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Prayer followed by panic at Turlington Plaza leaves students shaken

A somber night turned into chaos Monday after a scare during a prayer vigil for the victims of the attack on Israel scattered the assembled crowd.

The University of Florida Police Department said panic ensued when someone fainted around 8:55 p.m., and students started yelling to call 911. Soon after, the crowd -- which some reports placed at around 1,200 people -- fled the scene, running and screaming from Turlington Plaza. Witnesses said some people were knocked to the ground and were unable to get up.

Five people injured in the rush were treated at the scene for minor injuries, according to UFPD. None were taken by ambulance to a hospital. Some individuals were either driven or drove themselves to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries.

About 20 people arrived in the UF Health Shands emergency room lobby within a 15-minute period, said Doug Bennett with UF Health Communications. Bennett said the injuries seemed to be mostly minor bumps or lacerations, and no one was admitted.

UF spokeswoman Cynthia Roldan said her office has been unable to confirm reports of a broken leg but is aware of an ankle injury.

Sixth graph – UF freshman Maite Usandizag was one of the many students at the plaza Monday night. She said she was confused when the panic started.

“I thought it was a shooter,” she said. “I was waiting for gunshots to go off.”

She said in the midst of chaos, she and her friends took shelter in a men's bathroom in Turlington.

“We stayed there on the phone with 911 for about 30 minutes,” she said. “We sat in silence on the toilets, and I was honestly waiting for someone to come and shoot down the doors.”

Stricken with fear and shock in the aftermath of the crowd rush, she said she broke down.

“I thought I couldn’t breathe and my roommate was about to throw up,” she said. “It was so scary, and the reality of nothing actually happening is not setting in because it felt so real in the moment.”

When police cleared the scene, traumatized friends and family held each other tightly, making calls to loved ones. The area where the vigil had taken place was strewn with shoes, shattered phones, and portable alarms in the aftermath of the crowd rush.

“We have no reason to believe that there was malicious intent behind this incident,” UFPD Chief Linda Stump Kurnick said in a media release. “It was an accident that was misinterpreted by the crowd that led to panic.”

Although UFPD ruled there was no inherent danger, many attendees said they were left traumatized.

“There were no thoughts going through my head except to survive,” said UF masters student Jordan Frank.

“I feel better now, but the image of everyone running at full speed, expecting a bomb to go off at any second while I couldn’t move will be seared into my mind forever,” he said.

Frank said his immediate thoughts were also that of a shooter, and he was expecting to hear gunshots fired at any moment.

“One Israeli talked about the constant fear they have to face just going through daily life,” he said. “This timed with everyone running and screaming for no obvious reason made me assume the worst.”

Organizers of the vigil said they hope the gathering will shed light on the tragedies in Israel — and will reassure students they are not alone in their grief.

“What we’re seeing in Israel right now is the latest in a long history of attempts to hurt the Jewish people,” said Rabi and Executive Director of UF Hilel Jonah Zinn. “This is something we’ve seen over and over again, and is, unfortunately, part of the Jewish experience.”

Naomi Rozenberg, a past Gators for Israel President and current Homecoming queen, agreed. Rozenberg, who was born in Brussels, Belgium, said she moved to the United States as a child due to the rising antisemitism. She said she's fortunate to have found such a supportive community.

“It’s incredibly humbling to do my part in making a change in what’s going on,” Rozenberg said.

She spoke of her mixed feelings as the 2023 homecoming queen, balancing excitement with sadness.

“As I struggled to deal with going onto the field while my people were suffering in Israel, and my family and friends were being reenlisted for the war, I was told by my family this is your Jewish pride,” she said.

But she said her family empowered her in the moment of emotional turmoil.

“'You go on th​​at field and show them the people of Israel are still alive, and that you’re a proud American and proud Jew,'” she said her family told her. “So that’s exactly what I did.”

In her speech at the homecoming ceremony, she reminded the crowd it was not too long ago the Jewish people faced similar persecution.

“This isn’t just Israel versus Palestine, it is a massacre of Jewish people,” she said. “We’re talking about the greatest amount of Jewish people killed in a day since the Holocaust.”

Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida posted a statement to their Instagram Tuesday and pleaded for peace on both sides.

“We hope that no more lives, Israeli or Palestine, are lost,” it said. “We pray for those who are suffering.”

“We stand in full support of Palestinian liberation, the resistance we are seeing today is a response to decades of oppression and inhumanity,” it said.

The organization is urging students to understand the context of people’s daily lives in Palestine.

“Turning a blind eye to one issue while closely scrutinizing another highlights the inconsistency in our attention and priorities,” the statement read. “It also is important to listen to perspectives we may not understand or agree with to move forward.”

An Israel fellow with UF Hillel, Shlomi Kahana, organized the prayer vigil. He said he daily calls his 2-year-old nephew, who tells him he is scared.

“I’m scared too,” said Kahana.

He said being in Florida, he doesn’t know what to do to provide help to family and friends.

“My entire family is in the bomb shelter,” he said. ‘I've organized this event to show the whole world what has happened is terrible and should never happen again.”

He also mentioned his friend, who was working as a police officer at the musical festival near Israel’s border with Gaza and was shot in the back two times. The friend is currently recovering in the hospital.

“Who does things like that?” he asked. “Those people were dancing for peace, and they were slaughtered.”

His overarching sentiment aligned with that of UF Hilel and Shabbat leadership in attendance Monday night:

“The only thing people need to understand is that we want peace,” he said. “We want to live in peace, and the world must know what happened over there.”

Zinn suggested students needing academic or emotional support should seek counseling at the University or to visit UF Hilel.

“This is hard for everyone, this is not how human beings should act,” he said. “These things should never happen to anyone.”

But he said the massive community support is his light that shines in the dark.

“Seeing the campus community come together to rally and to support the Jewish students during this time has been really powerful,” he said. “It’s a powerful message not only for campus but for the world.”

Discarded shoes, cellphones and scooters littered the ground at Turlington Plaza after a panicking crowd fled. (Bailey Korinek/WUFT News)
Discarded shoes, cellphones and scooters littered the ground at Turlington Plaza after a panicking crowd fled. (Bailey Korinek/WUFT News)

Bailey is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing