Top security officials tasked with a top-to-bottom review of the bungled response to last summer’s false reports of a gunman inside Kennedy Airport concluded that poor communication and lack of coordination among police, private security and other personnel fueled a mass panic.
Thousands of terrified travelers inside the airport’s three terminals ran for safety, some ended up on the tarmac on Aug. 14 after patrons in the Juan Valdez Café in Terminal 8 celebrated the Olympic victory of Jamaican track star Usain Bolt with loud cheers. Pandemonium spread to two other terminals inside the Queens’ airport as erroneous news of a gunman traveled quickly across social media.
“The overreaction quickly escalated and led to a group panic. Airport employees and security personnel, rather than calming the customers, increased the panic by their response which led to a mass evacuation of the terminals,” the multiagency review team said in a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
The letter, signed by four officials, was made public Monday.
The team of security officials made four recommendations, which Cuomo and Johnson accepted, and said they will work to put in place.
The recommendations would establish a center to oversee and direct security operations for the entire airport; coordinate training for all security personnel and first responders such as the NYPD and FDNY; mandate emergency preparedness training for all airport employees; and develop a mass evacuation plan.
During the August incident, responding officers did not know if there were gunmen, how many they were, or where they were. And, once the police determined that there was no shooter in Terminal 8, officers had no way to relay that information to passengers and ground personnel.
Cuomo ordered the assessment after the incidents raised questions about the ability of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, to respond to a terror attack.
“The events at JFK were a wake-up call to rethink and re-evaluate our security procedures to reflect the new, changing reality of the 21st century threats and to better ensure the safety of all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said in a news release.
NYPD received the first 911 call at 9:33 p.m. that there was a “large disturbance.” Other callers reported a gunman was in the terminal or that shots had been fired.
Port Authority police officers inside Terminal 8 drew their weapons. Transportation Security Administration agents abandoned their posts.
“Seeing [Port Authority police officers] with guns drawn created obvious fear and panic,” according to the letter.
At 9:38 p.m., the first Port Authority tour commander arrived at Terminal 8 and saw passengers evacuating themselves. Soon after, additional reports of a gunman in Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 were made to 911 operators. Customs and Border Patrol officers drew their weapons, which, in turn, caused passengers to become alarmed.
Some passengers ran through the emergency exits onto the tarmac. Others returned to the gate area and boarded a Korean Air jetliner. The airline employees added to the chaos when they deployed the emergency evacuation chutes, producing a “popping” sound that may have been mistaken for gunfire, according to the review team.
In all, there were an additional 109 emergency calls made to 911 operators.
A total of 275 police officers responded to the calls, 88 were from the Port Authority and 187 were from the NYPD. Arrival flights were suspended from 9:40 p.m. to 11:50 p.m.