While thousands of travelers and commuters were trapped inside of and on the tarmac of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Sunday night, four Forsyth County firefighters and fire crews from around the Atlanta area pitched in to sort out the night of chaos.
Among those stranded at the airport was Cumming resident Katie Mull and her family, who also witnessed it unfold firsthand.
According to Forsyth County Fire Department Division Chief Jason Shivers, Engine 14 was dispatched to the Atlanta airport as part of a nationwide program called the Georgia Mutual Aid Group — or GMAG — that connects fire departments from neighboring areas to help deal with increased need or demand.
Shivers said that GMAG being put into play isn’t at all uncommon, but an engine being sent so far afield is.
“This happens every day. It’s the way we do business. But going to the Atlanta airport is unusual,” Shivers said. “It is a fairly unprecedented event to evacuate the world’s largest airport.”
Shivers reports that Engine 14 left Forsyth County bound for Atlanta about 6 p.m. and spent the entirety of its six-hour shift there “on standby and responding in rotation to medical emergencies.”
Shivers said the GMAG system is used every day across the state, and this situation was good evidence the National Incident Management System (which every station is required to be a part of) works regardless of circumstances.
“We all understand and work within a command structure,” Shivers explained.
“The circumstances, while they were unique, don’t matter. When you take the circumstances away, it’s just as if we helped a neighbor out.”
While Shivers saw one side of the Atlanta airport blackout, Cumming resident Mull said
operations inside the darkened Hartsfield didn’t work quite as smoothly.
She and her family were expecting a short flight home from Orlando, so when their plane landed on time, no one was prepared for the ordeal they were about to experience.
“When we landed, the pilot immediately came over the loudspeaker and said that ‘it looks like our terminal is out of power,’” Mull said.
She recounted that over the next four and half hours the passengers of her plane sat and waited with only a half a cup of water each, watching as ambulances and fire engines streamed past the hundreds of planes stranded on the runways.
“Everyone was surprisingly calm,” she said. “And the pilot kept coming on and saying sorry.”
Mull said that after nearly five hours stranded, her plane was allowed to taxi closer to the airport, and its passengers were allowed to disembark into Gate F — the terminal farthest from the main concourse.
“We were led into a series of hallways, and they were mostly pitch black. But every 20 feet or so was a Delta, or Hartsfield employee lighting the way with their own cell phone,” Mull said.
According to Mull, once the passengers got into the terminal they were stopped by police and airport employees that gave them no explanation of where to go, or what was going on inside the building.
“We didn’t know anything, and no one told us anything.” Mull said. “It’s like there was no plan in place, and that was frustrating because we had been sitting on the plane for four and a half hours.”
Eventually, the passengers were allowed to venture through the darkened building led by employees with flashlights.
Mull said that after all the waiting inside the building and the gridlock after evacuating the building, she and her family got home at 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
“It wasn’t Delta’s fault, but there was no one to help us, and there was no plan,” she said.