...and all I could think about was a Failure Mode Effects Analysis. (And getting out of course!) Take a look at the video of the dramatic scene (bottom of this post) and let me tell you what happened:
Does it look dark? Does it remind you of The Walking Dead? Well it sure did for me.
It all started about a minute or two before I boarded a plane. My cup of water was sitting next to me on a seat in the terminal, and it had those ripples like that famous scene from Jurassic Park. "Huh," I thought, "that's interesting."
I hadn't felt anything at all really. No T-Rexs were around. (I was pretty sure.) I thought maybe something happened pretty far away and I couldn't feel it but the water had shown it. Who knows. I went back to my sandwich.
About a two minutes or so later--that's when things got strange. They called my zone number and I took a step toward the plane. I was going to be the very first person to board. What great luck I thought.
And then the lights shut off in the terminal. All of them. A collective groan went up from the crowd. Just then, everything came back on. "Yea!" came out from the mass of people, but instantly the lights shut off again and "Awww..." closely followed.
They decided to board us anyway. And they wrote down our names by hand as we entered. Strange.
Things got stranger as I walked to the plane. My phone wasn't working: there was no internet service, no texting, and no calls possible. Ut-oh. Everyone was surprisingly calm.
I sat down on the plane and thought for a second. When the stewardess asked if she could get us anything to drink, I asked for the largest bottle of water she had. After all, in a real emergency, access to water is one of the big problems. I had a feeling this was a real emergency, or at least was going to be a very long day for me.
With my huge bottle of water I sat in my seat and worked on the latest book I'm finishing. Typing just helps clear my head. Somehow, my text to a friend did go through. And I received in return a link to an article that said "Explosion in terminal D at ATL airport." Well damn, I was in terminal D at ATL airport.
The article summary was all I could see because the internet wasn't working. It said terminal D had been evacuated and was filled with smoke.
I stayed put and thought of how I'd get out of the airport really fast if I had to. And that's when they told us we were going to be evacuated. They didn't say "de-planed". They said "evacuated".
Ok, well, my water and I packed up and moved out of the plane. I was really glad that I only ever fly with one bag or as close to one as possible with a carry on. No matter how long a trip or where I'm going--one bag. This was why.
I exited the boarding ramp and entered a smoke filled terminal. There was a lot of smoke. And it was eerily quiet, but there were many people walking toward the bank of escalators used, normally, to enter the terminal. The lights were off. All the stores were gated. There was no one visible to direct us.
As we walked toward the escalator bank, there was more and more smoke. Some people stopped much earlier, saying "Why would I walk toward where there is more and more smoke?" So they sat near the plane exit. More and more people progressively dropped out.
Probably four or five hundred people or so were trying to walk backwards down the up escalator. With bags. Single file. The escalator, at least, was off. But this was the world's greatest bottleneck. Some were coughing. The place smelled like burning rubber, but no fire was visible.
And the elderly people in wheelchairs? There were eleven of them. They weren't making it down this escalator and there seemed to be no other way. They waited patiently by a window, with the first official looking airport person I saw waiting with them.
One brave octagenarian was taking what looked to be her first steps in a while down the escalator with someone assisting. Sure, the three hundred people behind her had to wait, but she did make it down that first escalator. I can't imagine she made it through the rest of the gauntlet.
The escalator dumped us into the mile long (or so) tunnel where the train normally ran. The video above is from the end of that darkened, mile long tunnel when I first saw light. Everyone quietly marched the length of it, if they could. Some chose to burn their cellphone batteries. I drank a lot of water.
After a mile or so. We came into that light that the video shows above. And then, another bottleneck. Three or four hundred people or so were trying to walk up a down escalator. Just one. Single file. At this one, the challenge was the strollers. After all, the elderly travelers had long ago been selected by the mile long trek and initial escalator.
And the remaining people had a hard time carrying any strollers up what had been a down escalator. But we made it. Eventually. And then only another 200 meters or so and we made it to the final escalator bank. This was another stair climb, but at least this time there were three or four escalators we could climb up. People still had to stop or give up along the way though.
And that was it. My bags and I were out. Now I just had to sort how to go home.
Looking back on it, I continued to wonder if FMEA was used to plan that sort of escapade. I don't really know. Had the fire been right on top of us, we'd have definitely lost the elderly travelers. And the whole length of the trek, I saw exactly two employed staffers from the airport: one to watch the elderly and one who said "keep going" about 200 meters into the tunnel journey.
But I do know this: everyone was amazingly calm. I saw no one trampled. I only know my path out of the airport and do not know any others. So maybe, overall, this was a passing grade for the world's busiest airport in a time of real crisis. Regardless of specifics, I'm sure the experience will be used for future incident planning at the airport--and it sure should be!
Dr. David Kashmer, a trauma and acute care surgeon, is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons and is a nationally known healthcare expert. He serves as a member of the Board of Reviewers for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. In addition to his Medical Doctor degree from MCP Hahnemann University, now Drexel University College of Medicine, he holds an MBA degree from George Washington University. He also earned a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt Certification from Villanova University. Kashmer contributes to TheHill.com, Insights.TheSurgicalLab.com, and The Healthcare Quality Blog.com where the focus is on quality improvement and value in surgery and healthcare.