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The North Hollywood Shootout

In the Bank, a 'Huge Monster in Black' Yelled 'Hit the Floor!'

March 01, 1997|JILL LEOVY and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It took only seconds for a humdrum task to be transformed into an exercise in terror, for David Shapiro to start "eating the linoleum" after armed robbers entered his local bank and ordered everyone to hit the floor.

It took no time at all for bank customer Anita Hernandez to throw her body over her baby granddaughter, offering the only protection she had.

"I knew the bullets would go right through me, but I got on top of her anyway," said Hernandez, still clutching 23-month-old Onica Vega hours after her ordeal was finally over.

Fear, bravery and shock twined into one tight knot of emotion Friday for about 30 bank workers and customers held captive by men outfitted with body armor and automatic weapons.

As the eyes of the nation watched the drama unfold on television screens, tucked away from view were these men, women and children. They experienced the horror at ground zero, then found themselves crammed inside a bank vault, ordered there at gunpoint.

None was seriously hurt in the robbery-turned-gunfight that ultimately claimed two lives and injured 13 others. But the nightmare will not soon be forgotten.

"It was intense," said Matthew Shapiro, 16, who was trapped inside the North Hollywood bank with his father, David, until police let them out.

The Shapiros were part of a crowd of early customers who stopped to take care of business at the Bank of America near Victory and Laurel Canyon boulevards shortly after 9 a.m. Friday.

Minutes later, the masked gunmen strode in, interrupting the bank's workaday routine with a burst of gunfire and barking orders.

"I heard gunshots and screaming voices--men's voices--yelling, 'This is a holdup!' " Matthew said. "I looked up, and I saw this big guy all in black, like armor. You couldn't see his face."

Hernandez, 39, was also jolted. Standing in line while holding her grandchild, she suddenly caught sight of "this huge monster, this guy in black, with a big ol' rifle pointed down."

"I heard them yelling, 'All you mother-Fs hit the floor!' " Hernandez said. "I was afraid the baby would cry. I was afraid of irritating them."

Terrified customers dived onto the brown tile at their feet. The sharp report of more gunfire rent the air as the intruders commanded bank tellers to hand over cash.

"They were screaming, 'Get the money out or we will kill you!' " Matthew said.

A short while later, a group of tellers was separated from the rest, ordered to stay in the front of the bank as the robbers herded everyone else into a vault, captives said. Gingerly, the prisoners obeyed, fearful of making any sudden moves or provoking their captors.

"I slowly got up. I kept my head down. I was still looking at the brown tiles," Matthew said. "We all slowly walked through this big metal door.

"There was nothing left in there."

About 30 people jammed into the vault's antechamber, a space that measured about 15 by 7 feet, Matthew said. Beyond, they could look into another chamber. Both were empty, except for some safety deposit boxes.

For the first time, the captives dared to speak to one another in whispers, exhibiting surprising calm despite what one later described as the almost continuous sound of bullets being fired outside. Parents comforted their children, who included at least three infants and two toddlers.

"It was very hot," Hernandez said. "Everyone kept saying to each other, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?' My baby was like, where am I?"

One of the captives had a cellular phone and called police, allowing authorities to remain in constant communication with the captives, said LAPD Cmdr. Tim McBride.

A male bank employee tried to keep everyone quiet to hear what was happening outside. Seconds expanded into minutes, which passed with agonizing slowness.

"We just waited. What . . . else was there to do?" said David Shapiro, 42.

In the rising heat and long silences, his thoughts turned to family.

"I just stood there thinking about my wife and kids," said Shapiro, a Studio City resident who owns a motion picture marketing company. "I was just thinking about my son's safety."

"I kept thinking, how long are we going to be in here?" said Hernandez, worried that her granddaughter was getting hungry.

Thirty to 40 minutes went by inside the vault.

By then, the robbers had fanned out into the surrounding neighborhood, caught up in a shootout with police who found themselves outgunned.

As the locus of the drama moved away from where it began, officers swarmed into the bank to release and interview the captives for the next few hours.

Finally, directed by police, they emerged in single file, hands held over their heads. They were frisked by officers in case any of the robbers was masquerading as a captive.

In the bank lobby, they were reunited with the tellers who had been separated from the rest of the group. One woman was shaking from fear.

David Shapiro grabbed her and gave her a long hug.

By midafternoon, they were released by police, their trial over.

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