Sunday, November 21, 2021

For those who were there, the Atlanta airport will never be the same again

The official word is an “accidental discharge”. We – those of us who were in the terminal when everything happened – did not know that. Instead, we knew panic and terror. I’m writing this for two reasons – to get it out of my head and to avoid having to tell it again to everyone I see over the holidays. Apologies for any spelling or grammar errors. This is a bit stream-of-consciousness.

My son was coming home from Virginia Tech for Thanksgiving and we were very excited. Rather than taking the train to the Atlanta airport, I decided to drive, thinking that traffic would be ok on a Saturday afternoon and it would get me to him faster. Unfortunately, traffic was terrible. His flight was scheduled to land at 1:30. I was barely going to make that, but I knew it would take a little while for him to disembark and get to me in the terminal. I was worried about how long it was going to take us to get home in traffic. I did not know that traffic would quickly be the least of my worries.

If you aren’t familiar with the Atlanta airport (at least with the part that requires you to do more than just connect there), the terminal has a big atrium in the middle. On either side are the North and South terminals with ticket counters and baggage claims. On the West end of the atrium are the escalators that come up from the Plane Train below, bringing passengers out of the secure area and into the terminal. At the far West end is a MARTA train station and the exit to rental car shuttles. On the East end is security and the entrance to the rest of the airport.

I – along with most – always wait at the top of the escalators to meet people coming in. That way we can find each other as quickly as possible before heading into the crowds exiting the airport.

The top text below to my son was sent at 1:23pm. The second one was sent one minute later, at 1:24.


Just as I arrived at the top of the escalators, a crowd came running out of the atrium, past us, and towards the exit. We didn’t know what was going on. Mostly it was a blur. I remember a middle-aged African American woman with her purse flying behind her and her facemask hanging from one ear. She was panicked. 

Someone yelled, “Gunshots”. People started screaming. People around me hit the floor. Some turned and ran. I was standing next to a pillar and ducked behind it, convinced this wasn’t really happening and someone was overreacting. That was probably because I hadn’t heard any gunshots. I suspect I would have been panicking, too, if I’d heard them.

Standing behind the pillar with a man and his daughter pressed against me as they tried to hide, I texted my son. It had seemed to last forever, but the texts show it all happened in a minute. The following texts were all sent a 1:25pm as I hid behind a pillar, listening for any evidence of what was going on, listening to people sobbing around me and one woman crying that she could not find her son.


A few moments that lasted hours in my memory later, someone in uniform – police or security – strode through and said the scariest words I never want to hear again live. “Active Shooter. You need to evacuate.”

We did. Everyone ran for the exits. I didn’t run because I was still trying to text my son and make sure he was ok. And because my brain still could not acknowledge that this was a serious situation. And because I was taking time to duck behind every kiosk and pillar on the way to the exits. And because I stopped a couple who were just coming into the airport to tell them to turn around.

We got to the exits and stopped, again waiting to hear what was going on. Curious, terrified, and unsure of where we should be. Slowly, we moved outside – someone may have told us to go out, or maybe we all just decided that was the place to be. We were on the South side of the Marta station, which had also been cleared out.

Suddenly a crowd came running around the other (North) side of the MARTA station, frightened and yelling “he’s coming!”. We all turned and ran back into the airport. I turned left into the MARTA station and went into the perpetual construction area just to the left inside the doors, where I was joined by a young woman in a Chick-fil-A uniform, a middle-aged woman who was having trouble breathing, and a few others. 

This was the only time that I almost succumbed to panic. Suddenly everything seemed way too real. We were protected from the left and right, but if anyone came into the station, we were trapped. I could feel the panic rising and had to stop, force myself to breath, and tell myself that panic is contagious, the people around me needed me to be calm, and most importantly I had a son waiting for me somewhere in the airport.

One of the unsung heroes of the day was the young Chick-fil-A employee. I wish I could remember her name. She told it to us, but it was lost in the fog of the day. She walked over to the woman who was having trouble breathing, introduced herself, and asked the woman for her name. The woman was breaking down – she was petrified, was exhausted from running, and had no family or friends around her. The Chick-fil-A employee, without hesitation, embraced her, stroked her back, let her cry, and told her that everything would be ok. It was an incredible act by a young person for a stranger. I suspect similar acts happened all over the airport that day, but this one will live with me forever.

Eventually, the Chick-fil-A heroine stuck her head out, saw someone in uniform, and asked what we should do. We were told to go back outside and wait, which seemed like a bad idea since we’d just run away from there. But we did, and we joined a crowd of people gathered at the doors outside. At that point, I lost track of her. I wish I’d had the chance to tell her how impressed I was with her actions.

When I left the house that afternoon, I put on my short-sleeve “Virginia Tech Dad” shirt to greet my son, my wife protested that it was way too cold outside for short sleeves, but I wasn’t going to be outside very long – just long enough to go from the parking lot to the airport. Plans had now changed.

