Thomas Kemper had just fallen into a light sleep in a lounge at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul when he was jarred awake Tuesday night by the terrifying sounds of people screaming, shattering glass, shots and an “incredible” blast.
“It was very close. Very close. I thought, this must be a bomb, but it can’t be,” he said. “How can this be happening in the airport, but when you see people running, shouting and screaming, you know this is really serious.”
Kemper had arrived at the airport earlier on Turkish Airlines. He was supposed to have a layover there, then catch a flight to Tokyo, Japan, for a meeting. He had flown the Turkish airline because on the return leg he planned to stop in Europe, and it had the easier connection.
Officials said three terrorists armed with guns and bombs — two in the international terminal and one in the parking lot — killed at least 41 people Tuesday.
Stunned by what he was seeing, Kemper grabbed his shoes and other belongings and dashed out of the airport lounge. He started one way, before he was met by alarmed strangers who urged him to run the other way. People were falling over one another to get to safety.
“It was unbelievable,” said Kemper, general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, which recently moved its headquarters to Atlanta from New York. “The first hour was the worst. You didn’t know what was happening. You’ve seen the images from Orlando and Paris. You think they’re coming after you.”
Kemper ran back in the lounge and took refuge in a storeroom in the kitchen. The door didn’t have a lock.
There was a Chinese man also in the room. The two hid behind some boxes. The other man didn’t speak English. Kemper didn’t speak Chinese, but it didn’t take a common language to know both were scared.
Kemper, who moved to the U.S. six years ago from Germany, said he felt a strange mixture of fear and calmness. He remembers thinking about his family. He wondered if he would see them again. In the end, he said, he knew it was in “God’s hands.”
He had been in some dicey situations, like during the war in Liberia. This, however, was different. It was so unexpected.
“I know Turkey had some risks, but I didn’t expect it to be in the lounge,” said Kemper, who wasn’t injured. “That space felt pretty safe.”
When Turkish officials arrived to escort people to safety, Kemper and others walked through the arrival area and saw glass on the floor.
Despite the attacks, things seemed surreal, he said. The airport was busy. There were hundreds of people. Some businesses were open. While still in the airport, he caught glimpses of the carnage on Turkish television.
He and others boarded a bus. He was with other travelers from Egypt, Somalia and Holland.
Kemper, who plans to return soon to Atlanta, said he began to think about his fellow passengers. Some of them lived through situations like this every day or had fled such violence. Later, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera, he met crew members who told him that the kitchen had been the best place to hide. Crew members from Beirut said violence was a common occurrence where they lived.
He said the situation made him realize how much work needs to be done so that there are no more attacks like the one he survived.
“I know there’s a big debate about this in the United States, but from a mere Christian and personal perspective, we need to open our hearts and our houses to people of all faiths who suffer and have to flee and become refugees,” he said. “We can only survive together. We can’t win this by heaping more violence on this. It will not work.”