Travellers tell of their terror amid shooting at Los Angeles airport

Los Angeles airport passengers scramble for their lives as a gunman opens fire, killing a security official, then face day of flight disruptions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 7:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 7:43am

As gunfire echoed through Terminal 3 of Los Angeles International Airport, panic erupted and screams ricocheted down the corridors.

Terrified travellers tripped over one another and abandoned baggage as they barrelled backwards through the airport security check.

Vernon Cardenas, 45, was trying to determine whether he would be safer running or staying when he found himself face to face with the gunman.

"He wasn't moving like he was being chased," said Cardenas, an executive chef who was preparing to fly to Philadelphia to conduct auditions for the television show MasterChef.

Rather, he said, the gunman was moving slowly and methodically; Cardenas said he instantly thought of the footage of the teenage shooters moving through Colorado's 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 indicated that it was safe to go back inside.

One Transportation Security Administration officer was killed when Paul Ciancia, 23, allegedly opened fire at the airport.

Five other people were hurt, including two other TSA employees and the gunman, who was shot four times before being taken into custody.

"I really thought I saw death," said Anne Rainer, who witnessed the gunfire with her son Ben, 26.

They took refuge behind a ticket counter where she said people prayed, cried and held hands. She watched as one person jumped from a second-floor balcony to get away from the gunman. "Adrenaline went through my head and my body went numb," Anne Rainer said.

Leon Saryan, a traveller from Milwaukee, told a radio station in that Wisconsin city: "I was in the hallway cowering when the guy came through. And he had a rifle in his hand and he looked at me and he said 'TSA?' And I shook my head and he just kept going."

When the shooting ended, the world's sixth-busiest airport had been severely hobbled. For hours, travellers waited behind police tape, tried to reach loved ones and walked through the eerily empty roads of the airport complex looking for a way out.

As the day stretched on, roads teemed with pedestrians. Some walked away, heading towards Century Boulevard and its hotels and restaurants.

With traffic blocked, the normally congested Sepulveda Boulevard tunnel next to the airport was empty of cars. Stranded passengers towed suitcases along the asphalt. One woman stopped and posed for a photo, standing in the middle of the tunnel and flinging out her arms.

"This is pretty eerie," said Sandra O'Brien, of Minneapolis.

"It feels like the ending of a disaster movie."

Anne Tartaglia and her husband boarded a plane in Seattle on Friday morning for what was supposed to be a memorable introduction of their one-year-old son to his great-grandparents in Los Angeles.

But the family get-together had to wait. They sat in the plane on the tarmac for nearly four hours after landing. When the jet eventually moved to a private hangar, they were allowed to walk off, but were forced to stand or sit in the hot sun for an hour.

"We felt alone, there wasn't really any help for families with small children," Tartaglia said. The family would eventually head off to their introduction when a rental-car shuttle arrived that had a seat safe enough for their son, Asher.

"It was a rough day, but the whole time, we're thinking how lucky we were ... A few minutes earlier and we could have been there during the shooting," Tartaglia said.

McClatchy-Tribune, The New York Times, Associated Press