I'm not entirely sure why I'm writing this post, I think I just need to unpack some stuff. Let me set the scene for you. It's a Sunday afternoon (about two hours before I'm writing this post), I'm at Bluewater shopping centre, one of the largest shopping centres in Europe, which happens to be located very close to where we live. It's not too long until Christmas now, so it's busy. I'm there with my wife and two sons, one five years old and our two-year-old, who is fast asleep in his buggy.
We're in the Lego store, toward the back of the store, and our five-year-old is telling me all about the Voltron Lego toy that we're looking at. We're planning to go for a coffee (and a gingerbread man for the boys) soon after. It's all very relaxed, a pretty standard way to spend our Sundays in a place that we're all very familiar with.
Behind us I started to hear some commotion, it sounded as though perhaps a couple were arguing a short distance away. I didn't look around, I was trying to keep my son's attention on our Lego conversation rather than looking around and causing him to have to watch somebody's argument unfolding. Seconds after however more people began shouting, and it sounded serious. It sounded as though it was coming from outside of the Lego store in the main shopping concourse, and flooding into the Lego store directly toward where we were. I looked around, and before I could get my bearings on what was happening somebody started to shout 'Get down!', multiple times, loudly and aggressively. Somebody else said the word 'terrorist'. I was shocked, I grabbed my five-year-old son, my wife already had our two-year-old in the buggy, and we all ducked down behind the sales desk.
It had only been seconds from first hearing the shouts to ducking down, but when you're not expecting it at all the whole situation is very disorienting, and time felt like it stood still. I found myself kneeling on the floor cuddling my son, genuinely wondering if this was how we were all about to die. The entire shop was down on its knees, the only sounds were those of panic. The last discernable words shouted at us were an aggressive 'Get down', my assumption, understandable in the current climate, was that a terrorist was shouting at us. My expectations for the coming moments: either a hostage-taking or a violent attack. I couldn't see who was shouting at us through the mass of panicked people. It was the scariest thing I've ever experienced, not for the fear of my own safety but because my wife and kids were trapped in there with me, and if somebody was about to open fire on all of us there wasn't a single thing I could do to stop it from happening. I was confused, angry, frustrated and feeling completely helpless. It all seemed so surreal, that a familiar trip to the Lego store with my family felt like it had turned within seconds into potentially all of us being taken hostage, or worse.
To the credit of the staff in the Lego store, they dealt with the situation very quickly and professionally, they've clearly been trained for this exact scenario many times. They quickly locked the front doors to the store and opened the rear doors which lead outside. It had been less than a minute since the incident began, but for the first time I realised that there was no hostage taker or attacker in the store with us, and I felt a little safer for my family. Whoever shouted at us to get down must have been either somebody on our 'side', or at least outside the store and not inside it with us like we'd initially feared.
We were led through staff access corridors toward the outside world. I was carrying our five-year-old. He asked me what was happening, and I told him not to worry, it was just some 'naughty people' in the shop who we wanted to get away from. In truth however, I had no idea how safe we were. Was an assailant on the loose somewhere nearby? Could we be violently attacked at any minute?
We soon made it outside, which was a very reassuring sight. We quickly realised that it wasn't only the Lego store which was affected, but the entire shopping centre had been evacuated. Thousands of people were outside, some hugging each other, some crying, many comforting others.
After a short while, we were told that the whole event was a false alarm and that we were free to head back inside the shopping centre.
False alarm or not, those confusing moments of being shouted at to get down, the fear for my family's lives, that was all real, and more terrifying than I'd ever imagined it would have been. It's easy to watch similar situations unfold in the media and imagine how you'd personally cope if confronted by something similar, but the reality I found is very different. When considering a situation like this through the media you're already mentally in that headspace, thinking about that scenario, seeing things through that lens. However when you're just chatting about toys with your son and then this suddenly comes out of nowhere and bursts into your reality within seconds, it hits you right in the stomach like a truck.
After a couple of hours, it transpired that the whole situation was caused by the most ridiculous turn of events. It appears that somewhere in the food court, a tall folding menu board outside of a restaurant fell over causing a very loud bang. Somehow this led to people in the area shouting 'bomb' and running for the exits. Somebody opened an emergency door triggering an alarm. The ensuing stampede of shoppers picked up speed, and soon those who were still shopping unaware in the main concourse were faced with flocks of hundreds of terrified shoppers running toward them, trying to escape with their lives. Scared for their safety they understandably joined the stampede too, and so it grew. Reportedly some were shouting 'bomb', while others were shouting about a gunman, and others still were shouting about seeing somebody with a knife. Like a frantic, chaotic game of Chinese whispers, the story altered confusingly with each retelling, so that by the time it reached our location in the Lego store, it was passed to us in the form of a mass of staff and shoppers frantically running past screaming, and somebody repeatedly shouting 'Get down' at us.
The whole situation turned out well, nobody was ever in any real danger, but the fear was very real. When somebody is aggressively shouting at you to get down and you can't see who that person is, you have no idea whether they are the threat or not. This event has given me a much clearer idea of what a hostage-taking situation might feel like for those unfortunate enough to get caught up in one. It's nothing like the media portrays, it's much more confusing and much more terrifying.
Update: on the evening that I posted this I also tweeted out a link to this post. That tweet received some responses that clarified how terrifying this situation was for those involved, and some had it worse than my family and I did. Click the embedded tweet to see those comments.