Two weeks after an active-shooter drill panicked tourists at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, the BVI Airports Authority broke its silence on Monday and defended the exercise.
The Oct. 16 drill drew scathing criticism on social media, and three tourists told the Beacon that they and about two dozen other unwitting passengers fled after two hooded men ran through the airport apparently brandishing guns.
In a Monday press release, BVIAA Managing Director Kurt Menal told a very different story, painting the drill as a success and claiming the BVIAA received no “official reports” of panic or injury.
“On the day of the exercise, airline agents and passengers in the terminal building were duly notified of the drill,” Mr. Menal said in the release. “This was done to ensure that everyone at the airport was aware of the exercise, and there was no intention of causing any undue alarm.”
Mr. Menal’s Monday claims angered Adele Fister, one of three United States tourists who told the Beacon that they ran in panic from the airport restaurant after seeing two men they believed to be gunmen.
“HOW was the public notified?!” Ms. Fister asked in a WhatsApp message, adding, “Certainly it was not our agents checking us in for our flight; it was not the security agents checking our passports; it was not any of the storekeepers where we browsed around. It was definitely not the cafe where the incident happened!”
Mr. Menal and other airport officials did not respond to an email from the Beacon that included questions about how passengers were notified on the day of the drill.
In the Monday release, Mr. Menal did state that the BVIAA had issued a bulletin before the exercise to notify “the community of the exercise and its purpose.”
The Beacon, however, received no advance bulletin that mentioned an active shooter drill.
Three days before the incident, though, the BVIAA did issue a bulletin noting plans to host “biennial emergency simulation exercises” at its airports on Beef Island, Anegada and Virgin Gorda.
The Oct. 13 announcement stated, “The public is asked to note that there will be a noticeable increase in activity by the emergency services around the airport during the exercises. Public announcements will be made on the day of the simulation to ensure that there is no alarm.”
The Beacon received no additional notification on the day of the shooter drill.
Meanwhile, Mr. Menal’s claim that there were no reports of “panic” appeared to contradict information provided to the Beacon by the police, who took part in the exercise as well.
The day after the drill, acting Police Information Officer Akia Thomas-Nero described it as a “joint effort” between the police and the BVIAA and acknowledged that “there was a bit of panic, but officers informed tourist and residents that it was a simulation and were able to calm them.”
The three tourists who spoke with the Beacon after the drill described a lot more than “a bit of panic.”
New Jersey nurse Nancy Winter, who came to the Virgin Islands for a five-day vacation with Ms. Fister and her daughter Ashley Fister, said they were at the airport restaurant at around lunchtime on Oct. 16 preparing for their return flight to the US.
“Suddenly, I see through slatted walls two tall gentlemen, all dressed in black with black hoodies on and guns in the air, running through the airport,” she told the Beacon in an interview the day after the incident.
She heard someone yell “run” and echoed that command to bystanders including the Fisters, who were travelling with Ashley’s 2-year-old daughter, she said.
Ms. Winter is still recovering after breaking both her ankles in 2021, and she can barely run. But run she did, rushing out of the airport and scrambling around 100 yards along with her friends and about two dozen other frightened travellers and restaurant workers, she said.
She twisted her ankle on the uneven ground, but managed to get to safety, she added.
“Then we get this guy, it was maybe ten or 15 minutes later, going: ‘It’s just a drill! It’s just a drill!’ And we were all just standing there: ‘Do we believe this?’ And we slowly walked back. Of course, all of our adrenaline levels were up,” she said.
Ms. Winter, a nurse with three decades of experience, said that after running that day, her ankles suffered severe pain. She visited a doctor after returning to the US, and she later confirmed that her ankles did not appear to have suffered permanent injury from the incident.
‘All of this screaming’
In a separate interview, Ashley Fisher also confirmed her travelling companions’ account.
“All of a sudden, I saw Nancy’s face just drop, and then heard all of this screaming,” she said. “And Nancy said, ‘Get up and run,’” she said.
She grabbed her passport and that of her daughter, who was outside the airport chasing chickens under the supervision of her grandmother. They joined about two dozen other people also exiting in a hurry, Ms. Fister recalled.
“We all started running together,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Is it a bomb? Is it someone with guns who is going to run after us?’ I didn’t even know if we were running in the right direction.”
‘Where’s the police?’
Ms. Winter and Ashley Fister both said they did not see any police officers during their ordeal.
“I was like, ‘Where’s the police?’” Ms. Winter said. “We saw some of the security guards for the airport standing in the front of the airport. … You see the security guards, and why haven’t they come to us or done anything like that?”
In the end, she added, a worker in the restaurant confirmed the incident was a drill.
“The owner of the café — or manager of the café — came up and she apologised, and another waitress came up and said, ‘We had no idea about this drill. We’re so sorry.’ That was really the extent of it. That’s all we really heard,” Ms. Winter said.
As a nurse who has participated in many emergency drills in the US over the years, Ms. Winter believes that the exercise should never have been carried out without notifying the public.
“Somebody could have a heart attack,” she said. “And that’s not the intent of these kinds of drills. The workers should have known and been able to guide us to say, ‘This is a drill: You just have to step outside. You don’t have to run 100 yards away.’”
Air safety regulator
Justin Rothwell, the CEO of VI air regulator Air Safety Support International, said ASSI is responsible for ensuring that bodies such as the BVIAA conduct required security exercises.
“Airports and aircraft operators must exercise security contingency plans in co-operation with other appropriate state agencies each year,” Mr. Rothwell wrote in an email in response to Beacon queries this week.
“This consists of a full exercise at least every two years, and smaller or table-top exercise at least yearly. In conducting the recent exercise, [the BVIAA was] complying with this requirement, which ensures that the airport is fully prepared for any event. [ASSI’s] role is to ensure that bodies such as BVIAA conduct these exercises. We do not oversee or approve the actual exercise itself.”
ASSI, which is based in the UK, regulates airports in the UK overseas territories.
Five airlines did not respond to requests for comment: American Airlines, InterCaribbean Airlines, Silver Airways, LIAT, and Cape Air.