I have a bit of an unusual blog post this time. Usually, my blog posts are primarily sharing the photos I take. However, this time, I wanted to tell you about a scary and surreal experience I recently had while being close to a shooting while attending fireworks with a friend on the Parkway in Philadelphia, US.
The Philadelphia fireworks are by far the largest in the region. With Philadelphia being the birthplace of America, there tend to be a whole set of events for two weeks with the 4th of July fireworks being the “grand finale”. I had never been to those fireworks and, due to COVID, they had not taken place for the last three years so many, including myself, were looking forward to the event.
The afternoon started normal enough. We arrived in the city early in order to make sure we had a good parking space and to do some sight-seeing before the evening concert and fireworks. With the declaration of independence having been written in Philadelphia and Philadelphia being the original capital until 1800 it seemed very appropriate to see some of the historical sites in the birthplace of America on Independence Day. Below you can see some of the photos from the visit:
After some sight-seeing and grabbing some dinner we went to the actual event site, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Before the actual fireworks, there was a street festival with many activities and a concert. It was a beautiful day and evening and the turnout for the event was great, including many families with young kids. Attendees brought blankets and chairs and made themselves comfortable on the beltway to watch the concert followed by the fireworks.
The fireworks started uneventful. Everyone had gotten up and enjoyed the beautiful fireworks against the backdrop of the Beltway and the Philadelphia museum of Art.
However, minutes after the fireworks started, the atmosphere, which had been great, changed entirely within what seemed like a fraction of a second. People were visibly panicked and started moving away from the fireworks and Parkway, some running, some walking, some stumbling. It was completely unclear what was going on, but clearly everyone wanted to get out of there and things turned into complete chaos. As there had been a 4th of July shooting earlier in the day in Highland Park, many people were likely on edge and immediately feared for their lives. The fireworks did not help either as it sounded like shots being fired. This video, which I took accidentally while trying to get off the Parkway myself, give you an idea about the chaos we were experiencing.
It is hard to describe the feeling of the moment. It was remarkable to go from a relaxing, beautiful, evening with everyone enjoying the fireworks to a sudden panicked crowd trying to get out of the Parkway as quickly as possible while the fireworks were still going. It felt like a surreal, almost out of body, experience. There was visible panic on people’s faces and the main sentiment that overcomes you is a need to “get out NOW!”. You heard people running and screaming and some appeared to have fallen on the ground. Families were bringing their kids to safety. As you can see on the video, some people looked for safe spaces, such as behind cars while trying to figure out what was going on. Many were on the phone letting others know that they were ok or trying to co-ordinate with loved ones.
It was remarkable to see the switch from everyone just enjoying the fireworks on a nice evening to suddenly seeing fear and panic on everyone’s faces and everyone running. The change in mood happened very quickly. I was by a fence and before I realized it the crowd was pushing me into the fence. I was fine, but the fear on people’s faces and the panic that suddenly set in is something that I will not easily forget. One of the things that struck me is that everyone is in fear and trying to get out but nobody really knows what is going on at all. Survival instincts kick in and you are just trying to get out as quick as possible.
Later on, we learned that two officers were shot right after the fireworks had started. You can find a news article about the event, including the panic it created, on NBC Philadelphia. Luckily the officers recovered quickly and nobody else got hurt, but it was a very scary and surreal experience at the time.
We escaped through a side street and ended up by a Target, a local grocery/department chain. To our surprise, we actually had a better view of the fireworks from there than from the Parkway. At that location things appeared calm and safe as people were standing around and there was police calmly standing there. Many people stood around to watch the fireworks.
I have been reflecting on this experience. When you look at the main news sources, this shooting is hardly mentioned. Nobody got killed and in the overall scheme of things, it was a minor incident. However, it felt very different when you were there and you are suddenly in a panicked group of people trying to get away as soon as possible. The switch from everyone enjoying a nice evening with fireworks to being in fear and experiencing chaos was remarkable and something I will never forget. Although nobody got seriously hurt, it still was a very scary and traumatic moment impacting thousands of people. I can only imagine how the experience must have been like for young kids who were attending. Since that evening, I have told a few people about my experience and often get the reaction “I do not go to such big events anymore as I am afraid of getting shot”. It is a stark reminder that mass shootings are impacting people well beyond those who are actually directly impacted.