I’d been to Istanbul before, several years ago, and couldn’t get enough of the city’s boundless energy. The teeming streets packed with people, even after midnight, merchants selling their wares on every corner, ready to strike up a conversation with anyone in earshot. Muezzins calling from the minarets high above the city, filling the night air with their voices, while young men huddle beside Galata Tower, singing Turkish folk songs for the gathered crowds.
But most of all — the people, the energy, the streets alive with music and color. A city where you can disappear into the masses walking shoulder-to-shoulder down İstiklal Caddesi, cut off into an alleyway for a brief moment of calm, sip black coffee prepared over burning coals, and lose yourself among the 14 million people inhabiting this ancient city stretching over two continents.
When my wife and I decide to spend three days in Istanbul on a long-overdue vacation, just the two of us alone among the city’s millions, I can’t wait to slip back into that urban dream world, spun over centuries of history. The prospect of once again experiencing Istanbul’s seething vitality and deep mystery — getting a solid infusion of culture and history — is exhilarating.
On the plane from Riga, where we live, I’m reading Orhan Pamuk’s memoirs, which describe Istanbul’s despondency in the years after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and its slow transformation into the metropolis it is today. At his most poignant moments, Pamuk writes about the mood of collective melancholy — hüzün, in Turkish — that still pervades his transformed city, strewn with remnants of a glorious imperial past, while at the same time giving its residences their unique spirit of endurance and affirmation.
My mind occupied with Pamuk’s melancholic tales of Istanbul — his blend of post-Ottoman history, childhood memories, hüzün, and the labyrinths of his own imagination — the plane lands at Ataturk airport and we disembark at the international arrivals gates. It’s 9:30 pm on Tuesday, June 28.
As we head toward passport control, I can immediately feel what I had come here for: a city seemingly inhabited by the entire vibrant spectrum of humanity. What look like several generations of families — massive clans of relations — sit on the floor in circles, clutching babies in their laps, luggage piled high around them. Women in burqas move in packs down the corridor. Children race through the legs of passengers walking briskly toward the passport desks.
About 50 meters from the passport lines, which we can already see snaking in the near distance, I slip into a restroom, shuffling my way in through a large Turkish family crowding the entrance. My wife waits outside by a column. I wash my hands beside a guy I recognize from the plane, who carries a professional-looking camera on a strap over his shoulder. Outside, I can hear what I assume is the sound of the family arguing.
“Ottoman drama,” I think.
As I step back outside a minute later, something in the atmosphere has already shifted. The crowd is no longer moving toward the passport control but running away from it. It takes a moment to register. And to realize that the noise I had been hearing wasn’t a family argument but the growing din of chaos, gaining in strength by the second. My field of vision is suddenly filled with frantic faces shouting a single word that is unmistakable. Bomb.
I lock eyes with my wife, who is still standing frozen next to the pillar, lunge forward to grab her hand, and we instantly merge with the crowd racing back down the corridor toward the arrivals gates. All around me I can hear that same word, repeated again and again. Bomb, bomb, bomb.
We race down the corridor, away from the passport desks, as the screams grow in volume. I grip my wife’s hand and keep running, my vision narrowing to see the open spaces in front of me. As I look to my left, I see the guy with the camera, pushing a man in a wheelchair, seemingly in slow motion. Women run with children in their arms, their eyes filled with fear. Bomb.
Even before it has begun, I am immediately aware of what has happened. There is no question of this being anything else. A terrorist attack. The reaction is immediate. And just as quickly as this thought has registered, I see the corridor we are running down end abruptly in a dead end, a glass wall offering nothing but a view of the dark tarmac several meters below. Everybody stops. Then we turn to face the area we had just escaped from.
What all of us are expecting to see it chillingly clear, for we have all see it so many times before, in countless news reports and CCTV images: masked gunmen in suicide vests clutching semi-automatic rifles, screaming indecipherable threats as they rush toward us and blast the room into oblivion; the flaming ball of explosions, ripping down the corridor and engulfing us all in fire.
