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Panic in the Plaza

ew videos show chaos of stampede at UF peace vigil, reveal police secretly investigating suicide-bomb threat


GAINESVILLE — The first substantial videos to emerge from a panicked stampede at the University of Florida during a nighttime vigil for Israelis killed in the Hamas attacks show waves of terrified students sprinting out of their shoes, discarding phones and water bottles and colliding with startled and confused police officers who had drawn their pistols searching for a possible gunman through the melee.

Two of them, Lt. Scott J. Silver and Capt. Kristy Sasser, raced downstairs from a balcony overlooking the scene last month where they had been watching, as seen on the newly released videos. Silver shouted into his radio: "Get me traffic right now!" As he reached the plaza, advancing with his pistol drawn, he yelled, "Down, everyone down, get out of the way!" Some students continued running past him; others crouched behind landscaping walls or brick table-like structures in the university’s Turlington Plaza.

Sgt. Stephanie Williams was in his university police cruiser parked at a nearby intersection when he heard Silver’s emergency signal and saw the human wave running toward him. He exited and ran south on Newell Drive toward hundreds of incoming students, who crashed into and bounced off him over the next 19 seconds.

"Watch out! Move, move, move, move, move, move!" he shouted, his gun in his hand.

The videos also revealed that police earlier the same day were secretly investigating an older man in the college town overheard by a neighbor saying he planned to detonate a suicide bomb inside a backpack "to kill a bunch of Jews." Students said they were not warned about the threat, which had not previously been reported. When a reporter asked organizers about it, they expressed surprise and asked to see the evidence.

The university administration, through a spokeswoman, declined last week to say whether it had been informed about the threat that night or considered warning the more than 1,200 students and others at the vigil. UF's new president, Ben Sasse, was at the vigil. "I'm going to defer to the PD on how they explain that," spokeswoman Cynthia Roldan said. "There are many moving pieces."

University of Florida students hold a vigil supporting Israel in Turlington Plaza before a scare caused the crowd to run for cover Oct. 9, 2023. (Augustus Hoff/WUFT News)
University of Florida students hold a vigil supporting Israel in Turlington Plaza before a scare caused the crowd to run for cover Oct. 9, 2023. …

The university’s police department, which did not answer written questions about the incident last week, said in a new statement Monday that the Gainesville Police Department didn’t warn it about the bomb threat until after the vigil had already started. Officers with the campus police department met privately among themselves at 7 p.m. on Oct. 9 to review its plans to protect students at the event and shut down some streets nearby.

“Prior to the event, a security plan was completed and there were no reported threats,” said the statement from Capt. Latrell Simmons. “After the event started, UPD learned of concerns that were shared by a member of the Gainesville community with GPD. UPD and GPD worked to ensure that there were no viable threats posed.”

In a new statement Monday, the FBI said it takes all such threats seriously. The FBI had not responded to messages about the investigation Friday last week or through the weekend.

“We will continue to share information and take action to identify and disrupt any potential threats that may emerge,” the FBI statement said. It urged the public to report anything they consider suspicious to local law enforcement or the FBI directly.

A UF student who attended the rally with her Jewish boyfriend gave her account from that night to university police in a formal report after the stampede. Her boyfriend's sister and the sister’s roommate suffered injuries from being trampled, she said. In a new interview Monday, she said a warning from UF about a bomb threat would have helped the group decide whether they felt safe enough to attend.

"That would have been better," the student said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she fears for her safety after that night. "It would have allowed us to make a more informed decision whether to go to the vigil. Having that information would have made a difference." She added: "I wouldn't have gone."

Fran Townsend, who served as the White House homeland security adviser under President George W. Bush, said the complex calculus of whether UF should have warned organizers or students more broadly depended on how convincingly police could have assured the university's president they could guarantee the safety of students from the bomb threat.

Unidentified Alachua County Sheriff's Office deputies, armed with assault rifles and pistols, are seen in newly released police body camera video searching the University of Florida Turlington Hall classroom building Oct. 9, 2023, after a a panicked stampede during a nighttime vigil on campus for Israelis killed in Hamas attacks. Police later concluded the students panicked because a woman in the crowd had fainted and her boyfriend shouted for others to call 911, not because of gunfire or an explosion. (University of Florida Police Department/Fresh Take Florida).
Unidentified Alachua County Sheriff's Office deputies, armed with assault rifles and pistols, are seen in newly released police body camera video …

"You rarely have that level of certainty," Townsend said in an interview. "I hesitate to criticize the university administration, but it sounds like from what we do know, it would have been a better practice to have spoken to the Jewish student groups." She added: "People send their children to universities where safety and security is part of the university's job. I do think that has to inform the decision."

Townsend said police may have convinced UF administrators the would-be bomber during the vigil was "wrapped up," either in police custody or under physical or technical surveillance. She said during her years in the White House authorities weighed when to warn publicly about terrorist threats, to avoid unnecessarily canceling large-scale events, giving publicity to people who make threats or disrupting sensitive national security investigations.

"We used to think about this at the federal level. You don't want to induce panic," she said. "The bad guys win."

At the scene of the stampede, which injured at least 30 students and made national headlines, police in the newly released videos said the FBI's regional joint terrorism task force was investigating the matter. A Gainesville police spokesman, Sgt. Joseph J. Castor, confirmed Friday the FBI was involved. The State Attorney’s Office said the matter was being handled by federal prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida.

This reporting by Fresh Take Florida, a news service operating out of the College of Journalism and Communications, is based on interviews, police reports and a review of more than eight hours of police videos obtained from that night. It represents the most detailed reconstruction to date examining events that night and the law enforcement response on the campus of Florida's flagship public university with more than 55,000 students and nearly 5,000 faculty and staff.

‘That person needs to hurt’

Twenty-four minutes after the stampede the night of Oct. 9, the campus police chief, Linda J. Stump-Kurnick, stood in the mostly emptied plaza – where students and others had scattered without warning and discarded shoes, phones, purses, bags, hats and flashing, noisy personal security devices in the chaos of their flight. In the midst of the disorder, she was receiving a private update from officers about the terror threat earlier in the day.

Police later concluded that the students panicked because a woman in the crowd had fainted and her boyfriend shouted for others to call 911, not because of gunfire or an explosion. In the videos, police found the woman nearby lying on her back being tended by her boyfriend and others. In her first interview to emerge since the stampede, she said she donated blood weeks ago and was feeling weak before she blacked out: "I think it was me," she said. "I think I scared everybody."

"About the call earlier, can you send it to me?" Stump-Kurnick asked Silver, who told the chief that police tracked the man accused of making the bomb threat to his apartment and used utility records to identify the account holder at that address. That led police to trace the man's vehicle and license plate number.

"That person needs to hurt," said Stump-Kurnick, then added a moment later: "with some jail time, if he did any of this."

The stampede marked one of the most shocking incidents on UF's oaks- and moss-lined campus since at least 2017. That’s when Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who spoke at the campus arts center sparked thousands of protesters, and his supporters fired a gunshot into a crowd near a bus stop. One was sentenced to 15 years on aggravated assault and weapons charges and another sentenced to five years on a charge of being an accessory to attempted murder. So far, the university has escaped the modern epidemic of mass shootings at American colleges and universities.

The recent violence in Israel and Gaza, where more than 1,400 Israelis died in surprise attacks Oct. 7 and thousands of civilians have died in Israeli counterattacks, is especially poignant at UF, which has the largest population of Jewish students among colleges and universities in the United States.

The new reporting uncovered that:

Within seconds of the crowd starting to scatter, at 8:58 p.m., campus police officers charged toward perceived danger with their guns drawn. Confusing police, some witnesses said they heard noises that sounded like gunfire. "It sounded like gunfire over there," a student told UF's police chief 60 seconds after the stampede. Hand on her pistol, the chief ran toward the corner of a building where the student pointed. Five minutes after the panic, Sasse, the university president, said: "There were two pop sounds over here, and the students started saying gunfire.” Police later discounted the reports. “There was no gunfire because we would have heard it,” officer J.D. Gentry said.

Confusion about whether gunfire had erupted on the plaza in the shadow of the university's landmark Century Tower lasted for as many as 22 minutes that night. A dispatcher asked, "Do we actually have any people wounded from gunshots, or is this just for people running?"

Two officers followed a blood trail through three floors of the Newell Hall classroom building nearby. “Blood, blood, blood, blood, blood. There is blood here,” Williams said to officer Joshua Jablanski, pointing at the ground. They later found a woman with a head wound and injured shoulder hiding with others in a downstairs office and escorted her to an ambulance.

Just 11 minutes after the panic, police radios came alive with reports of "shots fired" near the UF School of Landscape Architecture and Planning, about 700 feet southeast of the plaza where the panic started. Officers rushed to that scene – some armed with assault rifles and others riding bicycles – and spent 10 minutes searching every room of the open-air building but found nothing unusual.

Around the plaza, police found distraught, trembling, tearful students – some bleeding or otherwise wounded – and sought to console them. "Be gentle," the police chief told officers. "They’re helping each other right now." Silver, the lieutenant, urged one of his colleagues to speak to students, "Very, very nice. Very nice. Nice, friendly. We’re their friends."

A team of sheriff's deputies with assault rifles and drawn pistols searched the nearby Turlington Hall classroom building – where some students were still studying – to be sure there was no hidden gunman. At times, the group appeared disoriented and lost inside the labyrinth of hallways, classrooms, restrooms, elevators, stairwells and exits. Video showed they consulted maps on the walls as they stalked through the building. "It's like a frickin' maze," Gentry, the UF officer who led the deputies, said, according to his body camera. "Stairs? Gosh, I don't know where all the stairs are in the building."

