Passengers at Newark Liberty Airport were sent into unnecessary panic on Labor Day after an Alaska Airlines employee thought the two Asian men she saw looked “suspicious.”
Based on the initial reports, a flight attendant approached the men for allegedly acting suspiciously. The report claimed that the woman screamed “evacuate” and hit an emergency alert button after the men started running. A source told CNN that the call to evacuate stirred panic at the gate. Nearly 200 passengers responded to the warning and started dashing to the exits.
“Imagine you’re starting to board and a frazzled attendant comes off the plane, stops the process, asks someone to call the police, then starts yelling, with increasing loudness, ‘evacuate!'” a passenger told WPIX. “Sounded like gunshots but after seeing the damage in this terminal, it’s more likely it was glass being shattered from people jumping.”
Han Han Xue and Chunyi Luo, the two men at the center of the incident, would later explain in an interview with Buzzfeed News that they actually did not know each other. The men claimed that it was not true that they ran away, noting that it was the airline employee who was acting erratically.
Xue and Luo, both Chinese-born, were returning home to San Francisco. Xue was raised in Canada before moving to the United States, while Luo came from China two years ago and is now attending a college in San Francisco.
According to Xue, he first noticed the woman as she pushed her way from behind him. She returned moments later, circling around where he stood.
She then approached Luo who was incidentally standing near him. “Are you scared? Are you nervous?” she then asked him.
Luo responded by telling her that he was indeed feeling nervous because the flight was late. She then told him that flights in the U.S. were often delayed. However, he decided to step a few feet away from her because she stood “too close” to him.
Then, she went back to Xue, asking him questions about Luo and what his itinerary was. “Why are you acting suspiciously?” she asked him, before asking more bizarre questions.
“How much are they paying you?” she reportedly asked him, without clarifying who “they” were. “Did they give you a visa? Did they give your family a visa? Do you make a lot of money? Do you work on Wall Street? Are you on an American visa?” Xue claimed she asked him.
Feeling that he was being racially profiled and harassed, Xue also stepped back a few feet from the woman and joined the passengers boarding the flight. However, the woman kept following him. “I’m onto you guys. The cops are already called,” she said.
Xue, who was shocked by the entire thing, then saw the woman started speaking with gate agents. A gate officer would later announce that boarding would be temporarily halted due to an unspecified issue. Soon after, the female employee began yelling, “Evacuate, evacuate!” After that, she pressed an emergency alarm.
“The moment it happened is really hard to describe,” Xue said. “Everybody started running. It was the most insane scene I’ve ever been in or ever seen.”
Luo said he joined the other passengers eventually because he assumed that there was a shooter.
“I thought somebody had a gun,” Luo shared. “Everyone is running. I just followed them and escaped.”
In a statement, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spokesman Steve Coleman said the two men were questioned by police and then released with no charges. He added that the incident is under investigation and the employee is still being questioned.
“There is no danger to anyone at the airport and the situation is under control,” Coleman said.
Alaska Airlines would not address the issue publicly, telling Buzzfeed that it does not comment on personnel. In a report by CBS 2, a source claimed that the female employee has bipolar disorder and had missed her medication.
Meanwhile, the flight to San Francisco was canceled and rescheduled for the following day. All passengers, who had to be re-screened after the incident, were put up in a nearby hotel.
Xue and Luo, who met for the first time at the hotel, shared their stories with each other and the other passengers as well.