It’s the July 5, 8 am, I’m still sitting in bed under the heavy down quilt in a grand room of the century-old Bellevue Hotel – the “Grand Dame of Broad Street” – in the heart of Philadelphia. As I write this post, I am glad that we had made it out alive last night. We didn’t die from a bullet or get crushed in the stampede.
We somehow found our way out of the park with the two elderly uncle and aunt who were with us, walked to a church one block away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps (all the while making frantic calls to two of our cousins who were at the venue too but stuck in their car and desperately trying to reach us).
We had managed to get an Uber and reached our hotel around midnight. It still feels unreal (or is surreal the actual world that I’m looking for?) as the mind continues to try to snuff out “what if” thoughts. But yes, we are still alive and kicking.
A festive atmosphere
One moment we were sitting by the edge of the Ericsson Fountain right in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts. Rocky Balboa’s stone-sculpted figure next to the steps was suddenly alone as uniformed officers cleared the area and pushed the crowd celebrating US Independence Day onto the grass across the road from the museum. We were laughing, chatting, patting ourselves on our backs that we had arrived at the Fourth of July fireworks show in good time (three hours before the show started) and we had good seats – almost front row.
There was a concert going on at one section of the park behind us. People were starting to stroll into our stretch of the park, settling down on the grass with children, coolers full of cold drinks, dogs, chairs, blankets and friends.
And just when darkness had descended on the steps of the museum, the concert had ended, the crowd had swelled and sprawled out itself over the grass on more blankets and chairs, kids were running around with plastic light sabers, young boys and girls were laughing, rolling on the grass, we were all impatiently looking up at the night sky to light up with the fireworks, suddenly all hell had broken loose.
Even before I could understand what was happening I saw a large crowd of people running towards where we were sitting, from the south side of the park, ashen faced, eyes wide with fear, bewildered. The only thing that came to mind at that time was to take cover. We turned and literally dived inside the dry fountain bed as we crouched on the ground behind the stone rim wall of the fountain, keeping our heads down, holding on to our loved ones, shaking as instructions of how to save oneself when in an active shooting situation rushed through our minds.
The crowd went by us with mothers screaming out their babies’ names. Children wailed. Some people had scooped up their toddlers and their puppies and were just running away from whatever was behind them. The night sky had finally come alive with fireworks.
When the first wave of people had started to run out of the park we already knew what that meant: we had jumped into that fountain to save ourselves from a stampede and whatever was chasing the crowd out. By then we knew that our worst American nightmare was playing itself out in real time – we were pawns in a game of mass shooting.
It felt like a lifetime as we lay low and waited, peering occasionally over the edge of the wall. There was a lull. No one else was running and we wanted to believe it was a hoax, that we would just climb out of the fountain, laugh at our folly and sit back and watch the fireworks, record some on the phone for posterity. The now-empty grass was littered with the sheets and blankets that people had sat on, cans of half-finished beer and soda, unopened bags of chips.
One child had lost his saber, another had left her favourite doll behind. A mother kept calling out for her child from behind the fountain. Aa man selling bottles of cold water had left his cooler behind. A a puppy had lost its way home.
Just that it wasn’t a hoax. Suddenly the street in front of us was filling up with police cars, sirens blaring. Sombre-faced uniformed officers started herding the rest of us and escorted us out of the park: “There’s a shooter very close to here, leave this area right now and go home.” The fireworks were still aglow in the sky.
My daughter confirmed the facts with the officer who was escorting our unsteady uncle: yes, there was a shooter at large, probably looking for his or her next kill, probably a mere hundred meters away. He had already shot two policemen down and was still shooting indiscriminately at the crowd.
As I think about last night again, I’m battling a million emotions. So much could have had happened last night on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then I heave a sigh of relief. Between us, it was just a few bruises, scraped knees, a cut here, a tear there. A lesson learnt. A real-life experience of all those hours of drills we’d taken on “How to stay safe in an active shooting situation”.
Soma Ghosh is a former journalist who has translated two books, written for several publications, used to write a blog for The Times of India and continues to write her blog for Ei Samay. She lives in Houston.