But no gunman rushes the crowd. No explosion fills the corridor with flames. Instead, we stare into the confusion and the panic sets in.
Waves of panic
Some people hide behind pillars, clutching their children and crying. We are stuck in a corridor, high above the tarmac of an airport where something terrible has just happened. Waves of panic continue to mount, as more people race toward us, rushing from all directions, tripping over one another and falling to the floor, dragging their luggage, fleeing from the scene of whatever has occurred. Each time they do, the chaos tightens its grip. We run from one side of the corridor to the other, moving in circles, futilely from side to side, but there is nowhere to hide.
A young couple standing beside us tells me they heard multiple explosions, just beyond the passport desks in arrivals; another describes the sound of gunfire. Others say there has been a shoot-out with police. Men fall to their knees and begin praying in the direction of the terror. Others shout into their cell phones, desperately seeking information.
A policeman emerges from the crowd and tell us to remain where we are, not to move down the corridors, to stay right here and wait. He looks just as frightened as the crowd, eyes frantic, waving away anyone who approaches. The airport employee who accompanies him begins to cry. There is no place to go but to descend into the panic and chaos and the images of terror flooding everyone’s mind.
The Brussels airport attacks. The gunfire in the Parisian cafes. Even as you have no idea what is going, the situation is immediately familiar. Somehow I have been here before — as we all have. The images of terror flickering on television screens have been internalized and transformed into our own collective experiences.
In the end, this is also the point of terror — the lone gunman or suicide bomber who infects the world’s imagination with his visions of madness.
In our case, that madness became three hours of waiting in dead-end corridors with hundreds of strangers, futilely hiding in corners, behind pillars, and waiting for news of what has happened.
We watch as security vehicles race down the tarmac, sirens blaring.
At some point, I turn on my phone and begin to check for news, desperate for information. Finding none, I quickly post to Twitter, my fingers trembling. Soon enough, the first breaking news reports begin to come in. Explosions at Ataturk airport. Gunmen. Suicide bombers. Possibly hostages. 5 people dead. 10 dead.
My wife changes into running shoes. “So I can run again, if we have to.”
At some point, the media begin to call. A Canadian producer asks me what’s going on. I ask him if he knows what’s happening and he fills me in, sitting at a studio in Toronto. A TV reporter from Latvia phones to ask if I can do a live interview the next morning at 7:00am. I tell her I’m hiding behind a pillar at Ataturk airport, apparently in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and will be lucky to get out of here tonight. Then I hang up and shut off the ringer.
Sometime after midnight, three hours after we arrived, airport police suddenly appear out of nowhere and tell us that we all have to move toward passport control, that we can leave the airport now. “Finito,” they keep saying. “Finished. Over.” We can leave now, though my wife doesn’t want to go anywhere, fearing the crowds and more panic. And it’s not clear what has happened, what has finished, and what we can expect around the corner.
A Turkish man standing near us shows us the screen on his phone — apparently it’s a video of what unfolded. You can’t tell what is going on, but it is obviously horrific. A shaky handheld camera. Screaming, explosions, gunfire. We stand in a circle around him and watch the phone. This is what you do when you are hiding in a corridor, around the corner from a terrorist attack. You watch a video of what just happened on some guy’s phone.
Finally I convince my wife that we really should try to leave while we can, get out of the airport, so we make our way to passport control. The area is filled with men smoking cigarettes and pacing the floor. Out of habit, people get in line between the control barriers, some of which have been smashed. The first signs of damage. The customs officers are frantically stamping passports with barely a glance at the people in front of them. The familiar motions of international arrival, though the officers’ hands tremble as much as those offering up their documents.
Once we move into the baggage claim area we are made to wait once again, as policemen try to keep the amassing crowds from passing through. The area is cordoned off with yellow police tape. Up ahead, the lights are off. This is where it happened. Bomb. Bomb. Bomb.
