Report Reveals ‘Urgent Need’ for Change After JFK Mass Panic

What to Know

  • Cheering at a bar prompted false reports of gunfire at the airport in August, leading to mass panic
  • Passengers in three terminals ran for the exits
  • A team of security officials reviewing the case offered multiple recommendations, including creation of a central command center

Poor communication among police, private security and other personnel contributed to a mass panic that erupted at a New York City airport when loud cheers for Usain Bolt somehow led to a false report of gunshots, according to a review by a team of top security officials.

Passengers at Kennedy Airport ran for the exits on Aug. 14 after cheering at a terminal bar during the Olympics was mistaken for something sinister. Panic spread to two other terminals when news of a gunman spread on social media, and police responded by drawing their weapons.

A letter from the officials to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, made public on Monday, blamed both airport employees and law enforcement for fueling the hysteria by overreacting to several mistaken reports of gunshots, instead of seeking to calm travelers.

Among the more glaring missteps: At the height of the chaos, the flight crew of a Korean Air jetliner deployed evacuation chutes, "producing a 'popping' sound that may have been mistaken for gunfire." The officials also said that in the end, the airport had no efficient way to let travelers know the threat wasn't real.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, "the specter of terrorism has embedded itself in the national psyche and created a persistent, abiding tension that cannot be ignored," the letter concluded.

"Coordination and training ... is absolutely fundamental to properly address this new paradigm."

Among the recommendations is for JFK to create a central command center manned by the representatives from each security entity.

Plenty of passengers documented the harrowing experience, including former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb.

Webb had just landed at Terminal 1 and gone through customs when half a dozen officers burst in, telling passengers to "run for their lives." 

"They were screaming at people," said Webb. "They said there was an active shooter, run for your lives, shots fired."

Webb recalled the panic that took over the crowd of about 400 people.

"Everyone stormed over the barricades and out onto the tarmac," he said. "Kids were getting trampled, adults were getting separated from their kids."

Webb continued, "It dawned on me they don't have a good plan for dealing with passengers."

New York magazine editor David Wallace Wells concluded as much after the chaotic evacuation.

"I was at the airport for five hours and I didn't have a single encounter with a cop telling me where I should go, or whether or not I should be worried or reassured," he said.

But Kenneth Honig of Critical Incident Management and Training, Inc., has a different view. A former top Port Authority cop who was a commanding officer at JFK, Honig says at least part of the police response was perfect.

"You have seconds. You give direct orders. This is not a situation where the officers are going to be polite," Honig said. "They’re going to bark orders. They’re going to be very demanding. 'Get down. Show me your hands.'”

"I think they responded in the way that they were trained," he added. "They responded effectively. They responded quickly.”

Amid the chaos, Wallace Wells and other witnesses saw TSA agents flee along with frightened passengers. According to a TSA spokeswoman, they acted within protocol.

"Remember, they don't carry guns. They are not officers. They have a right to find protection," said TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

The I-Team first reported that Port Authority police did not have access to live camera feeds at Terminal 8 or any of the terminals at area airports -- an issue the Port Authority police union has raised previously in letters to officials. Police also had no ability to use the public speaker system at the airport to relay important information to passengers.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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