When Alamitos Beach Neighborhood Association President and Long Beach resident Milton Smith landed in Istanbul as part of a layover on his journey to the 21st International AIDS Conference in South Africa Friday, he was prepared for a leisurely nine hours in the city.
Smith, also the vice chair Long Beach's Health and Human Services Commission, saw the Blue Mosque [Sultan Ahmed Mosque] and walked around, bathed in the sunlight streaming in from the stained glass windows. He had caught a taxi on his way to the airport for a scheduled flight to South Africa. Then he got a text about the attempted military coup.
“I was already at the airport and saw the tanks from the windows,” Smith told the Post via Facebook messenger.
Moments later, from within the building, havoc broke loose.
“[...] around 10:30, [I heard] a gun shot in the airport...people [were] running, crying, screaming,” Smith said. He was having a drink at a cafe in the airport at the time.
“I ran too.”
Initially, fear and chaos gripped Smith, but a chance encounter with an Australian doctor and a calm memory of emergency training for such situations, courtesy of his job at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, kicked in.
“We both work at hospitals, connected instantly [and] made a plan to survive,” said Smith of Aussie Dr. Bruce Chow. “And to help others. [We] looked at exits, found potential hiding spots.”
Smith used the only app working on his phone, Facebook, to communicate with friends and family back home, asking for maps of the Istanbul Airport for an escape plan.
He said he initially thought the attempted coup in Turkey, which has been interpreted as largely unsuccessful, was a terrorist attack.
“A bomb sent the building shaking, [it] felt like an earthquake, 6.4 or bigger,” said Smith. “[There was] more panicking—people crying and running.”
Smith’s posts reflect the panic and violence at the airport.
“Someone please call the consulate and let them know I'm trying to get out. It sounds crazy but I feel safer outside,” he wrote.
Confusion about the exact nature of events, where exactly the bomb noises were coming from, and whether or not the individuals were safe inside left Smith clamoring for any semblance of calm and shared humanity, something he found in new friend, Dr. Chow, to whom he said he is “bonded for life.”
The worst of the violence and sounds of terror appeared to be over around 7:00PM, said Smith.
According to the New York Times, the attempted coup was declared null and void, and the struggle had abated.
“By midday, there were few signs that those who had taken part in the coup attempt were still able to challenge the government, and many officials declared the uprising a failure,” the publication wrote today.
Still, Smith’s next challenge consisted of finding a flight out, something both he and Chow desperately wanted, given the madness and original travel intent. Throughout the process, Smith said Turkish Airlines displayed some discouraging signs of humanity, hiding out and embodying the attitude of “every man for himself.” Chow and Smith worked for hours searching for a flight.
While Smith said the U.S. consulate appeared to offer no help or clarification amid the incident, family and friends such as Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia assisted in helping him find a flight out to South Africa, to the conference for which he had been preparing for months. Smith said Garcia checked in on him personally.
By late evening turkish time (mid-afternoon Pacific), both Smith and Chow had secured flights out of the city. Smith said he was left feeling a sense of deja vu as he sipped a drink at a cafe before boarding, and said the full force of the weekend’s events had yet to hit him.
“It's starting to hit me how much I was able to stay focused even in my fear,” he said.
He will still be able to make the International AIDS Conference, hosted by the International AIDS Society, which is being held in Durban, South Africa for the first time, featuring activists such as the U.K.’s Prince Harry and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
But he’ll also be processing the mixed emotions experienced throughout an ordeal that has made history, and contributed to a heightened anxiety throughout the western world, related to increased episodes of mass violence on the home turf of historically established democracies.
Long Beach last faced a direct connection to international atrocities last November, when Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) student Nohemi Gonzalez was killed in the Paris attacks. Just this week, CSULB President Jane Close Conoley declared all 11 students and one faculty member currently abroad in Nice, France to be safe.
Above all, Smith said he appreciates the value of social media more than ever before, and will likely join other social media networks beyond Facebook, something he has been hesitant to do before.
But what of the general unease and surreal witness of catastrophic events that appear to be on the rise in today’s current climate?
“I'm hopeful and optimistic for our future,” Smith said. “The world is shifting...but I still [believe] in the kindness of strangers...I know they exist. I felt their love and support and it helped me survive.”
All photos courtesy of Milton Smith.