September 24, 2018

My experience in an active shooter incident

The Jewish Journal columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote the following in his blog (Rosner’s Domain, June 13, “5 Comments on How to Stop a Lone Wolf Terrorist”):

“Stopping a person who kills with a knife or a gun is a scary thing to do. The natural instinct of all people when such a thing happens is to flee. But reality is simple: The more people flee, the longer the attack continues. Citizens who have the courage to try to do something — throw something, hit the attacker with something — can make an attack much less deadly.”

I would like to share an experience I had that perhaps underscores his point. My military training may have saved my life and the lives of others when I found myself in the midst of a shooting. I still find the experience oddly vivid in some ways, but cloudy in others.

Sometime in 1979 (I forget exactly when), my then-wife and I were at LAX picking up her sister and brother-in-law from a flight from Israel. I seem to recall that what is now the international terminal was under construction, so we met them at the baggage claim around where Terminal 3 is today.

While we were standing at baggage claim, I — we all — heard shots. I looked through a large plate-glass window, and on the other side, I saw a woman holding what seemed to be an enormous handgun, shooting at people.

We — everyone — ran and hid. I pushed my now ex-wife under a bench, and then I slid in beside her. Within a few seconds, though, my military training kicked in. I was just three years out of the Marines, and I distinctly remember thinking, “I am not going to get shot and killed here, hiding, lying down.” I decided to fight. I got up and went toward the sound of the gunfire.

I remember thinking the moment I got up that the sandals I was wearing were noisy. They flapped. I kicked them off and sneaked toward the plate-glass window. (I have rarely worn sandals since).

I saw the woman stop shooting. I saw one wounded person through the glass; the rest had fled the hall. I then saw the woman walking out from the terminal to the sidewalk with the gun in hand, make a right and head our way. I yelled at everyone who was hiding in the baggage claim area to get out quick. People seemed frozen in place. I yelled again for everyone to get out.

I hid on the side of the entrance to the baggage claim with my back to the narrow wall holding the plate glass, next to the sidewalk, determined to attack her when she turned the corner. A young Marine in uniform was tentatively approaching me from the side. I looked at the insignia on his upper sleeve, and said “Lance corporal, when she turns this corner, you and I are going to take her down.”

Maybe seeing me go toward the window inspired him to join me. Not enough. I am sad to say that he thought for a brief second, then ran. I remember feeling alone.

She indeed came down the sidewalk and turned the corner. She was about my height (5 feet 9) or even taller. A big, heavy woman. She turned and faced me and still had the handgun in her hand right hand, but it was not (yet) pointed at me. I found myself staring into her eyes for what was probably a fraction of a second but seemed much longer. The white of her eyes (the sclera, to use the right word) were yellow. I saw what I could describe only as craziness. I felt mesmerized, swallowed up. Again, I think my military training kicked in, and I forced myself to into action.

I lunged at her before she could raise her gun. A man nearby, short but stocky, sprang up from his hiding place under some luggage right after I engaged her, bashing her with a suitcase. He and I got her down and pinned her. I seem to recall that I had her torso and he had her hands. When she slammed into the sidewalk, the gun spun out of her hand.

Very soon, a few of the people who had not fled the baggage claim area came over and began trying to kick her. The other guy and I yelled at them to stop, that we had her. I don’t think they were trying to subdue her; we had her under control, with my knee on her belly, and the other guy on her hands, as I remember it. It was a strange moment, holding her down while we both were trying to fight off a small mob that seemed to be trying to kick her to death.

That is when a police van pulled up and several SWAT team members burst out. I did not want them to think I was the shooter attacking a woman. With my knee on her belly, I put up my hands and yelled to them that she was the shooter. The luggage guy also put up his hands. The police could see the handgun on the sidewalk and that neither of us was armed.

People have asked why I didn’t run, why I went to fight. Wasn’t I afraid? Here is the truth: One result of Marine Corps boot camp was that I feared not doing my duty far more than I feared for my life. Honestly, I had no fear. I did not feel courageous. I just did what I had been taught to do.

One officer quickly pulled me aside to take a statement. I could see that other officers had hustled the woman off into the van, and still others were also taking statements.

I told him everything that I am writing here, and he wrote it in a notebook. He asked me to stay for a more thorough interrogation. We hung around for a while, but it seemed the police had forgotten about me. They had my address and phone number, so I figured they would call if they wanted more info. I never heard from the police, or anyone. Maybe the officer lost his notebook.

Of course, I told people about it. A few days later, someone brought me a Sentinel newspaper, which covered the African-American community (the shooter was African American). It contained a brief article on the incident. My name was not mentioned, but the article said that an ex-Marine had taken her down, but “slipped away before he could be identified.” It did not mention the luggage guy.

Here is what I want to say, affirming what Rosner wrote. When I saw footage of the attack in the restaurant in Tel Aviv, I saw people who were right next to the terrorists running away. They might have body slammed the shooters, or picked up a chair and beaten them senseless. Of course, most people don’t do that, because they are rightly terrified of getting shot. Civilians are not trained to attack.

I don’t know yet exactly what happened inside the Florida nightclub, but I find myself thinking of one shooter killing 49 and wounding more than 50. Had those hundred people charged the shooter with fists, chairs and bottles, the number of casualties would likely have been far less. I certainly don’t blame the victims. The human instinct is to run and hide. Had I not been a former Marine trained to run toward the sound of gunfire and not be led by the overwhelming instinct to run and hide, I am sure that I would have stayed under that bench. I have to believe that the Marine next me who took off was an anomaly.

After the shooting in 2015 at the African-American church in Charleston, S.C., I decided to offer instruction to my congregation for the event of an active shooter. About once a month at Shabbat morning services, I first remind the assembled group that the Department of Homeland Security directive is “run, hide, fight.” I tell people at the far end of the sanctuary, next to the emergency door to the parking lot, that they should open the doors, exit quickly and that others should follow them. Stay low. Don’t trample.

Then I address the people by the entrance. I want them to conquer their instinct to run, as the Marines taught me. I rather bluntly tell those sitting next to the entry doors of the sanctuary that they are likely to get shot if an active shooter were to come through that door. They have a choice to make: Get shot in the chest attacking, or in the back running. I tell the 20 or so people in that corner that in the case of an active shooter, to pick up chairs and rush the attacker and beat and disarm that person. Some will get shot, but far fewer than if they all turned and ran.

No one from the congregation avoids that corner of the room. Many people even opt to sit or stand there. No one whose regular seat is in the corner has moved away. A few people have stationed themselves right by that door. I look at them all when I talk about this, and they look right back at me.

Our security plan is more extensive than these instructions. For example, we also have an excellent lay security team in force every Shabbat morning.  We have a person who is working with incredible selflessness on expanding our security capability. My wife, Meirav, (who is an Israel Defense Forces veteran as well as executive director of our congregation, Ohr HaTorah) and I and others have specific roles, as well.

The main thing I want to say here is that if you are ever in a place where there is an active shooter, and if you are too close to the shooter to effectively run or hide, and you have to fight, then fight. Body-slam them. Use your fists or feet; grab a chair, a bottle, a book — anything — and attack. If you have time, train yourself in some martial art to get into the mindset of physical self-defense.

If you are going to get shot, get shot in the chest, not in the back.


Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Mar Vista, as well as professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus. Relative to this article: He is a former Marine Corps sergeant, and holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.