Tuesday, March 26, 2013

That Time I Ran for My Life from a Bomb Scare


photo courtesy of The Beverly Center

Out of all of the bomb threat-induced fire drills I endured as a public school student in Syracuse, NY, and out of all of the manhole cover explosions, blackouts, and brownouts in New York City, I never encountered an actual bomb, or even a real bomb scare.

I know that they happen. But in my 37 years, it never happened to me.

Until Sunday. At the mall.

I was working an easy five hour shift at the Beverly Center, settling into my newly-demoted routine of non-managerial salesmanship, on a day that was busy from the start. I was working under a manager from another store location who loved to turn the music up loud, and shout over it to his customers. We had lots of them, and thankfully, an hour into our day, three more sales girls arrived to help out.

Oddly, the music in our store stopped - something that usually only happens when the mall is testing the alarm system. When no alarm sounded, I went to the back to check on my volume-pumping boss, and the player itself, to make sure everything was OK. Nothing was amiss, so I returned to the sales floor to answer the phone and do a stock check for a customer. Through my left ear, I heard a muffled, incomprehensible announcement over the PA, and saw my coworkers straining to hear it. I dismissed the thought of an emergency, because my cell phone hadn't rung in my pocket, as it's supposed to when mall security needs to communicate with the store. Although I had asked to step down from my management position, I was still listed as an emergency contact.

But I saw the look on our newest sales girl's face. Eyes popping, she calmly but emphatically said, "We have to go." (She later told us she'd run over to Guest Services to find out what was going on and what to do, and all they told her was "GET OUT" as they waved their arms like air traffic controllers.)

I looked out our store windows. Everyone - everyone - was running - running as fast as they could - down the hallway towards the exit, their packages in tow. It was unbelievable, like a scene from a movie. Were we on fire? Was there a bomb? Would we get out in time?

Before I hung up the phone, I said, "I'm sorry, I have to go, we're being evacuated" to my customer, who surely was baffled. But that's all I could say; that's all I knew.

I ran to the back room to retrieve my purse and laptop, and scrambled for anything else I might leave behind. All our dressing rooms had been full of customers trying on clothes, and now they were scrambling to put their own back on, emerging from behind the curtains barely dressed, only one arm in sleeve. We tried to help them right themselves, and check the rooms for any stragglers, but we knew we had to get ourselves out too.

My manager lagged behind a bit, not knowing the store or mall as well as his own, not knowing the evacuation procedure. I lingered as he went to lock the door, grateful that I was not in charge, but ready to take charge if I had to. And then before he turned the key, one last customer came running out.

I don't know what happened to our customers that left with us - perhaps they dispersed, went their own ways, found their loved ones - but, at least at first, our staff all stuck together.

One of the girls I'm closest with took my hand and said, "I want to be with you."

"OK," I said.

"Should we go get our cars?" she asked me. I wasn't her boss anymore, but she still came to me for help. Many of my coworkers did.

"No, we have to walk out, let's just walk outside." I wanted to get to my car badly too, but if there was a fire or a bomb, it would take too long to exit in the traffic that was sure to clog the garage.

When we got to the escalator - a narrow exit, one up and one down, and only one choice of two in the entire mall - it was jammed with panicked evacuees. They were relatively calm - no pushing, no trampling, no screaming - but the crowd movement was urgent, and painfully slow. Someone called something out, and one faction splintered off to exit through Bloomingdale's. We all thought better than to take the elevator, but where else could we go? Finally someone opened a door that led to a hallway, and, thinking Fire Exit, we took it.

Shortly down the hallway, I panicked. "We're going back towards our store," I called to our group. The air was stuffy. It was probably always stuffy in there, but under these conditions - with an advancing crowd - it was getting worse. It was dark and dusty. And people swarmed the conduit, which started to feel as confining as an air duct or sewer pipe.

I'd heard the grumblings of one of my coworkers, who seemed as uncomfortable as I was, so I asked her if she would turn back with me. She agreed and we swam upstream back out into the mall, where the crowd at the top of the escalator had thinned out. I thought perhaps we'd taken too long to lock up our store and get to the exit. I wondered how much time we had left.

But at least in that escalator well, we could see the outside through the big glass windows. We could see the exit. We knew where we were, and where we were going. We were limited only by the pace at which the escalator ran, having no room ourselves to run down its steps.

