Otunba Wanle Akinboboye is the founder and president of La Campagne Tropicana Beach Resort, Corporate Guard and Motherland Beckons, Atunda Entertainment and many others. He was at the Atakurk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey, when terrorists attacked the place earlier in the week, but he miraculously escaped to recount the horrific experience to ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA. Excerpts…
Describe for us your experience particularly the time that you were at the airport?
My flight came in from York City at about 12.10 in the afternoon (Monday June 27) and my flight back to Lagos, Nigeria was not until the next day (Tuesday June 28, day of the attack) for 2.10pm. I had scheduled the flight that way so that I could hold some meetings in Istanbul. I went to town to hold my meetings and do some sightseeing (City tour).
I came back to the airport and I decided to stay at the business lounge because they have basically all the amenities there. A place to sleep, a place to shower and as a matter of fact they have a mini golf course there, a billiard table, screens to watch movies and unlimited food and drinks.
So, I knew that I will be well catered for. I decided to come back in about 9. But passing through the system and going in and five to 10 minutes after we had sounds of gunshots and instantly I recognised the sounds to be that of AK 47. Then there was immediate response.
Immediately after the response there was a humongous explosion because one of the terrorists had detonated a bomb. Of course, you had stampede, thousands of people running and then the second bomb went off. Then the third bomb went off.
Everybody had to be kept in a holding area. It was a bloody affair, very, very bloody because everywhere was drenched with blood. And of course, what do you expect when 45 people were killed and hundreds of others injured?
What went through your mind when the first shots went off and then the subsequent ones; what were you thinking of at that point in time?
Well, I am not easily fazed by the sound of gunshots because I am familiar with gunshots. I really wasn’t agitated but I knew that we were under attack and instantly I knew that it must be terrorists attack. But I was wondering in my mind ‘what is the mission?’ Is the mission to just attack police officers or to kill people?’ That was what was still going through my mind when the first bomb went off.
I had moved away from the area and we were already running, everybody was on top speed and unfortunately children were trampled upon, all kinds of stampedes. When the first bomb went off I knew that the second one was going to go off because it is usually two bombs that these people (terrorists) operate with.
I did not expect the third one, I thought it was going to be double explosions but it ended up being three major explosions. It was very scary, very callous and very wicked. When it all died down and the terrorists were killed, I think about three of them, one or two were killed and I think the last one killed himself because he detonated the bomb strapped onto him.
They started a process of evacuation but I think even they were not too comfortable with the fact that people would still be at that airport because they were not sure anymore and they were shocked that they could be penetrated in that manner. They were shocked that they had the audacity to come into the airport.
They were not really sure who was who, so they decided to evacuate everybody from the airport. What was amazing for me was the speed of that process because you can imagine 10, 000 people trying to go through like about 10 immigration exit points.
You can imagine the chaos with 10, 000 people at the same time trying to go through 10 exit points. Because the other police officers were busy with evacuation, they immediately started a clean-up exercise. I left about 3.30am, the whole thing started by 9am and the evacuation started about 12noon to 1pm. I happened to be one of the first 50 people that left.
I was reading the direction, the way they wanted to move and I was trying desperately to get out. Because I was not comfortable with the way we were all clustered together. There could still be one or two of them (terrorists) there waiting to detonate a bomb.
So, I was really worried as we were all clustered together trying to go through that immigration point and you don’t know who is who. We were just about two, three or four black people, Africans that I could sport. But luckily when we got out of the terminal building there were taxis that were already provided free of charge and there were buses, lined up to take people to anywhere they wanted to go.
I had to just pick any hotel and they took me to that hotel. What I took away from it was that it was magical, it was miraculous.
That is the word, miraculous. Later I went back to the airport, because I just said ‘let me go back and see what was happening’. Luckily I had checked my bag straight from New York to Lagos so all I had on me was my carryon luggage.
I took that with me to the airport to just get an idea of when the flight would leave. I got to the airport I think about 5.30am in the morning (Wednesday June 29) I didn’t see any one single spot on the floor, everywhere was cleaned up and even some broken glasses had been fixed. If I had not been there I would not know that anything had happened.
Everybody was on queue; the crowd there was greater than that of the previous day. The first flight left I think about 3.45am that morning and our flight left at 2.30 in the afternoon right on the dot. In one hour they had done the security sweep, the bomb sweep and they had confirmed that the environment was clean and safe. And flights were back.
It was quite mind boggling for me. My first experience. My visa I got online, as it took me three minutes to process my visa online. It was a learning curve for me. I was particularly blown away by the level of high tech management of the situation.
But looking back now how close to death would you say you were?
Well, I could have been any of the 45 people because we were all together. We were just the lucky ones, they were to take with them all the thousands of people there; that was their intention because they were ready to die and take as many people as possible with them.
I was less than five metres away from the person that died. It is a large airport and we were all inside. This shows you that it could have been anybody because those of us alive were all lucky.
So you would say you are happy to be back home, safe and sound?
Well, I think so. You have to be happy to be alive. We were just lucky because it was so sudden. It happened so fast, some police officers lost their lives also.
What flight were you on back to Nigeria?
Was it the same Turkish Airlines that took you to the US?
Yes, it was Turkish Airlines, Lagos – Istanbul – New York and my return was New York – Istanbul – Lagos. Eight, nine hours from Istanbul to New York and about six and half hours from Istanbul to Lagos. I am just grateful to be alive.
What is the lesson in this for you and perhaps for Nigeria too?
The first thing is about crisis management, accepting that something has happened and act very fast to make sure that it does not destabilise the system or spread further. Ataturk International Airport is about the second largest airport in Europe; you are talking about an airport that even before you enter they screen you.
It is not like the case here where you go straight to the counter because most airports you just go straight to the counter to check in. But before you get to the counter you will go through thorough security checks because as you enter the first thing that you encounter is security checks.
With all of that they (terrorists) were still able to penetrate because they have signed to die, and how do you kill people that want to die? How do you scare people that are not afraid of death? They have signed off already. The lesson for us in Nigeria and those of us waiting for security to be 100 percent before we start tourism development, we don’t really know what we are talking about because security anywhere is not full proof or 100 percent. So, the lesson is that you must make sure that the right things are put in place, the right structures are in place.
You must also make sure that you have a response time to take care of issues. The absence of that is what people refer to as lack of security. They know that things would happen but how quickly can you respond? How quickly can you recover?
How quickly can you react and how quickly can you solve problems? Everybody knows all over the world that there is nowhere that is 100 percent full proof. The World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. So, nowhere in the world can be completely safe.
If this had happened here in Nigeria one week after we would not be able to pick up, and would still be talking about what has happened. But these people (Turkish) were prepared because it is like they knew that it might happen. They were prepared for it.
You recall that when you (the reporter) and I spoke, you said ‘don’t go near the airport, go to where you think you are safe. Stay in the hotel, listen to the news and make sure everywhere is safe before you go near the airport’. But who would have thought that a few hours after the attacks flights had taken off from just the same airport.