Five children and three adults were shot Wednesday afternoon by a gunman who opened fire at a busy South Los Angeles bus stop minutes after classes were dismissed at a nearby school.
In a scene of chaos that authorities were still trying to piece together, witnesses described a gunman who seemingly appeared from nowhere and began spraying the crowd indiscriminately. As bystanders dived to the ground, some adults swept up children from the path of gunfire.
Some witnesses told police the man had been on a bus and argued with someone after getting off. But others said he was already in the crowd. Police were investigating the possibility that the gunman had an intended target and caught others in a spray of bullets.
A 12-year-old girl, the most seriously wounded, was shot through the chest and was in stable condition at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles late Wednesday, officials said.
Tomasa Gutierrez, 32, had just gotten off a bus and was walking among dozens of students near Vernon and Central avenues when she heard a volley of shots. A girl in front of her collapsed in her arms, wounded.
She scooped up the girl and rushed her back to nearby George Washington Carver Middle School, Gutierrez said.
"It was a little girl," she said. "I had her in my arms until the paramedics came."
Guadalupe Olivos, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the school, was crossing the intersection shortly after 3 p.m. when the gunfire exploded. "Everyone just dropped," the student said.
Investigators were unsure of the motive for the shooting and were still searching for the gunman Wednesday night.
Witnesses initially told police an African American man between 18 and 24 years old fired about 15 rounds from a semiautomatic handgun into the group of blacks and Latinos, many of whom were waiting for buses in front of a fast-food restaurant. Afterward, the gunman -- who police said was wearing a white T-shirt, blue pants and appeared to be about 5 feet 7 and 160 pounds -- calmly walked away.
"This [area has] a density of foot traffic like few places in the city. There were tons of people and tons of traffic around," said Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz.
"It appears he was shooting indiscriminately into the crowd," LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith added. "It is not clear who he was shooting at."
In addition to the 12-year-old, four children ranging in age from 10 to 14 were grazed by bullets, as were a 49-year-old woman and two men, ages 48 and 68. Six victims remained hospitalized late Wednesday night, including three children.
Alejandro Montiel, a cashier at a Jack in the Box restaurant on Central Avenue, said a girl sitting at a window witnessed the shooting. She broke into tears and called police on her cellphone, he said.
Amir Khani, owner of a discount store next to the Jack in the Box, said he was unloading groceries from a van in front of the store when he heard the shooting. He said he looked up to see a man put a gun in his pants and flee the scene, heading north.
Another man ran through his store and out the back, he said, and at least one motorist had a window blown out by gunfire.
Khani, who has operated his store since 1989, said the shooting was not a surprise.
"These things, on this corner, happen all the time -- street fighting, gangbanging," he said. "We see a lot of things around here. It's not surprising, because it happens all the time."
He said neighbors had asked police for more patrols because there are three schools in the immediate area. He said between 2 and 5 p.m. the streets are bustling with students, and that is when most of the gang activity occurs.
Alex Pascual, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, said he was among a group of students who remained in the school cafeteria because officials initially thought there could be a gunman on campus. He saw a young girl "running to the school all bleeding," he said.
The bloodshed extended a string of unconnected mass shootings in recent weeks across Los Angeles and Orange counties. Though crime rates have generally declined in recent years, Wednesday's attack occurred in the LAPD's Newton Division, which has seen the number of shooting victims increase about 26% so far this year compared to last year.
There have been five homicides in the area so far this year, the same as last year. But most of those fatalities have been in recent weeks. Historically, the area is among the most violent areas of the city.
Gutierrez, who carried one girl to safety, said that the neighborhood was known for gang activity and that this was the second time there had been a shooting in the area.
"We fear for our lives here," she said.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Jaqueline Morataya, 9, said she and her mother were trying to find an older brother, Alexander, 13, a Carver student. A friend told them the boy had been eating with friends at the Jack in the Box near the intersection when the shooting began.
Diaz, the deputy police chief, said there were numerous witnesses.
"We are highly confident we will be able to identify and capture this guy," he said.
Wednesday's violence comes after a month of high-profile shootings that began Feb. 7 when SWAT Officer Randal Simmons was killed during a siege with a San Fernando Valley man who had killed his family members.
Less than a week later in Oxnard, a 15-year-old boy was shot by a classmate. In Northeast Los Angeles on Feb. 21, Avenues gang members got into a shootout with police that left two dead and paralyzed a large swath of the city for much of the day. Two days later a Yorba Linda man killed his wife and three children before turning the gun on himself.
Monday night, a Baldwin Park man allegedly killed his mother and two neighbors.
Times staff writers Paloma Esquivel and Rich Connell contributed to this report.