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A UT Student’s Response to Bomb Scare

by Larisa Manescu | University of Texas- Austin

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: September 14, 2012
headshot larisa manescu Larisa Manescu

I don’t have classes until noon on Fridays, allowing me abundant time to sleep in. But this morning I woke up to a message from my University’s text alert system that read, “Evacuation. Due to threats on campus immediately evacuate all buildings get as far away from the buildings as possible. Further information to come.”

Despite the urgent, and frighteningly vague implications of this message, my first thought was “Another one?” This Monday at around 3:45 p.m., the emergency siren sounded in around eight buildings on campus, leading to a mass evacuation of the buildings (but not the entire campus). I calmly walked out of my physical anthropology class, somewhat confused but generally unworried. It was later revealed that a roughly 30-something-year-old man was suspected of pulling multiple fire alarms. Thank you, adult prankster. I don’t know what your intention was, but the outcome was inexistent. Students remained nonchalant and somewhat skeptical, resulting in no dangerous stampedes or problematic overcrowding.

However, the details about getting as far away from the buildings in the urgent text alert received this morning screamed, “Bomb threat!” This was later confirmed when KVUE reported, “At 8:35 a.m. the university received a call from a male with a middle eastern accent claiming to have placed bombs all over campus. He said he was with al Qaeda and these bombs would go off in 90 minutes. President Powers was notified and it was decided to evacuate all of the buildings out of an abundance of caution.”

This morning’s events escalated quickly. A mass evacuation of a campus of 50,000 people, no matter the already-existing carefully planned-out preparations for such emergencies, will never be foolproof. The sluggish, rainy weather, especially for those lacking umbrellas and jackets that had to leave class and find distant shelter, not only added another inconvenient factor but also contributed to the ominous atmosphere. Phone lines, roads and sidewalks were gridlocked at once, as students and faculty attempted to simultaneously get as far away from campus as possible and let concerned family and friends know that the situation was under control.

While taking a shower, I missed three phone calls from my perplexed mother, catching her on the fourth call to tell her my apartment roommates and I would be leaving our place, as we were told to be at least a mile radius away from campus (as our apartment is .9 miles, it is a bit too close for comfort). Ultimately, we decided to stay inside due to the jammed streets we saw looking out of our windows.

Now I’m sitting here writing this at noon, watching Bill Powers speaking live at a press conference assuring the current safety of the campus. He seems distraught and uncomfortable, bombarded by critical questions about the efficiency of the UT response, particularly the time lapse between when the phone call was received and students were alerted through text. He claims that the text alert was sent “well before ten,” although my text message came in at 9:50 a.m., only ten minutes before the 10 a.m. warning the caller threatened.

Although classes have been cancelled for the day, buildings became accessible at noon and all activities (i.e. extracurricular activities’ meetings) are allowed after 5 p.m. Since the initial text alert, approximately two hours have passed, but it feels like more due to the cautious waiting, waiting for text messages, Facebook updates, tweets, and TV news. Waiting on UTPD (campus police), local news sources and campus newspaper updates. As KVUE Austin reports now, the general mood regarding the evacuation has descaled from “fear, to concern, to frustration.”

The abundance of available sources of information was overwhelming, but the constant inflow of updates from a variety of different sources was reassuring. In situations such as evacuations, “better safe than sorry” suddenly becomes an appropriate cliché. People should act first and wait to question the legitimacy of the threat until after the situation is cleared and settled. Although technology, particularly social media, has evolved news to the point in which we are updated by the minute, the additional information it provides can cause people to stop, hesitate and question (an undesirable response in the face of any real or perceived emergency).

For example, when the text first came out, people posted simple and instructional statuses and texts: “Get out of buildings. Leave campus. Be safe!” Afterwards, when it was discovered that the phone call came from a man with an alleged “middle eastern accent” that professed he had ties with al Qaeda, social media blew up with instantaneously politicized, skeptical and passionate responses. I was even one of those people; I thought, “Well, that just sounds unreasonable. It must be a joke; it’s probably someone taking advantage of the recent events in Libya and attempting to provoke prejudice against Muslims. Or maybe it’s even a desperate student not wanting to take a test.”

These types of suspicious thoughts are inappropriate for an emergency response on campus and should be preserved for analysis after the area is cleared and everyone is safe and secure. But the age of social media makes it difficult to keep these thoughts at bay during crises.

Larisa Manescu Larisa Manescu Larisa Manescu attends the University of Texas: Austin, double majoring in International Relations/Global Studies and Journalism, where she writes as an opinion columnist for The Daily Texan. She believes there is a severe issue with the public being too domestically focused, and uses any chance she can to encourage profound interest in other countries. She also believes there are huge inadequacies in mainstream journalism. Big dreams? Oh yes.

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