caution

My flight landed in the Ft. Lauderdale airport shortly after the shooter was in custody. The impact of the violence continued.

The Descent: The pilot announced beginning the plane’s descent, and the woman diagonally across the aisle asked the flight attendant about “the shooting.” The flight attendant answered, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” and on her laptop she showed him the live footage of a local news station reporting there was a shooter at the airport. I could read the scrolling text, and soon other passengers called out the unfolding news as they read from their phones the texts from family and friends alerting them of the violence erupting on the ground. There was a short cycle of cacophony as voices and devices repeated the announcements about an active shooter, followed by a dampened silence with the first reports of casualties. The cockpit confirmed our arrival, due to proximity and fuel levels, and informed us that we would remain in the plane until the situation was resolved. In the airport itself, chaos erupted and hundreds of people fled unto the runways and out of the terminals.

From the Miami Herald: “The police were already tallying the afternoon’s human damage. All five of the fatalities – 69-year-old Mary Louise Amzibel of Dover, Del.; 70-year-old Shirley Wells Timmons of Senecaville, Ohio; 57-year-old Michael John Oehme of Council Bluffs, Iowa; 84-year-old Olga M. Woltering of Marietta, Ga., and 62-year-old Terry Michael Andres of Virginia Beach, Va. – were tourists who had come to Fort Lauderdale for cruises.” I sought your names amidst the national scandals and controversies of the week that followed, and I offer my condolences to your families facing unimagined loss and grief. How quickly this latest gun violence vanished from our news.

On the Plane: After a smooth landing on the sunny tarmac, I managed to text my boyfriend’s mother about the situation. I was relieved to make contact, grateful that we’d arranged to text when I arrived in the airport, and aware that a different plan would have placed her in the terminal. I’d almost booked a slightly earlier flight, which would have placed both of us in the airport as the crisis broke. My cell phone signal was spotty, and my battery low, but I felt reasonably protected in the plane. Through the windows, the airport was eerily still and empty. The plane passengers exhibited a combination of chatting, listening to devices (now out loud and not on headphones), and every once and a while a nearby passenger would answer his or her phone, sometimes with a weepy edge in their voice as loved ones connected from afar. For the most part, we remained in our seats, with only occasional updates from the pilot.

As the sun set, maybe four hours after we arrived, with rumors of a second shooter and news mostly from a friend sharing what she could find on Twitter, the plane cabin lit up with the flashing red lights of the police cars parked as a barrier. A fellow passenger, blond wavy hair pulled up in a loose knot, took over the hospitality area and distributed the remaining snacks and water. Her calm demeanor helped reduce the complaints as she took care of a flight full of concerned people. Later, a service vehicle came and emptied the contents of the lavatories. An ambulance arrived and the boarding door was open to let in EMT’s to care for two diabetic passengers affected by the hours and lack of food. One returned shortly after, wanting to be returned to her family, and the other was taken away. Mostly, we waited.

Leaving the Airport: Six hours after the plane landed, we disembarked the plane and into the terminal; the area was filled with belongings scattered across the spaces where others fled for their lives. Laptops left on tables, suitcases knocked over in the fearful escape, meals left unfinished on café tables, coats and phones and purses strewn across the floor and overturned furniture. Military officers lined the hallways calling out, “Do not take photos! This is a crime scene.”

Down in the baggage claim, not the one where the shooting took place, hundreds of passengers wandered without real instruction surrounded by officers with assault rifles. I knew this was only a transitory passage, and so I asked the officer behind a “help desk” what was the next step. “Where do we go?” I asked. Redirected upstairs, I stepped out into the humid Florida night, where more than a thousand others waited for the evacuation buses. With a phone battery nearly dead, I feared being lost without any way of contacting my boyfriend. I wrote his phone number in my journal so that even without access to my contact list I could still reach him whenever access to a phone might be provided. I tried to think clearly about the steps ahead.

Alongside those of us released from planes, most dragging luggage besides them, were hundreds of others without their belongings. The airport announcements repeated that no one could return to the terminals to retrieve lost belongings, the abandoned items left in the chaos of the afternoon, the personal items discarded as they fled out onto the tarmac, and into the fields; you watched the footage of their escapes throughout the day, and we did, too, from the relative safety of the grounded planes, as the long afternoon stretched forward. Late into the evening the announcements claimed that instructions would be provided later regarding the procedures to regain suitcases and personal items left behind. Apparently it was more than 20,000 pieces of baggage and personal items left in the airport during the crisis.

I felt tears rising as I gazed out across the crowd, the reality of being alone, and fearing the potential for further conflict or panicked evacuees and armed officers shouting orders. I felt vulnerable, especially as a queer person, and yet also aware of the privilege of my body and gender. I knew I was slipping into a dazed shock, so despite my nearly drained phone battery, I wrote an update on my Facebook page, and the act of naming and witnessing the unfolding situation helped anchor me in the uncertain transition. I took pictures of what looked like a scene from a dystopian science fiction movie. I saw in that brief moment that my friends knew I was alright, and it helped me stay focused amidst the insanity of the circumstances.

When the busses arrive, the crowd surged forward, anxious to get away from being hostage to the violence. There was immediate relief that my bus included USB ports, and so with phones charging, we headed towards the cruise ship port near the airport. Later I would read that 10,000 passengers were bused from the airport in the aftermath of the shooting. There were no further instructions; no official explanations of where we were going, how to meet up with our family members, or how to get transportation to hotels or other arrival destinations. Almost an hour later, the buses stalled amidst the shut down highways, trapped in the gridlock of arriving cars and shuttles trying to pick-up rerouted passengers. The majority of the bus passengers got off the buses, and so I did as well, and joined hundreds of evacuees walking along the edges of the cruise ship docks uncertain of where to go.

Found: I found my boyfriend on the other side of a long fence. He was standing by the car looking for me in the crowd, and I took his hand through the chain link fence, so relieved to be found, to be together. I wanted to just be held and cry, to release the fear and the holding myself together over the hours of the challenging day. Twelve hours after my plane left Baltimore, I made my way around the fence that separated us, and reunited with my loved one. Together we headed away from the confusion and fear, the streets still filled with others seeking their delayed arrivals. I felt exhausted and grateful, both lost and found.

On the Ground: Over the short weekend, we walked on the beach with a stormy sky and the wind providing a deep cleansing from the challenging journey. I stood in the warm waters of the ocean lapping at my feet. The beauty of the varied landscapes provided an easy engagement and intimate reminders of the present joys. The time together with my boyfriend and his family, as well as a visit with a mutual friend from the retreat at which we’d met during the summer, all took on additional weight and importance in the undertow of waves from the crisis I only narrowly encountered. I was grateful for the strong winds and the walks we shared out in the beauty of the water edges, some wild and some more human-maintained, but there was definitely some residual inner processing at work behind my eyes.

The Way Home: Two nights after the attack, I was back in the incredibly overpacked terminal. The airport was tense, but surprisingly not as militarized as I feared. Security was extra slow and thorough, yet we’d been reminded steadily that the shooter had “done nothing illegal until he started firing.”

The kind words and care expressed throughout my hard arrival into, and my return from, the Fort Lauderdale airport on that tragic day touched the aching places revealed. To be so close to the violence and loss and fear a strong lesson in the impermanence and uncertainty we all face. Held tightly in love’s embrace, a salve, but also in the knowledge that others did not return with their loved ones from the Fort Lauderdale airport as I did, a potent reminder.

Advertisements