Finally, the police escort us through the baggage claim area, walking single file. I clutch my wife’s hand and can feel the sweat on our palms. My eyes scan the room and I see the extent of the blast. The first thing I notice is the glass — mounds of smashed glass everywhere, entire panes of glass lying in piles on the floor. I can feel it crunching under my feet. Then the collapsed ceiling, hanging down to the ground, giant pieces of metal jutting down from above. And the hundreds of discarded suitcases, looking like they have been thrown across the hall.
A bomb exploded here, is all I can think. The room is filled with a smoky dust. The feeling of an aftermath.
As we move into the arrivals terminal, the scene gets worse. The crowd is still silent, still moving single file. Some try to take photos with their phones, but the policemen who are suddenly everywhere swat at their hands, telling them to keep moving. An eerie hush fills the room as we walk through the debris.
I glance to my left and see blood on the floor, dripping in a line that ends with a giant crimson smear. Alongside it — a single black shoe lying on the ground.
Passing outside the doors of the international arrival area, just a hundred meters from where we had been hiding, the chaos begins again. The silence of the bomb scene is shattered by the screams of ambulances, which are parked everywhere you look, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Policeman rush among the ambulances, guns drawn. Men in suits and ties hold automatic rifles. We continue to move forward.
Ahead, I can see police in riot gear arranged in a line. Beyond them — crowds of people pressing forward. I realize that these are relatives who were waiting for passengers to arrive, waiting for their love ones to appear. People hold up signs with the names of friends and family. Everywhere I look, people are crying, holding one another, sobbing. My wife and I push forward through the masses.
Kindness of strangers
Passing through the police line, we continue walking quickly down the asphalt in front of the terminal, eventually moving onto the highway that must lead to the city. Helicopters swirl overhead. People sit on the grassy embankments, heads down, surrounded by luggage. We keep moving, away toward the lights in the distance.
At some point, we veer off down an exit ramp into an adjoining road. A man stops his car and offers to take us to the nearest metro station, where we can catch a taxi. In the car, he tell us he is an airport employee, not to worry, he will take us to safety. This is terrible, terrible, he says. Then we drive in silence.
The kindness of strangers, I think. Random acts of kindness, even now.
An hour later, we make it to our hotel in Karaköy. I tell the desk clerk that we just came from the airport, that we were caught in the attack. I realize I am talking too loudly. He makes a motion with his hands: enough. “This was a very bad thing. But just forget it.” The cool, air-conditioned lobby is filled with the hush of refined accommodations. Potted plants adorn the corners. A concierge takes our bags and we stand in uncomfortable silence in the elevator, heading up our room on the fifth floor.
I am suddenly frantic with energy, all too aware of the stark contrast between my jangling nerves and my calm surroundings. And as if on cue, the wifi kicks in and my phone explodes. Dozens of text messages and emails light up the screen. I switch on the ringer and the phone is already buzzing.
I pick up the first call and talk to a reporter in Hong Kong. Then a Wall Street Journal editor calls to confirm the details. Sky News from London. A minute later, BBC radio. Can I do a spot in ten minutes? Yes. Another call is already coming through. A producer from CNN. Can I talk to Don Lemon on air in three hours? Yes. Can she call me back in one hour to confirm? Yes. Is everything OK? Yes.
My wife lies down on the bed and starts to scan the news, giving me updates as I pace back and forth, unable to sit down.
I do the BBC radio spot, explaining what I saw. It feels good to recount the events, to sort out the events for myself in real time. How far were we from the explosion? I keep on saying 200 meters. It feels like a nice, safe distance — a sane number. 200 meters. Only later, when I pore over maps of the arrivals terminal, do I realize that 200 meters would have put us somewhere out on the tarmac, out in the darkness of night, far from the close-quartered chaos of the airport. But it feels good to repeat this number. A safe 200 meters.
