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Witness to NYC shooting: Everyone started running for cover

August 24, 2012|By Tina Susman and Andrew Tangel

NEW YORK -- The clear sunny Manhattan morning was perfect for taking in the view from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. As the Midtown neighborhood buzzed during rush hour Friday, tourists lined up to enter the skyscraper, and merchants began opening their shops. 

One of those shops is Hazan Imports, and one of the people who showed up at its door was Jeffrey Johnson. But Johnson wasn’t there to work or to shop. Police say he was there to seek revenge for having been fired a year earlier, and the picture-perfect morning quickly turned to chaos as Johnson pulled a .45-caliber handgun and began shooting, with police firing back.

“I thought they were firecrackers at first,” said George King, who was on his way to work and had just turned from 34th Street north onto 5thAvenue when the gun battle -- which would leave Johnson and another man dead -- erupted. “Everybody started running for cover along with me.”

PHOTOS: Shooting near Empire State Building

A young woman running beside him fell to the pavement, blood pouring from her foot. She was one of nine people wounded in the gunfire. None of the injuries was life-threatening, according to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said some of those wounded might have been hit or grazed by police as they gunned down Johnson.

At a news conference, Kelly described Johnson as a “disgruntled” former employee of Hazan who had been laid off about a year ago after six years on the job. He initially said Johnson was 53 years old, but police later said Johnson, who had no apparent criminal history, was 58 and lived in Manhattan.

Bloomberg emphasized that the shooting was not terrorism-related. But that didn’t make it any less terrifying to the people caught up in the melee in one of Manhattan’s busiest areas, especially in a city still haunted by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

A New Jersey man who did not give his name was stepping out for a cup of coffee and saw the first fatal encounter, between Johnson and a 41-year-old man who has been described as his former colleague at Hazan. From across the street, he saw the gunman, dressed in a business suit, shoot the victim in the face, twice.

The gunman then stood over the victim and fired again. “He just kept shooting him,” said the witness, whose account matched that of the police commissioner. Kelly said the co-worker was shot at least three times in the head. 

Photographs taken by witnesses showed the gruesome aftermath: a man sprawled on the sidewalk, wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and a river of blood running from the back of his head across the pavement into the street.

Construction worker Guillermo Ratzlaff was standing on scaffolding ringing the Empire State Building when he heard two shots, then four more and saw the first victim lying on the ground. Screaming bystanders scattered. “People just went everywhere,” said Ratzlaff, 29, of Brooklyn. “I thought it was terrorism at first.”

The shooter nonchalantly walked east on 33rd Street and appeared to reload his handgun after gunning down his first victim, Ratzlaff said. “He just walked like nothing happened,” Ratzlaff said. When a passerby tried to stop the gunman, he was shot too.

Rebecca Fox’s voice shook as she related what she saw as she walked to get a cup of morning coffee and saw people running. At first she thought they were chasing after a celebrity. But she quickly realized this was no star sighting. “I saw a woman sitting up against the building with her foot that had been shot,” she told reporters.

Fox also saw Johnson after he had been killed by the police. She said officers rolled him over onto his back and Johnson appeared to lift his head slightly before it dropped again.

Jaquee Boothby, who works for Fox News, was walking along the street when she heard gunshots. A woman fell at Boothby’s feet. Boothby crouched down to try to hide from wherever the bullets were flying, she told Bill Hemmer on Fox's "America’s Newsroom" program. “I got back up and I tried to help the woman; tried to prop her head up, do whatever I could,” she said.

“When the shots happened, everyone just fled the intersection and just ran in any… way that they could,” said Boothby, who like other witnesses wondered at first if this was real gunfire, fireworks, or perhaps just the normal sounds of a huge and bustling city.

Steve and Shelly Raab, a couple visiting from Clintonville, Wis., were in the Empire State Building taking in the view when the shootings occurred. It was their first trip to New York City, and they were not even aware anything had gone awry until they left the building. They appeared to shrug off the violence and were more concerned with whether they would be able to snag tickets to the "Late Show With David Letterman."

“It’s an interesting city,” Steve Raab said. “I’d expect something like this to happen, maybe not on this scale.”

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