LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A lone gunman stormed into a crowded terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport and opened fire with an assault weapon on Friday, killing a security agent and wounding six other people before he was shot and captured, authorities said.
The gunfire in Terminal 3 touched off panic and chaos at one of the world’s busiest airports as passengers fled or dove for cover behind racks of luggage as police shouted warnings to travelers and quickly evacuated the terminal.
Departing flights were halted and arriving planes were diverted to other airports, as streets surrounding the airport were shut down, snarling traffic for miles around.
“An individual came into Terminal 3 of this airport, pulled an assault rifle out of a bag and began to open fire in the terminal,” Patrick Gannon, chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police, told a news conference.
Gannon said the gunman, who appeared to be acting alone, made his way past the screening gates and into a food court area, where law enforcement officers tracked him down, shot him at least once and took him into custody. His condition was not immediately clear.
“The suspect got back very far into a terminal. There is a Burger King that is quite a ways away from the screening station and he was able to get back there,” Gannon said.
An FBI spokeswoman identified the suspect as 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia, a resident of the Los Angeles area. Several news organizations reported that Ciancia also has ties to New Jersey, and that police there were serving a search warrant at his childhood home in Pennsville.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which runs security screenings at U.S. airports, said that multiple agents had been shot, one fatally. The agency did not identify the slain agent, who was the first TSA officer to be killed in the line of duty.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Coroner said it was handling one person who was killed in the shooting, a man approximately 40 years old who was not identified by name. It was not immediately clear if that person was the TSA agent.
Two U.S. officials, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters that federal investigators were looking into whether the gunman had targeted TSA agents during the rampage.
Jose Mares, who was catching a flight back to his home in Norman, Oklahoma, with his wife, told Reuters he was about 20 to 30 yards away from a man with a gun on the second level of Terminal 3 when the man opened fire.
Mares, 31, said he used his own body to shield his wife from the bullets.
“As I’m getting on top of her I’m reaching for more luggage and that’s when I stacked luggage like two high and then made a row of luggage,” he said. “I was in the corner and I’m looking at the guy just shooting randomly, like I saw a TSA (agent) go down.”
Mares said when the shooter looked and pointed in his direction and appeared headed toward them, he told his wife: “Once I say three you better run. Once I had the opportunity as he is looking down the escalator, that’s when I told her ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s run.’”
Witness Alex Neumann, meanwhile, told cable network CNN that he was in an area inside the airport past a security checkpoint when he heard loud noises and screaming and saw people running in a scene that amounted to mayhem.
“We were at the food court and all of a sudden I hear a big commotion and people started running. People were running and people (were) getting knocked down,” Neumann said, adding that he heard screams. “Mayhem is the best way of describing it.”
A Los Angeles fire department spokesman said seven people were wounded in the shooting and that six of them had been taken to hospitals.
Television images showed at least one person being loaded into one of several ambulances at the scene, and passengers were seen being evacuated from the area.
Three male victims hurt in the incident were taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where one was listed in critical condition and two others in fair condition, said Mark Wheeler, a spokesman for the hospital. The condition of the other victims or the gunman was not immediately clear.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the incident and White House officials are in touch with law enforcement officials on the ground, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“We’re concerned about it, but I’ll let law enforcement folks talk about it directly,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Los Angeles International Airport is the world’s sixth busiest, handling over 63 million passengers in 2012, according to its official website.
Reporting by Lisa Richwine, Tim Reid, Nichola Groom, Alex Dobuzinskis, Dana Feldman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Eric Johnson in Seattle; Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Gunna Dickson, Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker