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SHOOTING AT LAX

Thousands Wait for Hours as Incident Delays 35 Flights

Scene: Shooting turns a holiday into chaos and bewilderment for crowds at the airport.

July 05, 2002|JESSICA GARRISON and KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Thirty-five departing flights and about 10,500 passengers were delayed by the Independence Day shooting at Los Angeles International Airport, acting Police Chief Martin Pomeroy said Thursday night.

As a day of fear stretched into the hours of darkness, hundreds of travelers still waited behind police tape in front of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, where the bullets had flown. They stood 50 abreast, in a line stretching from the terminal doors out into the street that runs in an oval around the airport.

Their ranks reached for hundreds of yards. Most of them wore expressions of anguish and impatience.

The Fourth of July was a day of bewilderment, even chaos, at LAX, affecting everything from the air transportation system to personal schedules. As departing flights were canceled or postponed, nine arriving flights destined for the Bradley terminal were diverted to remote gates.

Travelers were thrown into confusion the moment the shooting started. People screamed, fell, ducked and ran. They dropped everything, including their passports and wallets. "You must leave now! This is not a request!" an airport police officer shouted in English to people from abroad who could understand hardly a word.

"This is an order! Let's go! Move!"

The Bradley terminal was closed. The ticket counter and parts of Delta Airlines' nearby Terminal 5 also were shut down for a time, apparently as authorities investigated rumors of a second gunman. Part of the terminal reopened after five hours, but only to people with boarding passes. The line of people waiting for taxis grew to be two terminals long. Thirty-five flights were delayed, and some passengers waited up to eight hours.

At 4:15 p.m., Mayor James K. Hahn declared, perhaps with an excess of optimism: "The airport is resuming normal operations." Airport and airline officials said all remnants of confusion would be over by today. Hahn encouraged the public to continue with flight plans. "There is no reason," he said, "for the traveling public to shy away from air travel."

Hahn took the opportunity to remind interviewers of his $9.6-billion plan to improve LAX security. But neither the mayor nor other transportation officials could say that they had solved the question of how to prevent a shooting just inside a terminal's front door.

Late into the night Thursday, portions of the Bradley terminal seemed anything but normal. Frustrated travelers milled around, carrying bags, guitar cases and surfboards. Mothers hunted for snack shops where they could buy their crying children something to drink or eat.

About a third of the stranded passengers had been on connecting fights, and many had no notion how to reach where they were going. But officials from domestic airlines said that because the terminal closure primarily involved international flights, the incident had little impact on other U.S. airports.

Yifat Beinglass, 26, said she was going to Tel Aviv on El Al, the airline whose ticket counter was the scene of the shooting. She ducked into a nearby kitchen when the gunfire started. "I thought it was fireworks at first," she said.

At 8 p.m., she was still trying to get onto a flight, which she had heard was rescheduled for 2 a.m.

Sherri Nelson of Ft. Riley, Kan., had been headed for Mexico City with her children, ages 1 1/2 and 8, to attend her mother's funeral. She said the kids were hungry. "There's nothing to eat, and to get to the restaurants, you have to have a boarding pass."

She looked ruefully at her toddler, who had fallen asleep in the stroller. In a tone of understatement, Nelson said: "He got a little cranky this afternoon."

Worse, she said, her flight was supposed to have left at 4 p.m., and now she had no idea when it would depart.

Marvin Lee, 22, was on his way from New Zealand to Brazil. He had been standing at the Varig ticket desk when he heard what seemed like five or six shots. Everyone turned in the direction of the shooting and hit the floor, he said. Then people began to get up. Lee saw people dashing toward him. He said everyone hit the floor again.

"I was petrified," Lee aid. "I've never heard a gun before in my life. We don't even have guns in New Zealand."

He hid behind the ticket counter until the police ordered him to leave the terminal. Then he tried to call his mother, but he could not get through. So, Lee said, he passed the time reading a book about vampires.

Exhausted travelers mobbed one of the Bradley snack shops. They bought every bag of corn chips and beef jerky they could find. Many did not wait to pay for them before they ripped them open and began eating.

Connie Ariaga said she had left Atlanta the day before, bound for Manila. She was eating an early lunch when it was interrupted by the gunfire. Ariaga and her 4-year-old son dropped their food and hid behind a trash can.

Now the youngster sat in a stroller outside the snack shop, opening a bag of jelly beans. "I'm starving, and we're eating junk food," his mother said. "But at least this store was open."

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