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LAX shooting: Gunman targeted TSA officers, wrote anti-government note

A Transportation Security Administration agent was killed and several other people were wounded when a gunman opened fire in a Los Angeles International Airport terminal Friday morning.

November 01, 2013|By Dan Weikel, Scott Gold, Richard Winton, Brian Bennett, Joel Rubin, Joseph Serna, Ari Bloomkatz, Samantha Schaefer, Kate Mather, Matt Stevens, Jill Cowan, Alicia Banks and Laura J. Nelson

LAX shooting: The latest

A composed, solitary gunman shot his way into Los Angeles International Airport on Friday morning, killing a transit security screener and injuring at least one more before being wounded by police and taken into custody. The incident was over in less than 10 minutes, but caused chaos at the world’s sixth-busiest airport and disrupted thousands of flights across the nation.

The gunman was identified as Paul Anthony Ciancia, a 23-year-old New Jersey native who lived most recently in Los Angeles.

Authorities declined to discuss the gunman’s motivation publicly. But a law enforcement official told The Times that a note was found on the gunman expressing “disappointment in the government” and saying that he had no interest in hurting “innocent people.” Ciancia also sent a sibling a text message last week suggesting that he was prepared to die, officials said.

It appears the gunman targeted unarmed Transportation Security Administration agents. Another law enforcement official told The Times that investigators were looking into the possibility that the shooter “wasn’t a fan of the TSA.”

Authorities said he approached several people cowering in the airport terminal, pointed his gun at them, asked if they “were TSA,” and then moved on without pulling the trigger if the answer was no. And a witness told The Times that the gunman cursed the TSA repeatedly as he moved through the terminal.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the union that represents 45,000 TSA flight screeners, called the shooting a “heinous act.” The gunman was not a TSA officer and “never had been,” according to the union, the American Federation of Government Employees.

The TSA was created in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in an attempt to improve the safety of American transportation. The agency was charged with developing new methods of tightening airport security and preventing hihackings, but is most familiar to the public in the form of its battalion of blue-shirted screeners, who cannot make arrests and do not carry weapons.

A classmate of Ciancia’s said Friday that the suspected gunman was a loner and had been bullied at his private high school.

 “In four years, I never heard a word out of his mouth,” said David Hamilton, who graduated with Ciancia from Salesianum School in Willmington, Del., in 2008, and is now an editorial assitant at a publishing firm in Philadelphia. “He kept to himself and ate lunch alone a lot. I really don’t remember any one person who was close to him.”

Officials did not immediately identify the 40-year-old screener who was killed. In all, seven people were injured. Six were taken to area hospitals. It remained unclear if the gunman and the TSA officer who was killed were included in that total. All of those injured were adults, hospital officials said. Some were not shot but suffered what authorities called “evasion injuries” — injuries sustained as they attempted to run.

Shortly after 9 a.m., the man entered the third of LAX’s nine terminals through the main door, pulled an AR-15 assault rifle out of a bag and “began to open fire,” said Los Angeles World Airports Police Chief Patrick Gannon.

The man walked up one flights of stairs, to the entrance of the security checkpoint; it is there, officials said, where at least three TSA officers were shot. He then entered the airport itself, walking with determination past a candy shop, a newsstand and a bookstore. An airport police officer and sergeant engaged the gunman in a brief gunfight near a food court.

“They hit him multiple times before he went down,” said one law enforcement source. A witness said the gunman was wearing a bulletproof vest.

As the gunfire echoed through the terminal, panic erupted and harrowing screams ricocheted down the corridors.

Travelers and employees crawled on the floor and ducked behind planters and advertising kiosks. Passengers tripped over each other and abandoned baggage as they barreled backward through the security check.

Jonathan Paul, 36, of Santa Monica, looked up from a newsstand and saw a wave of terrified people racing toward the main entrance. He said some were shouting: “Go! Go! Go!” Some travelers were halfway through security when the shooting erupted, and raced for the doors with their shoes and belts in hand.

