Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport
After two apparently armed men entered the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport as part of an unannounced shooter drill on Oct. 16, about two dozen frightened people rushed out of the public restaurant area, tourists said. (File photo: GIS)

New Jersey nurse Nancy Winter came to the Virgin Islands for a five-day vacation to relax, snorkel and share some beach time with her long-time friends.

She wasn’t expecting gunmen. Even fake ones.

At the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport at around lunchtime on Monday, Oct. 16, Ms. Winter sat down for a few moments of calm in the public restaurant before her return flight to the United States.

“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.

She heard someone yell “run” and echoed that command to bystanders including her friend, who was travelling with a 2-year-old child.

Ms. Winter is still recovering after breaking both of 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.

Two drills

The incident was indeed a drill — it had been organised by the BVI Airports Authority and the police — and it wasn’t the first that surprised members of the public.

A similar exercise was also carried out three days earlier, when the BVI Electricity Corporation worked with police to stage an armed robbery at its Long Bush offices on Friday.

Both exercises — which followed a string of crimes and a gun scare on Oct. 9 at Elmore Stoutt High School — were designed to train staff for an emergency.

But in both cases, bystanders who were left out of the loop believed the incidents to be real.

And they responded accordingly.

BVIEC after shooter drill
Shortly after 1 p.m. on Oct. 13, the gates were closed at the BVI Electricity Corporation’s Long Bush office following an armed-robbery simulation that caught some residents by surprise. (Photo: RUSHTON SKINNER)
BVIEC drill on Friday

On Oct. 13, businessman Osmond Browne, a Long Bush resident and former airport firefighter, noticed a commotion at the BVIEC office. Then he was approached by another bystander, Devante Maduro.

“At the same time [Mr. Maduro] was explaining what was going on, [two] ladies came out of the corporation screaming, ‘Help! Help!” Mr. Browne told the Beacon. “Being that I was a firefighter for like 15 years at the airport, I came out and just naturally started asking questions.”

Mr. Browne was told that two people had been injured in a shooting, and he started trying to call 911, he said.

“All along, we thought it was a real incident: that someone got shot; the place got robbed,” he said, adding, “We just heard the ladies coming out screaming and crying for help. … So we just came over as bystanders to see how best we could have helped. We didn’t know it was a simulation exercise.”

Meanwhile, two people he believed to be injured BVIEC employees were brought out of the building, with other corporation staff apparently rendering first aid.

“We just laid them out in the cool out of the sun until the ambulance came,” he said, adding that the BVIEC staff appeared to have the situation under control. “I went out and shut the gate: In case the gunmen were actually about to come back, then the facility would have been closed.”

Mr. Browne didn’t learn that the incident was a drill until an ambulance arrived minutes later, he said.

Meanwhile, at least one online media outlet posted a report of a shooting before quickly correcting the record.

Chairman’s response

About an hour after the drill started, the BVIEC released a short statement on its Facebook page at 12.48 p.m.

The post explained that a simulation had been carried out at approximately 11:45 a.m., and it promised more information to come.

But not everyone got the message. The Beacon received a call at 1:05 p.m. from a concerned resident who had heard reports of a robbery and shooting, and two Beacon reporters reached the Long Bush office minutes later.

An ambulance was still parked nearby, and the gates to the parking lot were closed, but a BVIEC official told the Beacon that the incident was only a drill.

BVIEC shooter drill
A man looks through the closed gate at the BVI Electricity Corporation’s Long Bush office shortly after the armed-robbery drill at the facility. (Photo: RUSHTON SKINNER)

Shortly before 11 p.m. that night, BVIEC Chairman Sheldon Scatliffe explained further.

In a statement posted on Facebook and sent to media outlets, Mr. Scatliffe described the drill as a “comprehensive armed robbery simulation” held as part of the agency’s “ongoing commitment to safety and security” for its employees and visitors.

The exercise gave employees the chance to practise response procedures including notifying law enforcers and company security; locking down and securing vulnerable areas; implementing communication strategies and evacuation procedures; and rendering first aid for injury victims, according to the chairman.

“Our team members’ ability to remain calm and respond appropriately in an emergency is essential, and this simulation was designed to enhance their preparedness,” Mr. Scatliffe stated. “This occurred after a weeklong training exercise in partnership with the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force and planning with the emergency response team at the D. Orlando Smith Hospital.”

BVI Red Cross Disaster Coordinator Resherma Lyons also observed the activity, he added.

General manager

BVIEC General Manager Neil Smith told the Beacon that the corporation’s exercise followed established protocols to safeguard the public.

