Atlantan scrambles through airport attack in Turkey

Staff writers Ernie Suggs and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.

Amid the panic and confusion erupting in the Istanbul airport was Thomas Kemper, huddled in a kitchen storeroom, fearing the terrorists were heading his way.

The Atlanta traveler had run frantically through a cacophony of blasts and screaming and shattering glass. The scrambling masses seemed to have lost control as people ran banging into each other in all directions.

Here, hiding behind some boxes, Kemper took refuge. He thought about God. He thought about his wife and three kids. He wished he could see them again.

And he wished the storeroom door had a lock.

Tuesday’s terror attack, which left at least 41 people dead and 239 wounded, has touched metro Atlantans in numerous ways. For most of us, it represents yet another strike in the steady drumbeat of such attacks. Who would have thought that such atrocities could approach the feeling of commonplace, so repetitive that it takes an effort to focus on the latest one?

But focus we must, said Mine Hashas-Degertekin, who grew up in Turkey but now teaches at Kennesaw State University.

“We cry for humanity right now,” she said, adding that terrorism has become a world problem. “It doesn’t hit one nation or one religion. It hits all of them.”

The 43-year-old teacher plans to fight back in her own way. She’s getting on a plane tomorrow to Istanbul for a visit with friends and relatives. She didn’t even think twice about it.

“Life goes on. This is about not letting the terrorists get in your way,” she said.

A New Partnership

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said these terror events have become learning exercises. Officials are already studying what happened in Istanbul so they can “harden the exterior of the airport,” he said.

Atlanta and Istanbul stand on the threshold of strengthening their ties. The two cities have a similar relationship with their big airports. They are the great symbols of each city’s international character.

In recent weeks, Turkish people in Atlanta had been celebrating the start of direct flights from Atlanta to Istanbul in May.

But then came the terror attacks at Ataturk Airport. Three attackers armed with firearms opened fire before blowing themselves up, according to Turkish authorities.

“We were so excited that we finally got a direct flight,” said Mona Sunshine, Turkish Honorary Consul General for Georgia. “People were coming to Atlanta to go to Turkey. Atlanta became the gateway.”

The reaction of Turkish people here to the attacks?

“Absolute terror, horror and disbelief,” Sunshine said.

Sunshine founded the local American-Turkish Friendship Council, and she’s the chairwoman. A few years ago, she accompanied Gov. Nathan Deal on a trade mission to Turkey. She visits there often. So it’s easy for her to remember walking through that airport’s customs area, heading outside to where people greet arriving guests.

That’s where one of the bombs exploded.

Across the way, she’s seen the parking lot where another bomb went off. The terrorists, she believes, wanted to attack without having to penetrate the intense security inside the airport. There, travelers have to show their ticket before entering the airport, and they go through numerous security checkpoints where they are quizzed as to their purpose for traveling.

A Difficult Decision

Mustafa Sahin has family in Turkey who planned to visit the United States later this week. So the attacks weighed heavily on his mind.

“They were going to be in the same airport tomorrow,” said Sahin, director of academic affairs for the Istanbul Center, which has offices in Dunwoody and Alpharetta.

The airport has resumed operations, but Sahin is not sure what his relatives will do. “They’re still thinking about it and they’re going to decide soon,” he said.

Turkish people here have watched with heavy hearts as their homeland has suffered a string of deadly attacks over the past year. The violence has compromised the country’s reputation as an oasis of stability and safety in volatile corner of the world.

Sahin’s organization used to take Atlantans to Turkey every year. The program stopped when things began to get bad. He doesn’t know when they will resume.

“It’s sad to see violence becoming more normalized,” he said.

A vigil for victims of the attack was slated for Wednesday night at Piedmont Park.

“It is just about solidarity, nothing else,” Mazlum Kosma, a housing official at Georgia Tech, said of the event.

Back at the Istanbul airport Tuesday, Thomas Kemper made his way out of the storeroom to safety. He is general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, which recently moved its headquarters to Atlanta from New York.

Afterward he reflected on waking up from a nap in the airport lounge to the sound of an “incredible” blast.

“I know Turkey had some risks, but I didn’t expect it to be in the lounge,” he said.