Security agents fueled panic at New York airport in August: authorities

November 21, 2016 4:45 PM EST

REFILE: UPDATING SLUG TO NEW YORK-AIRPORT/Airport private contractors prepare passengers at a security checkpoint during the check-in process at at JFK airport in the Queens borough of New York City, U.S., May 27, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Phot


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By David Ingram

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The actions of untrained security agents at New York's JFK airport helped fuel unfounded panic that sent people streaming out of terminals on a busy Sunday evening in August, authorities said on Monday in announcing steps to prevent repeat episodes.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement they would implement a recommendation by investigators to require emergency training for all airport workers, including vendors.

Hundreds of people streamed out of the airport on Aug. 14 after rumors spread via social media and word of mouth that there was a gunman in one or more terminals. An initial investigation found no evidence of gunfire.

The full investigative report, released on Monday, confirmed that the fear at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the United States, was unfounded.

It said passengers and others inside one of the terminals panicked when they heard loud cheering by cafe patrons celebrating a victory at the Rio Olympics by Jamaican track star Usain Bolt.

Agents with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), who are trained to screen baggage and passengers, fanned the fear when they joined passengers in fleeing from Terminal 8, according to the report.

As panic spread to other terminals, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents in Terminal 1 drew their weapons, causing yet more travelers to run, the report says.

"Airport employees and security personnel, rather than calming the customers, increased the panic by their response which led to a mass evacuation," the report says.

Although there were no significant injuries, the report goes on, "the danger posed by a panicked mass of people fleeing for their lives cannot be overstated."

Representatives of TSA and CBP had no immediate comment on the report.

The panic led to a suspension of flight arrivals for two hours. By the time it was over, there had been 109 emergency phone calls to 911, causing 275 police officers to respond, according to the report.

All airport workers at JFK will receive training on responding to violence, evacuation procedures and crowd management, Cuomo and Johnson said.

The many security agencies that operate at the airport will also stage joint exercises, including one planned for December, they said.

Two weeks after the JFK incident, a similar episode crippled Los Angeles International Airport. Hundreds of passengers fled the night of Aug. 28 after false reports of gunfire were amplified by word-of-mouth and social media.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Alan Crosby)



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