Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Panic In Dam Square: Or, How I Thought For A Moment That This Birthday Might Be My Last

Today is Bevrijdingsdag, or Remembrance Day, in The Netherlands. It is a day to commemorate all who were lost in World War II. Tomorrow will be Liberation Day in which the Dutch celebrate their freedom from the Germans. 

The Queen came to speak in Dam Square in honor of the event, which is a pretty big deal since she lives in The Hague and it seems like she'd rather visit any city except Amsterdam on holidays. 

I went to Dam Square about fifteen minutes before the ceremony was supposed to begin. There were WAY more people there than I expected. Dam Square isn't all that huge so I thought there'd be a few hundred tops. From stats I heard later, there were tens of thousands of people. 

I couldn't even make it all the way to Dam Square. I made it a few meters from the corner of the buildings that open into the square before the mass of people became too dense to let me through any further. I was pretty upset about this because I couldn't even see the huge tv screens projecting the speakers, let alone the actual podium, because the Dutch are so freaking tall. 

As I waited for the ceremony to begin, as at every high profile large event I attend, I started thinking about terrorist attacks. I know, I'm weird. I guess when you never even know what a terrorist is until 9/11 you just grow up paranoid. 

I thought that if someone were to attack this event, it wouldn't be anything too major because, I mean c'mon, it's just Amsterdam. I had heard something about an assassination attempt on Queen Beatrix at Queen's Day last year... my morbid thoughts kept spiraling as they are prone to do and I was soon contemplating an attack during the moment of silence that I had been told would occur at eight o'clock sharp. I quickly shook that thought out of my head. Even terrorists wouldn't be so cruel as to disrupt a moment of silence, even if they are cruel enough to kill hundreds of people. The only person I could think of who would be so disgustingly disrespectful was Hitler, the man whose cruelty we owed this very ceremony to. 

The ceremony began with some music playing and (as far as I could tell from the tiny corner of tv screen I could see) soldiers laying flowers around the national monument. A few people I didn't recognize said a few words that I didn't understand because it was all in Dutch. Then, one of the churches in the town began ringing for eight o'clock.

I remember counting in my head with each bell. Practicing my Dutch numbers. Een. Twee. Drie. Vier. Vijf. Zes. Zeven. Acht. I used the moment to think of all of the people in my own life that I've lost and then thought of the greater losses of the world. I remember staring at the backpocket of the man in front of me as I thought. 

My thoughts were broken by a scream from far away, immediately followed by another higher pitched one. At first, I thought it was kids playing a few streets away, unaware of the time or the ceremony. I barely had time to think that, however, as more screams joined in. Just as I registered that all of the actual square that was beyond my view was screaming, the entire crowd to my right (on the Dam Square side) began running. 

It was more like pushing and shoving. You couldn't run with how tightly everyone had been standing. It was like falling out of a canoe into fierce, uncontrollable rapids. I saw the men around me ducking down with their hands over their heads as they pushed their way against the wall of buildings a few meters behind us. Seeing their actions, I assumed they must have been able to see what I could not because I was too short to see above the heads of the Amazonian-like Dutch. I followed their actions, fearing bullets, debris from an explosion or an approaching army of enemies. I saw the wide-eyed, slack jawed looks of terror on the faces of people sparing half a second to glance behind us. Whatever it was, it was coming our way. And fast. 

Soon, people had abandoned the ducking and were just running. I began running too. I fell down. I tried to get up, but the density of the crowd made every action take ten times more effort than it would have otherwise. As I summoned the strength to push myself back up amongst the kicking limbs, I thought I am NOT going to die here. I am not going to die being trampled. I will survive this. 

I pulled myself up and began to push my way through the crowd. I immediately encountered a woman who had fallen on her back. Legs bent, pale face distorted in utmost horror. There were a few people around her trying to barricade the crowd to save her from being trampled. I briefly considered staying to help, but as the crowd continued to pass me at a quickening rate, I made the selfish decision to keep going. 

I noticed the open doors of a building and dashed inside, quickly calculating the risks in my head. If "it" was some sort of debris from an explosion or a toxic gas filling the air, I would be dead if I stayed in this building with its open doors. But if it was bullets outside, I would be safer in here. 

I didn't need to think much longer on my decision, however, because as soon as I was in, it seemed like things were slowing down outside. People were saying it was okay. I furtively hovered in the entryway of the building for a few moments. I saw journalists standing on top of their trucks, snapping photos and recording footage, and I wondered if they had been there the whole time. I would never have the guts to do that.

I finally stepped outside the building, back into the dissipating crowd. It was apparently safe to be outside and in Dam Square, but what exactly had happened, no one knew.

 Dam Square post-panic

As I made my way out of the building, I over heard various people say it was an old woman who screamed at some horses, a huge piece of glass that had been dropped and a few people still insisting there had been a small explosion.

I leaned against a sign post and tried to digest everything that had just happened. I was far enough away from the main crowd now that I could actually see the tv screens. I resolved to stick around to hear what had actually happened. It wasn't until a few minutes later that I noticed a sting in my right knee. Looking down, I saw I was bleeding steadily through the hole in my jeans. 

When the tv screens finally turned back on, I was too far away to hear anything. So, if they told us what happened, I had no idea. I stayed for a bit longer, but, without being able to hear, it wasn't too intriguing.

I rode back home in a bit of a haze. I couldn't believe the reaction to nothing. For the first time in my life, I had genuinely thought I might die. Yet, nothing even happened. News broke in the hours after I returned home. The current information says one man was on a cell phone during the moment of silence and, when people tried to shush him, another man dropped a suitcase into the crowd while the first man started shouting. While the situation no doubt looked a little suspicious, I don't know that it merited such a response. 

Regardless of the legitmacy of the reaction, it was a terrifying situation to be in. The crowd was so huge and so dense that no one could have known what was happening. It was the people, it turned out, everyone was running from. There may have been no other danger and many people may have been aware of that the whole time, but when a stampede is coming, you don't just stand there. 


On a lighter note, I returned home to find that my roommate had decorated my side of the room as a surprise for my birthday!

A birthday banner Dwight Schrute would be proud of (inside joke for devoted Office fans)

Lots of balloons! (and my very messy desk/bed area)

She even took a Lorax photo of the Lorax in the birthday display!


Joanna said...

Wow. That's terrifying. I mean, I make jokes about you being too little, but wow...

At least you had a birthday to remember?

Anonymous said...

uhm, wow...articulate, huh? Really (really) glad you're OK and remember to be careful out there--it's a v cool world with loads o'magic, but every now and then, well....

Ethan said...

Talk about a memorable birthday. Glad you're okay.