Istanbul terror attack witness: ‘It was like hell’

Story highlights

Witnesses say panic ensued as everyone fled

One witness saw a "flash of fire ball" in third explosion

CNN  — 

Terrified travelers tucked into alcoves and hid behind pillars.

As the attackers fired shots and detonated explosives at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Tuesday, people scattered to get away from the chaotic scene.

“There’s been a bomb!” travelers warned each other.

“Someone’s coming with a gun.”

Three terrorists armed with bombs and guns killed dozens of people at the busy airport in Turkey. Of the three bombers in the attack, two were at the international terminal, and the third terrorist was in the nearby parking lot, a Turkish official told CNN. All three detonated suicide vests.

There was little time to make sense of what was unfolding for the many passengers and staff at the airport.

Coverage from CNN Turk

‘Panic everywhere’

“It was like hell,” said Mine Iyidinc, a witness. “There was panic everywhere. We did not understand that it was a terrorist attack.”

At the airport, Will Carter had been in the baggage area when he felt a shake, which he described as a “dull thud” from two loud explosions. Carter sensed something was off because a shock wave seemed to reverberate throughout the airport.

“It was loud enough to know something was not right,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

About a minute later, he felt the third explosion. This time, he saw “a flash of a fire ball” inside the terminal. Panic and screams engulfed the room as Carter and other passengers fled.

The aftermath

Just minutes before one of the bombs would explode, airport employee Levent Karaoglan said he passed the area where it would detonate. He was inside a plane when he heard the explosion.

“I was heavily shaken by the explosion even though I was inside the plane,” Karaoglan said. “When I got back inside the airport, everywhere was covered with smoke, all of the windows were shattered and people were fluttering around.”

He started frantically looking for his colleagues. The explosion, he said, was near the counter where he usually works.

“My colleagues who work at the ticket sale desk, they were on the ground and crying,” he said. “A couple of my friends are wounded, hit on the head by different objects.”

The scene haunted him: “There are many casualties, legs, arms and everything, everywhere.”

Survivors walked through the damaged airport, their steps crunching the shattered glass and crumbled pieces of the collapsed ceiling. Blood pooled on the floor and the air reeked of stuffy, hot smoke.

“It looked like a disaster movie,” said one witness, Laurence Cameron.

Richard Kalnins had just landed at the airport and was on his way to passport control when people started rushing towards him screaming “‘bomb’, and screaming ‘gunfire,’ and everyone just turned around and started running,” he said.

They ended up trapped in a dead-end corridor.

“Panic just set in,” he said. “Kind of a frightening scenario, not knowing what’s going on, being stuck in a corridor thinking that perhaps around the corner is someone running around with an assault rifle.”

Three hours later, they were able to leave.

Outside the airport, desperate family members and friends waited for news of their loved ones and strained to see if they could spot familiar faces in the crowd of dazed and shocked survivors. They held pieces of papers with names of their loved ones, waiting for news.

The police officers’ uniforms were soaked in blood, said traveler Fatos Karahasan, who had been inside a plane that had just arrived in Istanbul as the terrorist attacks unfolded.

Once Karahasan and his fellow passengers were led out of the plane, they walked through the scene in complete silence as ambulance sirens blared in the background.

“There was a silence of death covering the airport all around,” Karahasan said.

“It was heartbreaking. It is a terrifying thing to see the cultural capital of a country in such state, under such conditions.”

Hiding out amidst chaos

Thomas Kemper was in the Turkish Airlines lounge when the bomb blasts went off.

“Everybody started running and went in all directions,” he said.

He ended up in a back room off the kitchen, where he hid behind some boxes with another man.

“You have all these images of the terrorist coming and trying to kill you,” he said. “You have these stories with Orlando and Paris and you think now they’re coming for you.”

After about 30 to 40 minutes, security personnel ushered everyone out.

Kemper, the general secretary for the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, said most of the people with him in the lounge were Muslim.

“This is a moment that should deepen our solidarity with all people who suffer from violence and terror,” he said. “I felt this common humanity among us, whatever our faiths, that we need to reach out and take our hands and change this.”

Journalist Nimet Kirac in Istanbul contributed to this report.