On Friday, January 6, 2017, I flew from my home town of Indianapolis to Ft. Lauderdale to attend a family wedding, do some deep sea fishing, and play in a poker tournament. It was a routine day of travel….until a horrific event unfolded at carousel 3 in the baggage claim area of the Ft. Lauderdale Airport.
While standing at the apex of the curved carousel waiting for my luggage, I heard 3 small pops – they sounded like small firecrackers off in the distance. However, immediately after hearing these pops, I heard screams, shouts, and saw people scattering. I realized that the “pops” were gunshots, and I was now hearing more shots from an obviously closer point. I sensed that I had to act quickly and that running for cover was not a viable option because of the distance I would have to travel. I immediately dropped to the floor, face down, and played dead. But I was totally exposed: no luggage to hide behind, no benches to get under – I was essentially lying on the floor face down in the main walkway of the baggage claim area.
The top of my head was abutting the waist of a woman who was also on the floor and was positioned perpendicularly to me. Although I was lying face down and trying to play dead, I was speaking to this woman to try to get her to do what I was doing. I reached over with my right arm (the shooter was to my left) to try to get her to stay down. The pops were getting louder as the gunman was coming our way. The first few shots I had heard were in rapid succession but the shots I was hearing now were slow, deliberate shots, sometimes with several seconds between them. I never looked up but I knew these were kill shots. As I sensed him getting closer to our position, the woman next to me kept raising up and I decided I had to abandon my efforts to help her and just play dead. I could smell the gunpowder and the shots now sounded like they were coming from right above my head.
While lying on the floor playing dead, I was steeling myself for having to show no reaction if I was shot and in pain. He took his time and it seemed like an eternity. I remained still/silent until I heard someone shout, “They have him.” When I got up I saw that the woman next to me had been shot in the head as had 4 people immediately to my left. I sustained no physical injuries. I took a photo of spent shells at my feet – he had in fact been standing by my feet as he was executing the people on both sides of me.
The next 8 hours were exhausting: sitting/standing around with other stunned/traumatized travelers; getting back down on the floor when there was a concern that another shooter might be in the airport; interviews by the FBI; text messages and phone calls with family and friends…. We were finally bussed off airport property and I hailed a cab to the wedding reception. At the reception I would be seeing family members, all of whom are quite religious – a Pentecostal and Calvinists – people who believe everything that happens in the world is the work of God. They (and a few close friends) know I am an atheist – I have been the black sheep in the family on religion (and politics) for decades.
On the cab ride to the reception, I contemplated how I would react/respond to the expected comments about how God must have been looking after me. I was also pretty sure they would be thinking I had resorted to prayer during this ordeal. After all, everyone knows there are no atheists in foxholes, right? However, as I was thinking about this I realized that at no time during this ordeal had I once given thought to the existence of a higher power. And I felt strengthened by that realization – it felt like I had passed a test of some kind – under extreme duress, I had remained true to my lack of belief in a higher power. So, emboldened, what I told my family members that evening (and what I later told a few well-meaning friends who, upon my return home, said things like, “How’s that atheism thing going for you”) is this: “There ARE atheists in foxholes. I was not suddenly praying to a god whose existence I had theretofore denied (and still deny). I was concentrating on how best to survive.”
I expect to find myself responding to comments from well-meaning Christians in the coming weeks. Many of these comments will evidence an implicit assumption that I share their religious beliefs. With most folks I will simply thank them for their kind words/thoughts. But I will use some of these occasions to be more open about who I really am. Some of these folks will be hearing me say: “There ARE atheists in foxholes….”
Bruce Hugon practiced law for 37 years in Indianapolis where he resides with Nancy, his wife of 35 years. He now spends his time playing tournament poker, volunteering as a reading tutor, serving on community boards, cycling, and hiking/backpacking our national parks. He is a member of Center for Inquiry, first learning of/joining the organization at a screening of Bill Maher’s Religulous.