When an Alaska Airlines employee yelled "evacuate" at a major New York–area airport on Labor Day, one of the busiest travel days of the year, it sent 200 panicked people fleeing amid fears of a mass shooting attack.
Dozens of Port Authority police responded to Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey on Monday night around 8.30 p.m. after the female airline employee yelled for people to evacuate before setting off an emergency alarm. Initial reports said she believed two male passengers were acting suspiciously, and when she approached them they started running.
But the two Chinese-born men at the center of the incident told BuzzFeed News it all began as a case of racial profiling. In their first media interview, the men said they did not know each other, did not run away, and that it was the airline employee who had been acting erratically.
"It was a very shocking experience," said Han Han Xue.
Xue, 29, had spent the holiday weekend visiting friends in New York City and was waiting at Gate 30 to board his delayed Alaska Airlines flight home to San Francisco. As he stood "minding [his] own business," he said the Alaska Airlines employee in uniform walked into him from behind, pushing past. He brushed it off but moments later she returned, circling around where he was standing.
She then approached Chunyi Luo, a 20-year-old student standing near him. "Are you scared? Are you nervous?" Luo said she asked him.
Luo, who moved from Shanghai two years ago to study finance at a San Francisco college, said he told her he was feeling nervous because the flight was late. He said she told him that flights in the US were often delayed, but she stood "too close" to him so he stepped a few feet away.
Then she began asking Xue questions. She asked if he knew Luo (the two were strangers) and what his itinerary was. She then asked, "Why are you acting suspiciously?"
Xue said he struggled to know how to respond as the questions from the employee became more bizarre. "How much are they paying you?" he said she asked him, not 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 said she asked him.
Born in China, Xue grew up in Canada, where he is a citizen, and works as a product designer at Lyft in California.
Luo said he could hear the woman asking Xue why he was acting suspiciously and heard her say the word "Asian."
Xue said at this point he felt like he was being racially targeted and harassed, so he walked about 6 feet away to join the passengers boarding the flight, hoping she'd bother someone else.
But she followed him, saying, "I'm onto you guys. The cops are already called."
"I couldn’t believe this was happening," said Xue.
He then watched the employee walk into the jet bridge at Gate 30, before emerging and starting to speak with gate agents. A gate agent then announced that boarding would be paused as there was an issue. Immediately afterward, the Alaska Airlines employee suddenly yelled, "Evacuate, evacuate!" and pressed an emergency alarm, said Xue.
"The moment it happened is really hard to describe," he said. "Everybody started running. It was the most insane scene I've ever been in or ever seen."
He said hundreds of people were tripping over each other, crying and screaming as they tried to flee. One man screamed at his female partner to drop her luggage so they could run faster. Xue ran with the crowd to another gate and escaped onto the tarmac.
Video posted on social media shows the chaos.
Michael Wolfmuller, 38, was walking toward the gate to board his flight home to San Francisco when he heard "evacuate" and saw people screaming and running in his direction.
"I heard the word 'shooter' when we were running," said Wolfmuller. He said he even heard glass breaking.
After the recent mass shootings in West Texas, in El Paso, and in Dayton, Ohio, Wolfmuller assumed he was next. "I thought I was going to get shot in the back," he told BuzzFeed News. "With everything that's been happening the last few months, that's pretty much what I was waiting for."
Luo didn't realize he had anything to do with the situation, and also believed there was a shooter. "I thought somebody had a gun," he told BuzzFeed News. "Everyone is running. I just followed them and escaped."
But once police arrived within a minute and started scanning the crowd, Xue said he felt compelled to come forward and identify himself. "I'm like, So, 90% chance I have something to do with this and it's escalated way too fast," said Xue.
"Intellectually, I know I didn't do anything wrong and that I can explain my way out of the situation," said Xue. "But the only time I was really anxious was when the cops first showed up."
He approached an officer and said that an Alaska Airlines employee told him she was calling police. Xue said the officer looked him up and down and then said "OK, we got the guy," into his two-way radio.
He said officers quickly surrounded him, and took him away from the crowd, asking him questions. One asked, "Where is your friend?" and Xue explained that he was traveling alone, but that the airline employee seemed to think he knew the young man standing next to him.
Police found Luo in the crowd and also started questioning him. Both Luo and Xue said police were calm and courteous to them. "Why do you think she thought you were suspicious?" asked one officer.
Xue replied that he didn't know "other than the fact we are both East Asian."
At one point, the Alaska Airlines employee came out of the jetway bridge and looked down below, where both men were speaking to police. "We got them motherfuckers,” she yelled, according to Xue.
Wolfmuller, who was busy helping a mother find her daughters on the tarmac, said he saw the employee return. "I heard the F-word and some screaming directed definitely at them," he said.
Once it was clear no one was in immediate danger and it seemed to be a misunderstanding, police let Luo and Xue go. All affected passengers had to be rescreened through security.
After several more hours waiting for their flight to San Francisco to take off, it was canceled and rescheduled for the following day, with passengers put up in a nearby hotel. Xue and Luo met for the first time at the hotel and shared their stories with each other and other passengers (the group even took a photo together).
An Alaska Airlines spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement they were investigating what had happened. "We understand the Newark issue was alarming and distressing for our guests and other flyers, and for that we are deeply sorry," said Oriana Branon. "We are conducting a thorough investigation of the incident and gathering witness statements to understand what exactly took place and why this happened."
No one from Alaska Airlines directly contacted Luo or Xue until after BuzzFeed News reached out to the airline on Thursday. Within hours, the airline emailed Xue. "I just found out who you are today," wrote the director of customer advocacy, which was seen by BuzzFeed News. "Mainly I wanted to check in with you and see what I can [do] to help." (Xue noted that he had left his name and contact information with an Alaska Airlines manager at the gate after the incident when he asked for an explanation.)
Alaska Airlines did not answer any questions about the employee who caused the commotion, saying it does not comment on personnel. CBS 2 reported that a source told them the woman has bipolar disorder and had missed her medication.
Lenis Rodrigues from Port Authority said the employee was questioned and released by Port Authority police, but would not comment on health issues. The Union County Prosecutor's Office said their office is aware of the incident and is in touch with authorities but that no decision had been made yet if any charges will be filed.
Xue said any health problems do not excuse the racism he experienced. "If she does have issues, it's on Alaska to make sure she's not placed in a position where she is responsible for the safety of others," he said.
He noted that East Asians aren't usually profiled in shooting or terror situations, but said he feared that "maybe there is a shift in Trump's America and all this [Chinese] trade war situation."
For both Xue and Luo, the situation was a horrible and stressful incident, compounded by Alaska Airlines refusing to even explain to them what had happened as media reports spread saying they'd been acting suspiciously and had run away.
"I'm so angry about that," said Luo. "I'm just so scared... it's horrible, it's awful."
"It's very uncharacteristic of me to go public like this about anything and it's causing me anxiety," said Xue.
But Xue's frustration at Alaska Airlines made him feel like he had no option. "At this point for all I know she still works at Alaska in the same position, and that alone is worrying," he said. "I don't want to perpetuate this idea that you can just throw this under the rug and that’s it."