I never thought we were going to die. Get trampled on maybe, injured perhaps, but the thought of death never came into my head, which is what I would call progress. My parents had just entered Penn Station after being stuck on a NJ Transit train just outside the tunnel entering Manhattan for close to two hours. My dad always takes an early train so they would still make it in plenty time for an 8 pm curtain to a show that my work had given me comps to. The theatre is a common language my parents and I enjoy and I thought it would be nice to invite them in to meet up for dinner and a show.
When I discovered they were late I told them I would meet them at Penn and it would be okay with me if they just wanted to do dinner. I walked through Penn Station from the 8th avenue Amtrak station to the 7th avenue NJ Transit side where I always meet my parents. The station was packed with people due to all of the delayed trains and Easter weekend. I walked to the 31st street exit because that's where the elevators were and my mom would have her walker with her. I saw them standing and smiled because they looked adorable dressed up for our Friday night date. Since they were stuck on a train for so long they wanted to use the bathroom and my mom asked me to stand with her walker as she used the restroom. This was our normal routine when I met them in the station.
So they both went to the bathroom and I sat on her walker when all of a sudden a stampede of people came running in my direction. At first I thought, wow they really want to get home for Easter, and then it felt different. This wasn’t the normal Penn Station commuter rush for a seat, this was pure chaos. Someone yelled "There's an active shooter" and something clicked in my brain. They were all running from fear and fighting for hope. Hope for their lives. I heard little popping sounds, which I would later discover were the sounds of people dropping their suitcases and personal belongings to get out. My immediate thought was "my parents!"
I abandoned my mother’s walker and ran, along with about 50 other people, into the women's restroom where my mom was on line and I pushed her inside and told her to stay put. A woman and her child who didn't understand English started crying and asking what was wrong. I said they were yelling "active shooter but I didn't know anything else". My mother looked at me in a way I have never seen before and she said "where’s your father?" Yes, we would have to get to him so we could all remain together. When we exited the bathroom he was coming out of the men's room oblivious. He had heard the stampede but thought also it was just folks running to the train. "They are saying there is a shooter in Penn". After those words came out of my mouth and my father looked at me confused I wondered - who was the they and how did anyone know?
I paused for a second and looked around and saw families huddled in corners, children crying, tourists not knowing where the exits were, luggage abandoned and what I imagined the aftermath of all those times seeing about a shooting in a mall or classroom would look like. People left their lives to fight for their life. At this point I had my two parents and strangers in tears coming up to me to ask what was going on. I remained calmed but could feel my heart pounding. Someone then started screaming fire and so I looked at my parents and calmly said "we are going to exit at 31st street and walk east until we know we are out of harm’s way. We will walk slowly and keep going." They nodded but my mother was concerned about the woman and her child in the bathroom who didn't understand English. As my parents slowly walked toward the exit I went back in the bathroom to look for them but they were gone, or hiding, I will never know.
When I reached my parents at the escalators to 31st street they weren't working and people were now running again without knowing why they were running or where they were running to. We waited for the elevator hearts pounding but somehow remaining focused on our plan to walk east. When we got above ground it looked like what I would imagine a scene of an active shooter to look like. Police cars everywhere, ambulances and fire trucks. People on their phones in hysterics. People running East away from the scene, people running in the street, looks of confusion, and a palpable feeling of terror. My parents and I crossed over 7th Avenue to slowly walk to Herald Square but my mom had yet to use the bathroom and being stuck on a train for two hours I could understand her need to stop.
We ducked into the back door of a hotel where we saw a policeman who told us what actually had happened. An unwell man had become out of control and Amtrak police tasered him. He even pointed to his own taser which looked like a gun and he admitted it can sound like gun fire. Another woman who had ducked into the hotel said she was standing close to where it happened and it sounded like gun fire. We stood feeling grateful we knew what had actually happened but how did that escalate into the mass fear it created? Hundreds of strangers running away from nothing.
It made me start to think about the world we are now living in and the fear that is living inside each of us and what is it that we are really afraid of? Each other? Is that what it comes down to? Anyone could have a gun. Anyone could use it at any moment on anyone and there isn't a profile of a shooter. It could be anyone. People got hurt in the stampede, my mother keeps telling me that when I ran into the bathroom my face, including my lips were white as paper, and it’s taken me a day of hibernating in my apartment in quiet to recover. I have never felt such fear in my life because my brain had understood immediately, from the images we see so easily on our devices, what it would look like if I was in the middle of a terrorist attack. I have wondered many times over these recent years what I would do if I was in a situation with a gunman. I have written an entire play about the after effects of a violent gun shooting, and there I was in the middle of a false alarm wondering how have we gotten to this place? We might not know the fear that is living inside all of us until we are faced with a stampede of strangers all running away from an imaginary bullet, but it is there, and I’m afraid if we keep living the way we are this fear is not going anywhere, and we will keep dropping our lives for the possibility of calamity.