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.”
Cuomo ordered the review after the episode raised questions about the ability of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, to respond to an actual terror attack.
“The events at JFK were a wake-up call to rethink and reevaluate our security procedures to reflect the new, changing reality of 21st century threats and to better ensure the safety of all New Yorkers,” the governor said in a statement Monday.
A review of security video and recordings of 911 calls found that the chain-reaction scare began with a call about a disturbance at a cafe, where travelers were watching TVs showing Usain Bolt sprint to a gold medal victory in the Olympics. Several calls that followed reported shots fired in the same terminal, the letter said.
After spotting Port Authority police officers pull their weapons and move toward the commotion, Transportation Security Administration agents began heading for the emergency exits, it said. Passengers followed their lead, with some even fleeing onto the tarmac.
“Seeing TSA agents running away and PAPD with guns drawn created obvious fear and panic,” it said. As the result of the self-evacuation, “secure areas were compromised, which left the terminals, tarmac and airplanes vulnerable to a possible terrorist attack or other illegal conduct,” it added.
Over the next 90 minutes, a total of 275 officers – 88 from the Port Authority and 187 from the New York Police Department – responded to the calls before authorities determined there was no evidence of a shooter, the review concluded.
Among the recommendations by the security officials is setting up a central command center at JFK manned by the representatives from each security entity. The center “should have access to closed-circuit television feeds and the ability to make announcements to a terminal or the entire airport from a central location,” the letter said.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York called on authorities to make the command center a priority, saying he remains “deeply troubled that many loopholes remain at JFK, especially with camera security.”
Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye said the agency is “committed to providing coordinated training and drills recognizing the needs and strengths of all agencies, and to make internal and external communications seamless.”
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