LOS ANGELES – A man carrying a note that said he wanted to “kill TSA” pulled a semi-automatic rifle from a bag and shot his way past a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, killing one Transportation Security Administration officer and wounding two others, authorities said.
The gunman was wounded in a shootout with airport police and taken into custody, authorities said. His condition was not disclosed.
The attack at the nation’s third-busiest airport sent terrified travelers running for cover and disrupted more than 700 flights across the U.S., many of which were held on the ground at LAX or not allowed to take off for Los Angeles from other airports.
The TSA late Friday identified the slain officer as Gerardo I. Hernandez, 39. He is the first TSA officer killed in the line of duty in the 12-year history of the agency, which was founded in the aftermath of 9/11.
The FBI and Los Angeles Airport Police identified the gunman as Paul Ciancia, 23, of Pennsville, N.J. He had apparently been living in Los Angeles.
It appears Ciancia targeted TSA agents, who are not armed. 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. A witness said the gunman cursed the TSA repeatedly as he moved through the terminal.
A law enforcement official said Ciancia was wearing fatigues and carrying a bag containing a one-page handwritten note that said he wanted to kill TSA employees and “pigs.”
The official said the rant refers to how Ciancia believed his constitutional rights were being violated by TSA searches and that he’s a “pissed-off patriot” upset at former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The note and the gunman’s rifle each had an orange TSA inspection sticker on it.
Ciancia had at least five full 30-round magazines on him, said the official, who was briefed at LAX on the investigation. The official said Ciancia was shot in the mouth and leg by two airport police officers. Another official briefed on the incident at LAX said the gunman had been shot four times but was “stable” when he was transported to the hospital.
Early Friday afternoon, Ciancia’s father in New Jersey had called authorities for help in finding his son after the young man sent one of his siblings a text message about committing suicide, Pennsville police Chief Allen Cummings said.
The chief said he called Los Angeles police, which sent a patrol car to Ciancia’s apartment. There, two roommates said they had seen him Thursday and that he was fine, according to Cummings.
Cummings said the Ciancias – owners of an auto body shop – are a “good family” and his department had had no dealings with the son.
A former classmate of Ciancia’s said Friday the suspected gunman was a loner and had been bullied at their 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 Wilmington, Del., in 2008 and is now an editorial assistant 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.”
The attack began around 9:20 a.m. when the gunman pulled an assault-style rifle from a bag and began firing inside Terminal 3, airport police Chief Patrick Gannon said. The terminal serves such airlines as Virgin America, AirTran, Spirit Airlines, Horizon Air and JetBlue.
The gunman then went to the security screening area, where he fired more shots and went into the secure area of the terminal, Gannon said. Officers exchanged fire with him and seized him, Gannon said.
As gunfire rang out, panicked travelers dropped to the ground. Those who had made it past security ran out of the terminal and onto the tarmac or took cover inside restaurants and lounges.
“We just hit the deck. Everybody in the line hit the floor and shots just continued,” said Xavier Savant, who was waiting in the security line where the shooting took place. He described it as a “Bam! Bam! Bam!” burst of gunfire.
Savant said people bolted through the metal detectors and ran into the terminal.
“My whole thing was to get away from him,” said Savant, an advertising creative director who was heading to New York with his family for a weekend trip.
Just a few weeks ago, airport police and the Los Angeles Police Department had jointly trained for a similar shooting scenario, according to Gannon, who said officers told him the drill was critical in preparing them for the real thing.
While Terminal 3 remained closed, much of the rest of the airport continued operating, though with some disruptions. Some LAX-bound flights that were already in the air were diverted to other airports.
The ripple effect across the country delayed 76,000 travelers, LAX officials said. Hundreds of stranded passengers streamed into nearby hotels.
The officer who was killed was one of the behavioral detection officers that are stationed throughout the airport, looking for suspicious behavior, said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Initially, Cox said at least three other TSA officers were wounded. Later in the day, the TSA said two other officers were wounded. Their conditions were not disclosed.
The Los Angeles Fire Department revised its total number of victims taken to hospitals from six to five, saying one had been double counted. Those numbers included Hernandez, Ciancia and one person who broke an ankle.