On Nov. 1st, 2013, I was on my way to New York City from Los Angeles to celebrate my 30th birthday. Like any soon-to-be 30-year-old, this was a big life moment, fraught with fond memories and cringe-worthy regrets about my 20’s, and excitement and fears about the decade to come.
I was planning to fly out of LAX, Terminal 3. But unfortunately for me and even more tragically for others I was bound to cross paths with someone else that morning with a very different agenda.
If you are a Travel with Kate follower, you’ve noticed I’ve not been publishing very much content recently. That’s because on that morning, I witnessed something truly horrible. And as I have been recovering from those experiences over the last couple months, I have needed to take some personal time.
On that Friday morning, while I was waiting at security check for my shoes and other belongings to journey down the conveyer belt of the x-ray machine, I heard loud booms.
It was undeniable. Those were gunshots and they were close by.
The TSA check where I was standing is positioned just atop a set of escalators at the entrance of Terminal 3. And the gunshots were clearly at the base of those escalators.
In that moment, it felt like time completely slowed down, giving me a prolonged second or two to weigh my options. And unequivocally, the most prudent plan of action seemed to be to run! And as I rushed down the terminal corridor in my socks, away from the gunshots, I realized I didn’t have enough time to make it to a gate for shelter. I was in a very vulnerable place.
I saw on my right a men’s bathroom and just before it, a door. Ajar. Unmarked. Hastily, I slipped into the mystery room. Another frightened traveler did the same. I closed the door and joined her on the ground. Both of us clutched our knees and huddled together – as if balling up would help protect us.
The gunshots stopped for what seemed like long, breathless moments. Then, BANG, a shot was fired followed by the clink, clink clink of the bullet cap hitting the floor. This guy was right outside that door, only a few feet away from us.
BANG, a second shot, this one just as close, like the shooter was walking slowly. This time the cap clinked on the ground and rolled to hit the door.
Silence while hiding in a small room, with a gunman loose in the airport is an experience I wish on nobody. In those moments, you are left with your thoughts. Prayers certainly come into mind. But so do a lot of questions.
From my vantage point at the time, there was no telling what was really going on. Was this an organized attack? Were there more gunmen? My mind flashed to photos of the recent mall attack in Nairobi. Will we be taken hostage? Will I die today, two days before my 30th birthday? Will it hurt?
I will never forget the feelings of impending death I felt that morning. Whatever hormones are released in your body in those moments of real flight for your life they don’t feel good coursing through your veins.
Ultimately, the gunman was shot and detained by police once he made it to the end of the terminal. Along his way he killed a nice man, the TSA officer who checked my ticket near the entrance of the security check. He also shot two other TSA agents and another passenger. At least, that is all that the news reports say.
I can personally confirm that there was one fatality as I saw his lifeless body on the ground as I ran unshod out of the airport.
Spending a half-hour in that strange room was not the whole of my story not even close. As airport police and other officials preformed security procedures confirming that the threat was gone, I spent the next four hours hiding in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. And for another four hours after that, I waited among other disturbed witnesses in a holding area before being released.
There is much more I could share of how I emerged from my initial hiding spot and descriptions of the day’s events. But I will save you those details because, really, what is most important is what happens after an event like this.
I’m going to be honest here. In the days and weeks after the shooting at LAX, my life was suddenly very different. The world seemed a much scarier and dangerous place. And I became crippled with fear. Mundane activities felt all too unsafe; driving; walking down the street; interacting with strangers; being in public spaces. That part of our brains that helps us go through life without debilitating fear was shattered in mine.
Those were dark days. It felt like I had lost my freedom to be an independent individual as well as the ability to enjoy life.
The only things that felt safe during the couple weeks after the shooting were my relationships. Connecting with my friends and family and feeling that they care for me gave me hope and reassurance. To them I am forever grateful.
A little over two months out now, I’m feeling almost normal again. I’ve even gone back to the airport a few times. I haven’t yet taken a flight. And even though that nightmarish day at LAX will remain in my mind forever, I will go on pursuing my travel dreams.
I recently came by this quote:
Pain nourishes courage. You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.
I am at a point in recovery now where the above statement makes me feel very empowered. I am a storyteller, a filmmaker and journalist. And having had this experience is now a part of my own story. It makes me stronger. It makes me empathize with others’ pain more readily and mobilizes me to do good. It amplifies my gratitude for all that I have and the moments I am safe. It makes me more grateful for the men and women who have dedicated their lives to protect the rest of us. And it sure builds a strong case for cherishing the now.
The girl that I was hiding with in the airport is a singer/songwriter. She was on her way to Peru for the beginning of a three-month, solo trip, traveling around South America. She told me, I need to go have some life experiences to develop my voice as an artist.
Turns out she didn’t have to go too far for that.
But seriously, I understood her desire fully, as I have done the same. I’ve spent years, traveling and searching outwardly to find clarity and direction within. Travel has been my ultimate teacher and the catalyst to my most profound self-discoveries. And the depth of those experiences is what keeps me determined to face and eradicate fears that might linger.
So, as I get ready for my first trip next week to Seattle – getting back on the horse as my mother put it – I have a little flutter in my stomach. I have my fingers crossed I’ll feel strong going through security check. And I look forward to my trip being a new beginning stronger and more promising than any new beginning I’ve had before.
I hope you will follow along with me – my blog posts and my videos – as I regain my speed.
And thanks for reading this too.
Some additional thoughts¦
I can’t help but have a little addendum here, as there are much bigger issues to tackle around this topic like perspectives on how this event fits into the growing trend of public gun violence across America; how this enlightened me to the state of security in airports; all the suggestions I have for LAX regarding protocol in an event like this. But those are topics for another platform.
For now, this is my first attempt to break my own silence with you, my reader/viewer, and with myself. Like recovering from anything, acceptance is a big step and now I am accepting that this did, in fact, happen and that I live in a world where this kind of thing happens with frequency, even in my own hometown.
And I am accepting that continuing to live my life to my fullest potential – fearlessly and authentically – is the only way to go on.
In my recovery, I’ve learned, what is most important to a healthy mind and healthy world is nourishing our connections with and compassion for those we love, people in our communities and even all our fellow mankind. Connection is what helped me in my darkest moments. And I suspect that had the shooter felt more connected, he may not have turned to violence.
If you want more on this concept, watch this documentary that traverses the world finding the common threads that bring people happiness. The doc is aptly titled, Happy.