We all huddled in the alcove just outside the doors, trying to look inside and figure out what was happening. Police sirens were going off all over, but we didn’t hear anything threatening. In retrospect, gathering around a set of glass doors when there was a suspected gunman probably wasn’t the smartest action. But – again – our brains had trouble believing any of it was actually happening. An airport employee did eventually move us across the street to the much colder waiting area where we jockeyed for positions that were in the sunlight to keep warm.

All of that seemed to take hours. It was just over 20 minutes. The following text exchange is marked at 1:48pm. My son was safe – that was all that really mattered. He spent the next few hours packed into crowds in the walkways below the terminals, petting dogs that passengers had let out of their carriers, looking at the African art and the rainforest decorations as crowds grew more and more dense. No one was telling them what was going on, just that the trains weren’t running, and no one could go into the terminal. He saw emergency lights, but all of the information that people had was coming from social media and family up above.


For the next few hours, I got to meet some remarkable people. Everyone was friendly; no one wanted to be the person that brought panic back. Everyone was encouraging and smiling as much as they could.

  • The homeless man who had been riding up and down on MARTA had been kicked out of the airport station. He started by asking for money to get something to eat, but I noted that there was no place to get food while we were stuck outside. He laughed and agreed and struck up a conversation with several of us. He started giving advice to out-of-towners on how to use MARTA, which stations to use to get where they needed to be, and general Atlanta information. I was impressed. When they finally let us back in, I slipped him some money and thanked him for being such a great ambassador for the city.
  • The New Yorker next to me was supposed to be meeting his daughter, who was driving in from New Orleans so they could drive up to the northeast together. He did not want her to come to the airport (traffic was bad and getting worse), so he was trying to figure out where to have her meet him. Between the homeless man and me, we got them set up to meet at Doraville station.
  • The airport worker next to us was supposed to be on the clock and decided that they were definitely going to have to pay her for the time she spent outside the airport. By the time we got in, she was convinced they owed her a week’s pay.
  • The man and his daughter I talked to as we crossed the street were talking to a relative stuck on a plane on the tarmac. A relative who was visiting Atlanta for the first time – and flying on a plane for the first time. They were trying to keep her calm and tell her that this was not normal. I can’t imagine the conversation they’ll have when she has to take a flight home.
  • The young Japanese student who walked up and tried to get into the airport was stopped by the crowd who told him there was an active shooter – a word that was not in his English vocabulary. However, the universal pantomime of a gun convinced him not to go in.
  • So many others of all ages, races, jobs, states, and countries that started telling each other stories. Stories of where they had been, of their relatives stuck inside, of what they were hearing from other sources. Sharing videos from social media of what the security area looked like. Speculating on what was taking so long. And all of us keeping each other calm and encouraged.

At 2pm, after what seemed like days of waiting, the airport Tweeted that there was not an active shooter. That it had been an “accidental discharge” and that there was no danger. (It seems this might have been wishful thinking now that we’re hearing that the gun owner ran out HOLDING HIS GUN.) The news quickly spread through the crowd. 

Since I’d put something on Twitter about being at the airport, I replied that we were all still stuck outside – intending only my meager list of followers to care (if even they did). Instead, it got picked up by a reporter for Business Insider, who started DM’ing me with questions. I’m not a reporter, but I do occasionally rely on sources in my business, and I hate it when they don’t respond. Plus, I didn’t have anything else to do. She eventually quoted me in her story. You can read it here if you sign up for their newsletter: All of the folks that followed me on Twitter as a result are going to be sorely disappointed with my content going forward.

Around 3pm, a loud voice told us to go back into the airport, and the rush began. Then stopped just a quickly as security inside told us to come back out. We were given the “10 minutes more” signal.

At 3:15pm, the doors reopened. This time I hung back to let the crowd rush by. I eventually got back to where I’d started the day, but it all looked very different to me now. Over there was the pillar I’d hidden behind. There was where I’d seen a mother on the floor crying that she couldn’t find her son. There was where the crowd had rushed towards us, shouting about gunshots. I travel through the airport a lot. It will forever be changed.


I hugged my son very, very hard when he appeared. 

Baggage claim was a zoo. The boards showing where to pick up luggage had continued to operate throughout the crisis, which meant flights that had come in around 1:30 were no longer showing on the board and people couldn’t find their luggage. I know the airport was trying, but that was just adding insult to injury.

The bigger insult to injury was when the parking deck exits stopped working and the hundreds of us who were all trying to leave at the same time got stuck for another 30 minutes. No one had any authority to lift the gates and let us out. That is one problem that can be and should be fixed immediately. It was the only time that I saw tempers rise. We just wanted to get home.

And then there was an accident on the highway, so it took us another hour to get home.

We pulled into the driveway at 5:55pm, over 5 hours after I’d left. I don’t think I’ve every been so happy to be home, especially with my son beside me.

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