I tell them about the people running, the people yelling: bomb, bomb, bomb. People screaming about a gunman. The fear of having someone rush the crowds down the corridor, clutching an automatic weapon. I zero in on my own experience, just a couple of hours ago, as if we were alone in that airport. An isolated incidence, an accident, a freak occurrence.
But as I am holding the line again for the tenth time, waiting to go on air for another live interview, I begin to hear the news reports in the background.
Only then do I realize that what I’ve just witnessed is not just something that happened to me alone — a random occurrence at an airport, an accident while we were on our way to a three-day vacation in Istanbul — but is in fact an event on a global scale. An attack with real casualties, people killed, a terrorist plot. An attack that really is, in fact, all over the news.
I strain my ears to hear the reports read by the newscasters in the studios, who have me on hold, waiting to go live on air. This is real, I think. 30 killed at Ataturk airport in Turkey, the reports say. Three gunman, suicide bombers. ISIS blamed for the attack. Hundreds injured. Death toll rising. International airports on high alert.
BBC World news asks me to do a Skype call. I hold the phone in front of me, staring at my own face on the screen in a mirror-image reflection. A producer tells me to go ahead. I explain to the image of myself in my phone what happened. Somewhere, millions of people are tuning in, watching me stare at my own face at 3am in a hotel room in Turkey. When I finish, the producer thanks me, apologizes, and we disconnect.
At 4am I get a call from Anderson Cooper’s producer, asking me to go live in ten. I am still pacing up and down beside the windows of my hotel room. I haven’t sat down since I left the airplane. The producer asks to call me back. When the phone rings again he announces: “You are in the system now.” Yes I am.
I hear the CNN report begin. The first thing I hear is Donald Trump speaking. He’s commenting on the attack, responding, tucking it into his agenda. In my mind, I can see him jabbing his finger into the air. Then I hear Hillary Clinton’s response, referencing the same event, the terrorist attack that I just got back from in a taxi cab, riding in silence along the Bosphorus.
The thing that happened while I was walking through an airport corridor is suddenly a political agenda. A bullet point in a campaign speech. And then I go live with Anderson Cooper. “Thank you, Anderson,” I hear myself say, though Anderson is already seguing into the next order of business on tonight’s world news agenda. I hang up the phone and stare off into the night, across the Golden Horn at the mosques in Sultanahmet, lit up for Ramazan.
At some point near 6am, after six straight hours of talking to reporters, I switch off my phone and fall asleep.
Two hours later I’m jolted awake by the morning sun streaming in through the curtains. I check my phone. 76 unanswered calls. Like an addict lighting up his first cigarette of the morning, I switch on the ringer and take the first call that comes through, lying right there in bed.
You are in the system now.
The phone calls continue all morning. I do a Skype interview with another BBC channel over breakfast. Unshaven, my hair standing up, dressed in last night’s clothes, I recount my story into my phone. An eyewitness, eating his breakfast at a hotel in Istanbul. The death toll has risen to 35. But they keep calling me to talk about the screaming and the glass and the blood on the floor. A soundbite for the morning shows in the UK.
A couple hours later I’m in a taxi headed back to Ataturk. The Today show in New York wants a live interview in front of the airport. I don’t even think twice about it. I need to keep talking about the attack. You are in the system now.
Save it for the camera
As we pull up, I recognize the strip of highway that we walked down the night before. Only the ambulances parked alongside it have been replaced with dozens of TV trucks, satellite dishes broadcasting into the sky. Cameras everywhere, wires coiled on the ground. Reporters holding microphones, staring off into the distance.
As I’m getting miked up, I start to recount my story to the NBC chief foreign correspondent. “Save it for the camera,” he says.
When we finish the interview, I sign off with the studio back in New York — a morning show that I watched every day while eating breakfast as a kid in suburban Connecticut. As I’m removing the mike, I turn to the journalist and continue telling him everything I didn’t get a chance to say on air. I tell him about the screaming and the men falling to their knees praying, the mothers with babies. The chaos and the panic.
