People were being allowed back into Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport to reclaim their luggage and belongings where a gunman opened fire yesterday, killing a security officer, and wounding others.
The officer is the first from the Transportation Security Administration to die in the line of duty. He was identified by the agency as Gerardo Hernandez, 39. The shooting halted flights in and out of the airport, stranding thousands and delaying flights across the U.S. The suspect was identified as Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, of Los Angeles, the FBI said.
Witnesses described havoc when gunfire broke out at 9:20 a.m. local time in Terminal 3, home to JetBlue Airways Corp. and Virgin America Inc. Police traded gunfire with Ciancia, wounding him and taking him into custody, authorities said. By late yesterday, the airport was restoring normal operations, with the exception of Terminal 3, which remained a crime scene. Officials, who were seeking to establish a motive, said a quick response by airport police saved lives.
“Because of the actions of those individuals, many lives were saved here at this airport,” said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. The terminal remains closed today with only ticket counters open while the FBI investigates the incident, spokeswoman Lourdes Arocho said.
Ciancia had more than 100 rounds of ammunition, according to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Six people were sent to area hospitals, according to James Featherstone, interim Los Angeles fire chief. Officials halted departures from the airport, evacuated terminals and closed nearby freeway exits. The shooter, Ciancia, is hospitalized in critical condition after being shot in the head and leg, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The TSA officer killed was the first to die in the line of duty, according to J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 45,000 agency employees.
Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents were seeking to determine the alleged shooter’s motivation. A briefing is to be held between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. local time, which will include TSA Administrator John Pistole, Arocho said.
“The TSA doesn’t anticipate a change in our security at this time,” said a TSA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “However, passengers may see an increased presence of local law enforcement officers throughout the country.”
U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed throughout the day on the shooting and discussed the incident with Garcetti and Pistole, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.
The suspect was wearing fatigues and a bag with a note saying he “wanted to kill TSA and pigs,” the AP reported, citing a law enforcement officials who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Ciancia sent a text message mentioning suicide to a sibling, the AP reported. His father called Pennsville, New Jersey, Police Chief Allen Cummings yesterday saying another of his children had received a text message “in reference to him taking his own life,” the chief told AP.
Yesterday morning, the suspect entered Terminal 3, pulled an assault rifle out of a bag and opened fire, Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon said at a press conference. He proceeded past the screening area of the airport, exchanging gunfire with authorities.
Nick Pugh, 46, of nearby Long Beach, was there to board a Virgin America flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport to watch his brother run in the New York City marathon. He said he heard eight to 10 shots.
“Everybody dropped to the ground almost instantly and started wiggling around like Army men,” Pugh said in an interview.
Pugh said he still hoped to make it to New York by tomorrow for the marathon. “I’m not sure I want to go to this airport again, though,” he said.
As many as 746 flights were canceled, delayed or rerouted, according to Gina Marie Lindsey, the airport’s director. Planes heading to Los Angeles were being held on the ground at other airports, the Federal Aviation Administration said on its website. The hold was lifted at 4 p.m. local time, Lindsey said.
Travelers should check the LAX Twitter account for updates, officials said.
TSA officers aren’t armed and don’t have the authority to make arrests, even though they are assaulted almost daily, Cox, the national union president, said at a briefing. The public views them as law enforcement because they wear uniforms and have badges, yet they aren’t trained in the same way.
“People will assault the officers and walk away,” Cox said. “Our officers can’t make an arrest.”
JetBlue and Virgin America said their crews were accounted for. Virgin America halted all LAX flights. Other airlines at Terminal 3 include Allegiant Travel Co., Frontier, Spirit Airlines and Virgin Australia.
The airport is the fifth-busiest in the U.S. by domestic passengers, and the biggest carriers are United Continental Holdings Inc.’s United Airlines, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc.
For United, American and Delta, it’s a base for U.S. flights as well as a gateway for trans-Pacific routes. Many airlines issued waivers for Los Angeles passengers to rebook without penalty.