“Some of the steps taken in the BVIEC’s case, for example, was to close the offices before the drill occurred; use highly trained professionals to conduct the more critical and [potentially] dangerous parts of the exercise; having careful briefings with the participants before the exercise; having professionals monitoring the exercise at all times; and ensuring that only BVIEC employees were on the compound when the simulation exercise occurred,” Mr. Smith wrote in an email.

He acknowledged the realism of the exercise, which he called necessary.

“Simulation exercises have limited value unless the scenarios are realistic, and the data collected and lessons learnt are used solely for the purpose of ensuring the future safety of the employees of the BVIEC and its customers,” he wrote,  adding that any input from the public will be used to improve future drills.

‘Unknowing bystanders’

Mr. Scatliffe, who added that further drills may be carried out in the future, praised Messrs. Browne and Maduro, describing them as “unknowing bystanders” who “willingly rushed to the rescue of our employees who they thought were severely injured.”

Mr. Browne said he was happy to assist anyone in need.

“Being community-minded, I think anybody would have actually jumped to render help to someone in the community,” he said.

But given the recent violent crimes in the territory — some of which have occurred in the Long Bush area — he also said the drill could have been better publicised and better timed.

“I think that it could have been managed a little better in terms of communicating to the public — or even do it at a later date,” he said. “I didn’t think it was something that actually benefited the community a whole lot. It more put people into fear, with the recent up-spike in crime and robberies.”

Mr. Browne suggested letting the community know in advance about future simulations to avoid the possibility of unnecessary panic.

“I just think that it could have been announced in a better way: even let the community know it was taking place; even letting the media houses as well know about what was taking place. Because anybody could have taken it as a real situation.”

‘What made us really mad’

Ms. Winter, who fled the airport in fear on Monday, said she believes that the BVIAA simulation angered the unwitting participants and caused needless panic.

“Everything that’s happening in Israel right now, everything that’s happening in Ukraine: It’s in the forefront of our minds,” she said. “Then you see active shooters coming in and you’re like: ‘What?’ And then to be told it’s just a drill — that’s what made us really mad.”

Ms. Winter, a nurse with three decades of experience, said that after running that day, her ankles suffered severe pain, which she described as a 10 on a scale of one to 10. She was planning to have them X-rayed soon.

“I don’t think I rebroke it. I’m not sure,” she said. “But I just want some documentation.”

Airport field
Two tourists said they and several other people ran across the grassy field to the northeast of the airport restaurant after they were frightened by actors who entered the airport as part of a shooter drill. (Image: GOOGLE EARTH)

In a separate interview, Ms. Winter’s friend Ashley Fister, who was also present during the BVIAA simulation, confirmed Ms. Winter’s 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,’” Ms. Fister said.

She grabbed her passport as well as that of her 2-year-old daughter, who was outside the airport chasing chickens under the supervision of Ms. Fister’s mother. They joined about two dozen other people also exiting in a hurry, she said.

“We all started running together,” Ms. Fister recalled. “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.”

Despite the experience, she said, she still loved her time in the VI and wants to return.

“I’ll definitely be back, and it doesn’t scare me from coming back,” Ms. Fister said.

However, she doubts that other tourists involved in the incident feel the same way.

“The people that were on the flight with us and were a part of this too, they were visibly sick and upset, and they probably won’t come back,” she said.

Governor, BVIAA silent

The office of Governor John Rankin, who holds responsibility for security in the territory, deferred questions to the BVIEC and the BVIAA, stating that they organised the drills.

The BVIAA did not respond to requests for comment.

However, three days before the shooter drill, the agency did issue a press release informing the public of plans to host “biennial emergency simulation exercises” at its airports on Beef Island, Anegada and Virgin Gorda.

The notice did not mention the use of simulated gunmen.

“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 agency stated on Oct. 13.

The Beacon did not receive any other announcement.

‘A bit of panic’

Police Information Officer Akia Thomas told the Beacon on Oct. 17 that police assisted in both simulations and noted that the BVIEC exercise was part of a course titled “Security and Emergency Threats & Awareness Training.”

At the airport on Oct. 16, she added, the police jointly conducted the simulation alongside the BVIAA.

“We have no reports of any injury during the simulation,” Ms. Thomas wrote. “Initially there was a bit of panic, but officers informed tourists and residents that it was a simulation and were able to calm them.”

‘Where’s the police?’

Mses. Winter and Fister, however, told a different story.  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, it was a worker in the airport restaurant who confirmed that 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.’”