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Stranded After the Istanbul Terror Attack: What I Learned

Carmen Dumitrescu was in transit between Romania and Bangkok when she landed at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in Turkey just after the June 28 terrorist attack. This is her story, and the ways it has changed how she’ll travel from now on.

Carry Extra Necessities

“As we landed at the airport,” Dumitrescu says, “people started turning on their phones. There [was] this murmur from the passengers. The woman next to me said, ‘There’s been an attack.’ Meanwhile, [our] plane was just circling the runway. We were told by Turkish Air that they were having ‘operational difficulties’ and that we’d be on the runway for a while. Flight attendants served beverages and people started streaming the news to figure out what was happening outside the plane.

“I fell asleep with my glasses next to me. After about three hours, they rushed us off the plane, and in my grogginess left my glasses at my seat. It made everything that happened next much harder.”

Use Luggage That’s Easy to Carry

“I got off and saw all the luggage on the tarmac and just two staff members who told us to identify and take our luggage into the transit area. Those were the last staff members we saw.

“We went inside and found that all the elevators and escalators were shut down. People everywhere were struggling under the weight of luggage. The stairways were narrow, and people were asking for help. There was an announcement on repeat that said: ‘Please head to your departure lounge.’ But everything had been sealed and there was no staff. And to get to the departure lounge you had to go through immigration, which was cordoned off and the glass doors were locked.”

Travel Rested and Don’t Drink

“I looked around and saw a kind of post-apocalyptic scene, the kind when a place is full of people who are stuck.  There was garbage all over the ground. It was so incredibly crowded. There was no ventilation, and people were smoking in non-smoking areas. A lot of people were disabled but didn’t have wheelchairs because there was no staff to take care of people. The toilets were wrecked—I couldn’t even get in there.

“More and more people kept coming off planes, and the transfer area got more and more crowded. It was thousands of people, body to body. There weren’t enough seats, so people just stood, and some groups claimed entire areas to sleep or sit down on the ground. There were a lot of people walking aimlessly because there was nowhere to sit.

“Everyone was trying to figure out what was going on, but there was no one to ask—no airport or airline staff. I wish I had been better rested. The fact that I was so tired made me confused and not as alert as I needed to be. But I was glad I hadn’t been drinking on the plane—I would have been even more disoriented and thirsty, which would have been disastrous. I needed to be able to think clearly.”

Travel with Food and Water

“Everything was loud—people were yelling and children were crying. It was really hot, and there was no ventilation, and no water. No information. Things kept getting more intense because there was no one there giving information, no ‘Stay calm, you will be rebooked.’

“There was no food or water for sale anywhere, and I had no water and hadn’t eaten for many hours. I got lightheaded, and said to myself, ‘Just lie down and you’ll figure it out.’ I found a small free space and passed out on my bag. I will always make sure to have water and something to nosh on for my whole journey from now on.”

Always Have Enough Data Roaming

“I had topped up my roaming plan before I left, but not enough. When I first arrived in the transit area, I saw I had a message from my husband. I texted back to say, ‘I’m stuck here, I’m going to try to exit the airport. Can you get me a hotel?’ I had started to think about what if there was another attack. But at that point, all of us were still trapped.

“A few minutes later, my husband sent me the name of the hotel. And then my roaming was blown, all gone in a few minutes.

“In the airport there were signs that said Wi-Fi was available, but in order to sign up, you needed a Turkish phone number, so couldn’t use it. My husband had been trying to call me for hours, but I had no credit, and without getting on Wi-Fi I had no way to top up. I could just see dozens of missed calls but no way to respond.

“From now on, I’m going to make sure to have a lot more roaming on my phone. And I’ll know the roaming rates for where I’m going so I can be sure to have enough.”

Carry Multiple Forms of Currency

“It had been about seven hours since I landed at this point. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get another flight out for a while, I so started waiting in a line to get an exit visa. There were five machines issuing visas but all of them were broken except for one. The line was hours and hundreds of people long, but people kept cutting so the line never got shorter. I gave up when I saw people running to immigration, because one immigration officer [had gone] to a desk, and one Turkish Airline person came out and started screaming, ‘You have to get out! Get in line and there will be buses to take you to the city.’

“I got in line and made it to the desk, but they looked at my passport and told me I needed a visa.  The line was still so long there was no possible way to get a visa using this machine. Somebody told me that the transfer line was open and were issuing tickets, but I had my bag and there was no way to check it back in.

“A visa officer eventually showed up and a bunch of people (including me) went there. There was a lot of frustration, screaming and banging, because they were only taking euros, dollars, and pounds, not local currency. But they were still announcing that people needed to exit. So people were trapped but being told to leave—if you didn’t have the right currency, you couldn’t get out.

“Before I left for my trip, my husband had given me 40 Scottish pounds. I ended up standing near two British women who were traveling to Thailand, and they offered to trade my Scottish pounds for British pounds. I thanked them and ran back to the visa line with my British pounds. Within 20 minutes I was out.”

Have a Contingency Plan, Even in the Places You Transfer Through

“I got out of the transfer area at about 6:30 in the morning. I went through immigration and down a narrow hallway, and then came out at the bomb site. They had boarded up a lot of it and there was a construction crew. Someone was yelling ‘No photography! Just keep walking.’

“They had sealed most of the doors to get out, and there was no staff to tell you how to exit the airport. I walked up and down the airport looking for any door that would open. I went upstairs to the departures level and found a random door that opened; outside there were no vans or buses, just a few people waiting and one or two taxis. I got in a taxi, and as we were driving away, saw hundreds of people sleeping with their bags on a grassy area right in front of the airport.

“Now I know I should contact someone local in advance and have a contingency plan—at least a hotel name and number or a person who knows I’m coming through. Maybe make note of a hotel that would be close enough to walk to or have the phone number of a taxi company on hand.”

Carry a Well-Stocked Carry-On (with a Charger)

“Looking back, I think: ‘What if my bag had transited without me?’ I would have had nothing. I ended up needing to stay in Istanbul from Tuesday to Friday. From now on, I’ll make sure to carry on any supplies I need as well as weather-appropriate gear for the transit city.

“I’m so glad I happened to have my phone charger and an extra charge, which meant I was able to keep my phone charged the whole time.”

Enlist Help Rebooking

“I landed in Istanbul on Tuesday night and couldn’t get out until Friday. Once I was in the hotel and had Wi-Fi, I called Turkish Airlines to rebook. No one answered. I had booked through Expedia, which was good, because it will do some of the dirty work for you. An Expedia agent called the airline on my behalf and told them I was stuck and needed a flight out.

“I was on the phone with Expedia for six hours straight. I was exhausted, so I put the phone on speaker, lay down on bed, and stayed on hold. I fell asleep for part of it, and every so often they would check in with me and say, ‘We’re still trying to get ahold of Turkish.’ At one point the phone got disconnected, but they called me back. The only available flight was on Friday night so I took it.”

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