Police waited for a bomb squad to sweep backpacks and bags left behind on the outdoor plaza where the vigil took place – the apparent target of the suicide-bombing threat earlier in the day – but it was taking too long. "We need to make a command decision whether or not it's even worth having them come. It's going to be another hour, right?" Deputy Chief David Baxley said. The university's own police dog, Beto, who had been on the scene since the start, needed rest to continue, police said. Impatient students wanted to collect their belongings. Discarded phones rang or pinged from owners trying to find them. "We can start letting people across the street," the chief decided.

Details of suicide-bomb threat

Details about the secretive police investigation of the would-be suicide bomber emerged in pieces during conversations among police that night.

Six minutes after the police chief's discussion about the bomb threat, Sasser, the police captain, was nearby outlining details of the Gainesville Police Department's investigation to senior fire officials who had arrived to treat injured students. "GPD was working a call, somebody overheard their neighbor saying he was going to kill a bunch of Jews and he was going to get a suicide-bomber backpack, and so we were looking into that, and then this happened," she said.

Later, the city police lieutenant said the investigation included polygraphs: "We're following up on it, with lie-detectors and stuff," Gainesville police Lt. Steven Bradford said.

The man accused of making the threat was not identified by name but described as in his 60s in the police videos, which were obtained under Florida’s public records law. He has not been arrested, according to a review of jail and state and federal court records.

Seventeen pages of police incident reports from that night, also obtained under the state’s records law, were heavily censored. The uncensored passages do not mention the bombing threat or FBI investigation.

It remained unclear whether police had briefly detained the man that day or watched him to be sure he didn't attempt to carry out the alleged threat. UF's campus and surrounding neighborhoods include dozens of fixed cameras that capture the license tags of every vehicle driving through the area and can be programmed to alert law enforcement when a specific car is nearby. It wasn't clear whether the man's car was being tracked after police found his plate number.

Even before someone is formally arrested, charged or convicted of a crime, university police can ban individuals from UF's sprawling campus with official trespass orders. No such order has been issued to anyone fitting the bomb suspect's description since Oct. 9.

One of the rabbis at the vigil, Aaron Notik of the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Center, declined Sunday to answer any questions about that night.

Police charged toward perceived danger

In the earliest moments of the stampede, Sasser, the university police captain, was a few paces behind Silver running downstairs. “What happened, what happened?” she shouted.

“I was trying to get down the stairs,” Silver said later. “I was like, what the f— is going on?”

Sasser had been on the phone upstairs discussing the suicide-bomb threat investigation at the moment the panic started with her colleague across town, Bradford. "Oh, sh--," she repeated a few times before hanging up.

Bradford later recounted to Sasser, "Boy, you scared me. That didn't sound good, sounded like something bad was happening, better start sending people that way." Even without hearing further details, Bradford had directed every available unit to UF’s campus. He said people began dialing 911 seconds after Sasser hung up on him.

Police found the woman who had fainted – and who inadvertently set off the chaos – lying with her head propped against a brick landscaping wall around the corner. “This came on really fast,” she said. She was surrounded by her boyfriend and two women. "What happened was, she passed out, and I started yelling, 'Call 911,' and I think that's what caused everyone to run," the woman’s boyfriend said, exhaling a huge sigh. Police did not identify them.

Officers were offering to let students use their police phones to call friends or family for rides or to tell parents they were safe, but students said they hadn't memorized any numbers. A student at nearby Santa Fe College, Nayana Wing, 24, lost her dog, Koda, in the panic and asked police if they saw him. The dog turned up four days later blocks away under a family's porch.

In interviews, students said they feared for their lives.

“I had no idea what was going on,” said Caitlyn Schiffer, 20, a journalism student from Plainview, New York, who said she bruised her arm and suffered gashes from when the crowd pushed her down onto concrete and trampled her.

“In the matter of a second I was like, I need to get up or I'm going to die," said Schiffer, who was at the vigil as a reporter for WUFT News, the local NPR affiliate that gets most of its stories from UF students. "Because in my mind at the time, there was a shooter, and if I don't get up at this moment, my life's going to be over. ”

Another student, Inbal Amit, a physiology major from Plantation, Florida, said she was terrified. “I was like, this is it,” she said. “This is the hate crime that takes me and my friends.”

Maya Shamash, 20, a Jewish biology major from Wellington, Florida, cowered in a bush with her older sister, Liel, an engineering major, during the chaos. The women hid for five minutes, texting their family that they loved their parents and believed they would die.

“It’s so difficult seeing everything that we've seen that's going on in the Middle East to say, that's not going to happen here,” she said. She added: “We are a target, and we know we’re a target.”

Even later that night, there was confusion about what sparked the panic and whether it was intentional. "It was on purpose, it was on purpose," Silver told Baxley, the deputy chief. Silver was suspicious that strobing personal safety devices fleeing students dropped in the crowd were part of a deliberate plot to sow fear.

Baxley, responded, "I don’t know, there’s competing theories, Scott," and added: "It was like a perfect storm, right? The crowd was already on edge."

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at loren.miranda@freshtakeflorida.com. You can donate to support our students here.


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