Phantom gunshots, real terror: Notes on two recent incidents in the land of the free, home of the armed (and fearful)

August 18, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 18, 2016

In Tuesday’s edition of Cheeps and Chirps, I included a tweet from Saturday that shared a breaking news alert:

This was one of the lead news stories in the Triangle on Saturday, but what I didn’t realize when I was preparing the blog post was that police have yet to find any evidence that a gun was actually fired at the mall that afternoon. I deleted it from the post once I understood that there had evidently not been any kind of shooting whatsoever. Authorities are continuing to investigate the reason why shoppers thought that a firearm had been discharged, a misperception that provoked a stampede that left several people injured.

It seems to be an open question as to exactly how many people got hurt during the mall evacuation. The above-linked story from local TV station WRAL reported 21 injuries, with 12 people taken to local hospitals, according to local Emergency Medical Services. In this article from the News & Observer in Raleigh, where the mall is located, the city police chief reported eight minor injuries. But this story from WTVD, another local TV station, states that police reported nine people going to the hospital.

What isn’t in dispute is that something spooked somebody, and the crowd reacted in a perfectly logical way for a crowd to do in a country that can barely be bothered to restrict access to powerful firearms — it dashed for the exits in a desperate bid to find safety and avoid becoming a casualty, like the 49 patrons at Pulse nightclub in Orlando or the five police officers in Dallas.

About 31 hours after a loud sound incited panic at the Raleigh mall, something very similar happened at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Here, there’s less mystery as to what sparked the — again false — reports of a shooter: Apparently the sound of onlookers clapping and cheering for Usain Bolt’s third-straight Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter dash prompted people in the terminal to believe a gunman was attacking. Again, who can blame someone for making that kind of mistake?

Summarized this way, such incidents seem harmless — amusing, even. But when you read David Wallace-Wells’s account of being caught in a stampede after arriving on a six-hour flight from Denmark, the event sounds utterly terrifying. At one point, after being separated from his wife, he found himself on the airport tarmac, where he saw no signs that anyone had any control of the situation:

The complete breakdown was terrifyingly clear as soon as the security guards managed to stuff us back inside. The only place to go was [a] break room: a cinder-block bunker with one tiny door and no cell reception. It wasn’t hard to reimagine it as a perfect corral for a machine-gun killer; in fact, everyone kept imagining it, and kept telling the security guards that. In response, we were told that both entrances were sealed — the door upstairs I had come through and the one out to the tarmac — but we kept hearing those doors open and slam shut. Guards were rushing back and forth, themselves panicked, and each time any one of them made a sudden movement, the rest of us seemed to swell up, too, and surge forward for the door. Guards and passengers kept screaming at each other; if the security had been armed, a shooting wouldn’t have just been possible but likely.

Wallace-Wells kept sending text messages to his wife in a futile attempt to reach her. Eventually, his cell phone died, and he wrote, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more panicked in my life.”

(This kind of situation shows why you should always have one or two phone numbers committed to memory — so you can borrow a phone, or use a pay phone, to make contact through a relative or mutual friend.)

The scene was just as disturbing inside the Crabtree Valley Mall Saturday afternoon, where the floors began shaking as shoppers suddenly headed for the exits en masse. “I was totally caught off guard, though, and I’m a foreign combat Marine,” one eyewitness told a reporter. “I mean I know something about being under pressure, but when something like that rolls up on you I had no idea. My impression was the shooter was right behind these people, the way they were running.”

I don’t really have a lot to say about these incidents, other than to state that I’m thankful no one was seriously hurt. But they made me think about the fact that my Parental Unit, who’s over the age of 70, hates traveling.

Even though there are people P.U. knows and loves at both ends of the flight, it’s not hard to understand why my parent would be a little fearful. If you get caught in a crisis situation, even one where there isn’t an actual gunman running around with malign intent, it’s all too easy to get badly hurt when people start stampeding.

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