We spilled out onto La Cienega, and to my surprise, dozens of shoppers had congregated at the foot of the escalator, in front of the Grand Luxe Cafe, right in front of the building. Whatever it was that was dangerous enough to get us out of the building would certainly put us in harm's way next to the building, so we crossed the street. My only companion left wanted to get farther away from the mall, so she started to walk around the block, but I wanted to see what was going on, and find the rest of our team. I knew that if the building blew up, I would still be well within blast radius standing inside the doors of Men's Warehouse, but I didn't know what else to do.

The sales associates at Men's Warehouse tried to sell me something. I told them, "I'm not shopping, I'm being evacuated."

I then fumbled with my phone which hadn't roused from its keylock / sleep mode since I first pulled it from my pocket to check for red alert messages. I hadn't thought to take any photos or videos of the pandemonium. All I could think was that I should probably tell someone what was going on.

The only people I had to tell were back in New York, too far to do anything about it, and even though I didn't know what exactly was happening, I needed to connect with someone. I'd gotten completely separated from my group. I was all alone, at a time I least wanted to be alone. And I was about to lose my shit.

I fought back tears as I removed the phone's SIM card, my attempt to restart it a success. I called home and left vague messages. I talked to Michelle briefly. I txted my boss my coordinates, and he quickly invited me to rejoin the group around the corner.

Even though we were at a mini-mall across the street, the big behemoth of the Beverly Center was out of sight enough for us to breathe, collect ourselves, and laugh and gossip. We met associates from other stores, also stranded and still on the clock, and convened for an all-you-can-eat soup and salad lunch, bringing our trays outdoors to lunch in the sun. We checked our phones. And in the silence between our laughter, we listened to the building's siren, which didn't stop wailing for four hours.

I received two automated red alert calls from mall security, emphatically reiterating that this was not a drill, not a routine evacuation, and to leave immediately. Those calls came in long after we'd already gotten out.

I got dismissed after about an hour and a half - an hour before my shift was supposed to end - but I didn't know what to do or where to go. I live within walking distance, so I could've gone home, and just left my car to be retrieved sometime later (if it didn't blow up), but I felt inclined to stay close. I went to the T-Mobile store and gossiped with them about the evacuation while they advised me on my phone. I stopped for a late brunch gin cocktail. I chatted up the H&M refugees who had camped out in the Coffee Bean parking lot with cartons of orange juice and empty pizza boxes. None of them were allowed to clock out. They all had to stay.

Even though I was released, I kind of wanted to stay.

I interviewed mall staff and security who were standing by, some on duty, to try to figure out what was going on, and to complete the reports that I'd been seeing on Twitter. I couldn't shake the rumors of gunfire, which everyone seemed to be perpetuating. Was that why we'd seen someone rolled out on a stretcher? (In truth, it was probably an old person having heart palpitations. Lord knows I was having them.)

Two young girls from the Valley, stranded and standing across the street, reported that they'd tried to drive out, as we'd wanted to do, but got bogged down in traffic. On the ramp and at a standstill, they said that mall security came over and pounded on their car windows, shouting, "Get out, get out now!" In a panic, they left their keys in the car, and just left their car there, on the ramp - as everyone else did, had to - and ran down the ramp. They had no way to get home, and just had to wait it out.

I could've gone home, but I chose to just hang around.

At 5 o'clock, when the alarm stopped ringing and they let us back into the building, I must've been one of the first to get back to my car, because I got out quickly, not encountering any stopped cars on the ramp. All afternoon, I'd been replaying New York City crisis scenarios in my head - not the least of which was 9/11, a day I was luckily safely tucked away in Brooklyn and not directly affected by the tragedy that befell our city, but a day that still traumatized me by just being in close proximity to it. Upon reflection, I realized that there was much about my time in New York that traumatized me, repeatedly, insidiously, at varying levels of intensity - from merely living nearby when the planes hit the Towers, which I used to gaze at from my bedroom window in Greenpoint, to enduring the daily dramas of being punched and groped on the subway, wallets (and a coat) stolen, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, laid off, and blacked out.

I moved to LA to get away from this.

But this can happen anywhere, anytime. The most horrible things sometimes happen in the most unexpected places.

In the end - lucky for us - nothing really happened yesterday. The suspicious package was no bomb at all. We were never in any real danger. And after a few hours, the Beverly Center reopened, business as usual, trying to make up for the hours of lost business.

And yet after I left the scene, I crumpled in my car. I shuddered throughout the night. My face winced at the onslaught of tears. I didn't want to work in retail for this. I am too soft, too sensitive, too traumatized. I have never been able to recover from one trauma before another one was inflicted on me.

I'm still recovering from my childhood.

And sometimes, life is just too much to take.

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