Whom Would You Trust If You Were Trapped in the Airport During a Coup?

“We were strong for each other. I don’t think I could have been as clever or as grounded had it been just me by myself.”

An illustration of two friends holding hands while a military tank drives by the window.

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two women—one American, one French—who were supposed to be on the same flight out of Turkey on the day of the July 2016 military coup, but who got trapped in Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport overnight instead. After a chance meeting, they implemented a buddy system to stay safe that night, taking care of each other and doing their best to keep their spirits up. Every summer since, they’ve taken a trip together to commemorate the anniversary of the coup, and their meeting.

The Friends:

Katherine Davey, 31, an elementary-school teacher who is on hiatus to travel the world, currently staying in Istanbul
Aline Petit, 40, an improv teacher at Impro Studio who lives in Paris

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: You both were at the airport trying to fly out of Turkey on the day of the coup. What was supposed to happen that day?

Aline Petit: I was on a holiday to visit some friends in Turkey, and I went to the airport to take my plane to go to visit another friend, who lives in a little village, Sanavardo, in Georgia.

Katherine Davey: I was living primarily in Greece at the time, working a job where I didn't really make a lot of money, so I came to teach English in Turkey that summer. I had always wanted to go to Georgia, because it's supposed to be the birthplace of wine and it's supposed to be a pretty country, so I thought for enduring the big city all summer long I would reward myself with a little trip.

Beck: How did you two meet? At what point in the day did you realize something was wrong?

Katherine: We met in the boarding area. I was fiddling around on my phone and she kept looking at me. I had Wi-Fi [from my phone plan]. Aline came over and was like, "How are you getting the Wi-Fi to work?," because Atatürk Airport’s free Wi-Fi [wasn’t working]. I told her it was just my plan, and we chitchatted. Nothing serious.

Then, when we were getting ready to take off, one of my friends was texting me saying that there was a tank on one of the bridges. I was like, That's weird. Then they decided to cancel all the flights. All they told us was that there was a military situation, so Aline came up to me because they were announcing it in Turkish. She was making sure that I understood what was going on. Then we both kind of looked at each other, and I think you said it first. You were like, “Let's have a buddy system. If we have to go out, let's stay together.”

Aline: I think we spent two hours in the plane before going out.

Katherine: Finally, when they let us out of the plane, we thought that we were just going to exit the airport. We were going into the passport line to leave, and there were tanks on the tarmacs. Then we thought we heard gunfire, and everybody was shouting “Get down!” Aline was thinking of the Bataclan.

Aline: I was so traumatized. My first thought at the time was, We have to go away because we will be killed on the floor.

Katherine: In the passport line, it's like a weird labyrinth. You’re stuck in that line, so it was like fish in a barrel.

Aline: Between the little houses where you have the police who check your passports, there was a man in between each with weapons.

Katherine: I just remember being on the ground and thinking, Okay, this is it. They're going to start shooting everyone. And then my phone was dying. I was like, I can't even call my mom.

Aline: I had to leave immediately. I said to Katherine, “We go, we go, we go!” But Katherine said, “I cannot move,” and I said, "I don't care. We go!" Then I went and Katherine followed, and you left your bag.

Katherine: If we had to run, I didn't want that horrible orange duffel bag. We shoved money in our bras and [grabbed our] passports, and I think I took my credit card too. Then we ran to the bathroom. I still can't decide if that was a good idea or not.

Aline: We will never know, and I'm happy that we will never know.

Katherine: When I followed Aline, I didn't turn back to see what was going on behind us, but I remember seeing the tanks on the tarmac and I remember seeing the boots. We decided to go to the women's bathroom because it seemed like the safest place. We didn't want to be in plain sight.

Aline: There were no shops, nowhere to hide. Only a very wide corridor with, like, an escalator, but not escalating—

Katherine: The moving walkway.

Aline: The only place we could hide was the toilets.

Beck: How long were you in the bathroom? Were other people there? How did you pass the time?

Aline: We spent five hours in the bathroom. Three hours? I don't know.

Katherine: Other women started to come in. People started to feel safer. I remember airport staff were like, “It's okay. The military is here to help you.” We didn't understand that it was a coup just yet. We were charging phones. Other women were there smoking, and we took a sip of raki to steady our nerves because we were shaking.

Aline: I had the idea after one hour, when I was a little less upset, to take the drink out and share with the women.

Katherine: Then we decided to leave the bathroom.

Aline: We’re thinking, Okay, now we must be out of danger.

Katherine: But then the F-16s came.

Aline: I think it was two in the morning, like 10 minutes after we went out of the toilets.

Katherine: The sonic boom was so intense that the glass in the windows was rattling. I remember we just looked at each other and we were like, “Are we going to get bombed?” We didn't understand it was Erdoğan.

Then when it was clear that it was going to be okay again, we found a Turkish Airlines counter that had a little bit of tea. There was a group of Swedish travelers and a group of Uzbekis there. Aline started this music game to kind of calm everyone's nerves and take our mind off of what was happening.

Aline: It was an improv game that I was trying. I don't remember which one.

Katherine: Did you just sing the tune of a song and we had to guess who sang it? I don't remember either. We were all delirious at this point. It was four or five in the morning and we were still kind of spooked, but it felt good to focus on that. I remember almost having fun.