Others, guided by no one and unsure where to go, pushed open emergency exit doors and fled the terminal. Some raced across tarmacs — one woman ran out of her shoes — and some attempted to seek shelter on planes that were still taxiing outside.

Brian Adamick, 43, who was preparing to board a Spirit Airlines flight for Chicago, for his brother’s wedding, was among those who escaped the terminal by running onto the tarmac. Before long, buses arrived to evacuate passengers. A wounded TSA officer with a bloody ankle boarded one of them.

“I got shot,” the officer told Adamick. “I’m fine.”

Stephanie Rosemeyer, 26, was awaiting a flight to Chicago when she saw people running toward the exits. She stood up to look for the source of the commotion, and found herself looking directly into the gunman’s eyes. She took a step, and said she heard the gunman curse the TSA. She was among those who raced onto the tarmac and was evacuated by bus.

“There was no one directing anything,” she said.

Vernon Cardenas, 45, was one of the last people still inside Terminal 3, and was trying to determine whether he’d be safer running or staying when he found himself face to face with the gunman. The gunman, dressed in dark clothing and no longer carrying a bag, had his weapon pointed to the ground and stared directly into Cardenas’ face.

“He wasn’t moving like he was being chased,” said Cardenas, the executive chef at State Social House restaurant in West Hollywood who was preparing to fly on Virgin America to Philadelphia to conduct auditions for the television show “MasterChef.”

Rather, Cardenas said, the gunman was moving slowly and methodically; Cardenas said he thought instantly of the grainy surveillance footage of the teen shooters moving through Columbine High School in 1999 — “roaming around with nowhere to go.”

Cardenas ducked outside, through an emergency exit, and remained there until a law enforcement official game him a thumbs up through the window, indicating that it was safe to come back inside.

Outside the airport, a surreal scene unfolded as travelers hurried with rolling bags and strollers past a sea of ambulances and a phalanx of heavily armed law enforcement officials.

The ripple effects of the shooting will last for days on global travelers. Three terminals were evacuated and shut down. Flights were restricted into LAX for six hours. At least 118 flights en route to LAX were canceled or rerouted; 135 departing flights were canceled and 127 departing flights were delayed at least 15 minutes. Several plans full of passengers spent hours parked at a remote corner of the airport.

Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, said getting operations back to normal would require a “carefully orchestrated logistical ballet.” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called LAX “a very difficult place to come to and travel to.”

Six hours after the shooting, passengers were still wandering the streets surrounding the airports, emerging from random sidewalks and roadways as they looked for a way out. Many rolled bags, a few pushed carts full of luggage. Others had small dogs or children. People begged anyone in a uniform for information about whether terminals were open, or where they could go.

A crowd flooded the intersection of Century and Sepulveda boulevards as police provided occasional updates on loudspeakers. While waiting to cross the street, a man jokingly shouted to an officer: “Can you get us a taxi?”

The officer laughed: “If you find one, let me know.”

Passengers hoping to catch Friday afternoon flights from LAX tried something Angelenos rarely do: They walked to the airport. With nearby roads and freeways blockaded, pedestrians walked across Imperial Highway, some nervously checking over their shoulders for nonexistent cars.

Stephen Hartley, 59 of Chicago, had flown into Los Angeles to be with his daughter after her emergency appendectomy.

“I'm just going to walk until they say I can't,” he said, before striding into the street.

Passengers walked across the exit ramps from the 105 Freeway and headed into the eerily quiet Sepulveda Boulevard tunnel. The only sounds were the echo of footsteps and the clack of rolling suitcases on the pavement.

“This is pretty eerie,” said Sandra O'Brien, of Minneapolis. “It feels like the ending of a disaster movie.”

Others took it in stride.

Francis Specker, 50, of Riverside, was supposed to take a 10:30 a.m. flight to New York out of Terminal 3. Specker was on the shuttle bus when the vehicle was told to turn around; he eventually walked to a nearby hotel and was hoping to catch a later flight.

Specker lived in New York during the 2001 terrorist attacks and said Friday’s shooting was not a huge surprise. “I guess this is sort of the new normal, right?”

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