what we were going through. We learned updates from them. They were sweeping the airport. There may not have been a real second shooter. They were going to try and transfer those trapped in the airport.

Eventually, they did. At 10 pm I got off of a bus and hugged my grandparents.

That night, I closed my eyes and saw the staircase. I saw the police officer. I saw the guns.

I closed my eyes and knew I was safe, but I knew the shooter was still out there. He was in custody, but he was alive.

I wonder what he saw when he closed his eyes.

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