Aline Petit and Katherine Davey.
After several stressful hours during the 2016 military coup, Aline Petit (left) and Katherine Davey (right) decided to smoke in the nearly empty Atatürk Airport. (Courtesy of Aline Petit)

Aline: I know that improv is the answer to everything. When I proposed this game, I was [thinking]: Let's forget what is happening to us. We don't have any control in anything. Let's just have fun together and realize that humans being together and supporting each other is the most important thing.

Katherine: Everyone was hungry; everyone was thirsty. I don't know who had dessert, but at some point some sweets got passed around.

Aline: We smoked in the morning because we were like, “It’s the only opportunity to have a picture of us smoking in the airport.” Nobody would fine us; there was no one. That’s why we could steal so much tea from Turkish Airlines.

Beck: How did it all end?

Katherine: We were in this weird limbo zone where we didn't really know what was going on. We didn't know that it was over. People were sharing news and hearsay. Some people started picking things up and leaving.

Aline: We were in the international zone, too. I think we slept one hour, from six to seven or from seven to eight. Then staff began to come at nine or something like that.

Katherine: The airport just started to come back to life. We had to go through passport control and get our exit stamp canceled. Then we had to go to our airline and redo our tickets, and then go back through passport control. It was kind of like Groundhog Day, where you have to do it over again.

Aline: They took my raki bottle because I opened it during the coup, and I was so pissed off. I mean, I opened this bottle because we needed to drink.

Beck: It seems like the buddy system worked.

Aline: I don't know how I would have survived without Katherine.

Katherine: We just felt safer automatically. There was someone to lean on, there was somebody to make decisions with, and you felt stronger.

Beck: What happened when it was time to say goodbye, when you finally got on your flight and then went your separate ways in Georgia?

Aline: When we arrived in Tbilisi, Katherine went to her hotel. We exchanged our phone numbers. We said we'll stay in touch.

Katherine: We didn't see each other in Georgia, but a few weeks later I was passing through Paris. We went out for a drink and then I spent the night with her. It felt like seeing an old friend, even though we only knew each other from that night in the airport. Then we stayed in touch after we said goodbye the next day. I don't know when we decided to go on a trip together.

Aline: We said that we wanted to celebrate every year on the 15th of July [the day of the coup].

Aline Petit and Katherine Davey.
Aline and Katherine traveled to Azerbaijan for their 2018 anniversary trip. (Courtesy of Aline Petit)

Katherine: A friendiversary.

After I spent the night with her in Paris, the next summer was the first anniversary. The first trip was Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro. Then the next year we wanted to go to Uzbekistan, but it's really hard for Americans to get a visa there, so we went to Azerbaijan.

Aline: I picked that location because in Azerbaijan they speak dialects close to Turkish.

Katherine: Then this summer we went all around France and Italy.

Beck: Neither of you lives in Turkey full-time—does it help to have each other to talk about the politics there and what you went through, when other people around you might not understand?

Aline: I know that governments and people are not the same. I wouldn't like people to see France, or me, the way [I see my] government today. I've never lived in Turkey, but I have all my family on my mother's side and a lot of really important friends to me. I'm really feeling bad for them because they are living in a very bad political situation, and especially for women.

Sometimes we speak about that and we share our fears about this country, because we know that it's paradise on Earth and it's getting like a nightmare. I think about the people that are living in Turkey, and especially women. Men, too, because they lose from that. They don't go to each other's houses, because they are afraid. They are always suspicious about each other.

Aline Petit and Katherine Davey.
For their first anniversary trip in 2017, Aline and Katherine traveled through Europe. One of their stops was in Sarajevo, Bosnia. (Courtesy of Aline Petit)

Katherine: I'm not Turkish. Nothing xenophobic has ever happened to me here. But as a woman, I've noticed a significant change in the comfort that I feel here. It's gone downhill. I used to feel safe.

Aline: We must be on our guard all the time.

Beck: You got to know each other first in a very intense situation. What were the things you learned about each other immediately on the night of the coup that normally you might not learn about a friend until later?

Aline: I just felt immediately that I could trust Katherine.

Katherine: It just seemed right. I felt safe. I don't know if I can even express why I felt that. I knew it was going to be okay, even if it wasn't. As the night progressed, she was smart and had resilience. When we played that game, it was like, Okay, you know how to keep spirits up. I think that that's really refreshing and very rare.

We were strong for each other. I don't think I could have been as clever or as grounded had it been just me by myself. Because there was someone else to take care of, it made us clear-headed.

Aline: Because of this intense situation, we have been really lucky in finding each other. Katherine is really interesting and cultured. I can speak about everything with Katherine. We never had any blanks when we were speaking. There was always something to grab.

Katherine: It was never awkward. We can be totally ridiculous with one another and we can be total bitches. If I don't feel like a proper human being, she's accepting. She just 100 percent accepts me for who I am, no matter what mood, and forgives me for it.

This summer, I was especially difficult and we had this long conversation. It was like, Oh okay, I can be this open and this terrible and you won't hold any grudges. You'll forgive me for it. I felt like a new person almost immediately.

It's normal to be protective of friendships, and we protect our relationship. But we also let ourselves be vulnerable. I think that that doesn't happen enough in a lot of my other friendships.

Aline: We were both needing to have a friend at the time. We could have survived alone, but we both wanted to be friends.

Katherine: I remember it was your neighbor who told us that we were sisters of fear. I think that made an unbreakable bond.

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