“Welcome to the brave new world,” he says. Later I read that he spent five years in Baghdad, covering the Iraq War. He’s seen this all before.
All afternoon, the phone calls refuse to let up. And I can’t stop answering them.
TV crews have been dispatched to Istanbul to cover the attacks. I do a spot with a CBS news crew in front of my hotel. The reporter and I walk slowly up and down the street, pretending to be deep in conversation while the cameraman films us from a distance. I recognize this set-up from thousands of news segments over the years. Disaster being turned into TV. The eyewitness in front of his hotel, strolling with the reporter, calmly recounting the events.
As night falls, I find myself back in a taxi cab. At this point, the exhaustion is taking a toll. I’ve slept just two hours since the attacks the night before. My wife is taking a nap back at the hotel. But I can’t get enough. CNN National asked me to do a spot with Wolf Blitzer. CNN International calls. Their global news anchor is flying in at 10pm from London. “Can you get back to the airport?” they ask.
I am already on my way.
The evening scene among the media at the airport is more hectic than it had been that morning. People have been here for hours, if not from the previous evening. Cameramen and reporters stand about idly, checking their phones, setting up equipment, smoking cigarettes, reporters doing their makeup, fishing for bottles and brushes in giant Ziploc bags.
As I pull up in the taxi, I call the CNN producer back in the U.S. to tell him I’ve arrived. According to the number on my phone, he is sitting in Washington, D.C., but somehow guides me to the right camera crew, one among dozens stationed outside the Ataturk international arrivals terminal.
Are you there?
Someone shouts, “the CNN guest is here!” Then someone else sticks a microphone in my ear. The crew is Italian — I wonder if they’ve rented out their equipment for the live shots. There is no anchor to be found.
I join the lineup of reporters. Six of us standing in a line, facing the cameras and squinting into the lights. The microphone in my ear begins to crackle. “Are you there?” I hear somebody say at a studio in New York. “Yes,” I practically scream. “Yes, I’m here!”
“You are live in twenty. In ten, five.” I faintly hear CNN theme music, a woman’s voice announcing that she is sitting in tonight for Wolf. I hear somebody say my name. The connection is very faint. “Live in Istanbul,” I hear. I take this as my cue to begin speaking.
Five seconds into my story, recounted for the hundredth time, the microphone pops out of my ear. I stare into the lens of the camera, hearing my voice trail off into silence. I look at the reporters staring at their phones, the bored cameraman watching the taxis pass on the highway. I can hear the muezzins calling to prayer at the mosque beside the airport. In the distance, the big glass-fronted hotels are lit up by the sun setting over Istanbul.
“Can you hear me in New York?” I want to say. Though I just blink into the camera. The interview is over, the connection broken. I’m all alone with my story.
That evening, at about 11pm, the phone calls abruptly stop. My wife and I stay up late in bed, watching the news on TV. BBC World, CNN International, Al Jazeera. News channels that you watch in hotel rooms. The attack still seems like something a world away. The death count has risen steadily. Nearly 300 people injured. We watch the images of the funerals, which took place that day. The crying mourners, the coffins draped in flags. 45 dead.
We fall asleep to televised images of terror, flickering on the screen, the two of us alone among the world’s billions.
For the rest of our brief trip to Istanbul, I don’t receive any more calls. My job as an eyewitness of a terrorist attack is over. The reporters have moved on to the next attack. In Bangladesh. In Baghdad. In Saudi Arabia.
When I get back home, people ask me if I feel like I’ve been given “a new lease on life,” the sensation of a “new beginning.” In fact, the feeling after leaving Istanbul is of the most profound melancholy. The utter despair of having seen — however briefly — the glories of life suddenly smashed and lying in ruins at your feet.
Bombs and gunfire ripping through an airport as you are headed on vacation, instantly killing dozens and crippling hundreds of your fellow passengers, your fellow humans. The immediacy of destruction. The sheer bluntness of terror, possible at any moment.
Welcome to the brave new world.