Jessica Lu, news editor
Alumnus Steve Kearns, class of 2012, woke up at 4:30 a.m. in Geneva, Switzerland, to head to the airport, unaware his flight would be delayed due to a hijacking. On Monday, Feb. 17, as reported by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), co-pilot Hailemedehin Abera Tagegn hijacked an Ethiopian Airlines plane flying from Addis Ababa to Rome. He locked himself in the cockpit when his co-pilot went to the bathroom to land in Geneva, where he later sought asylum.
Kearns, at first unaware of the situation, described the first part of his day as relatively normal.
“I checked in and went through security without incident, and everything seemed normal. I fly quite frequently, so if something were evidently wrong, I would have known,” Kearns said.
Yet 20 minutes after his scheduled departure time, Kearns noticed that all flights were either departing or not boarding.
“For a few minutes, I imagined that there was some strange European-style delay that I was unaccustomed to,” Kearns said.
After hearing an announcement that the Geneva Airport was closed due to “operational problems,” Kearns decided to find out what was going on. A gate attendant informed him that the situation was a “matter of terrorism.”
“Of course, when I heard ‘terrorism,’ I became incredibly worried,” Kearns said. “I had so many questions.”
Kearns purchased airport Wi-Fi to gain information because the airport staff was “fairly tight-lipped” about the situation. After reading the developing story on the BBC’s website, Kearns managed to call his parents in Los Angeles and inform them of what he knew.
“In the moment, perhaps the best source of information on what was going on was Twitter,” he said. “Passengers who were stuck in the airport and news sources were tweeting as new details came in.”
Kearns, who flew alone, noted that most people around him had reacted surprisingly.
“As you can imagine, the majority of people around me were European,” he said. “In general, I found them to be quite calm and composed throughout the situation. I always forget that such hijackings and incidences of terrorism are more common here in Europe considering the continent’s proximity to volatile countries in the Middle East and Africa. Americans like myself would have freaked.”
After several hours of waiting, the airport was reopened and flights resumed. Kearns related that he felt “relieved.”
“It’s not every day that you are a part of live news, especially that of a potentially dangerous nature,” he said. “While it was exciting to BE the news story and to experience the hijacking as it was unfolding, it was a scary, confusing and uncertain few hours. During the airport closure and hijacking, I felt that I had lost control of my surroundings. That was perhaps the most debilitating feeling for me. It was comforting when I was back in the skies and knew that nobody was injured in the hijacking.”
Kearns departed Geneva by 1 p.m., four hours behind schedule. Though he was late for his 10:30 a.m. class in Madrid, Spain, Kearns believed he had “quite the excuse” for his absence. Later in the day when a producer from Good Morning America contacted him, the gravity of the situation hit him.
“When I returned to Madrid, things really started taking off,” Kearns said. “[A reporter from] Good Morning America had seen my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts about [the] hijacking and messaged me for an interview.”
Kearns provided the reporter with information and photographs he had taken in the airport. His interaction with the media added another new element to the incident.
“For me, it was a surreal experience because I was not just a bystander,” Kearns said. “I was part of the news. It also made me realize how quickly information goes ‘viral’ as this producer found me a mere 30 minutes after I posted about the hijacking.”
Kearns also mentioned other things he gained from the experience.
“I realized that I am not safe from danger [wherever] I go,” he said. “The whole experience was sobering, a wake-up call of sorts for me. I’ve learned to…stay calm when worried and to appreciate those who work to keep us safe, as dangers like these are ever more present in our volatile world.”
Kearns, currently a sophomore at the University of Southern California, has returned to his original plans: studying Spanish in Madrid.