A lone gunman stormed into a packed terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport and opened fire with an assault weapon on Friday, killing a federal security agent 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 hundreds of travelers ran frantically for safety or dove for cover behind racks of luggage and loud alarms blared.
A number of people were injured, including two who were shot and wounded and others hurt in the pandemonium. Nearly 750 flights were halted, grounded or diverted as police evacuated passengers and shut down three terminals. Streets around the airport were blocked off for hours, snarling traffic for miles.
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"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, a U.S. citizen who appeared to be acting alone, pushed through the screening gates and ran into a food court area, where law enforcement officers caught up, shot him at least once and took him into custody.
"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.
Special Agent David Bowdich of the FBI identified the suspect as 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia, a resident of the Los Angeles area, who was being treated for his injuries at a local hospital. There were no further details on his condition.
Bowdich said the investigation would probe both the shooting itself and the background and motivations of the gunman.
"Our goal is to do a true scrub on the individual to find out what was the tipping point for this person," he said.
Several news organizations reported that Ciancia had ties to New Jersey, and that police there were serving a search warrant at his childhood home in Pennsville.
The shooting was not the first such incident at the airport. In 2002, an Egyptian-born gunman opened fire at the ticket counter of Israeli airline El Al, killing a flight attendant and a passenger before he was shot and killed.
A witness gave this account to Newsmax TV's Steve Malzberg:
"We heard about eight shots just in a row, bang, bang, bang," said Mark Henry, who was traveling to Chicago with his wife Audrey.
"Then we all kind of hit the deck and the shots were coming from the lower floor, which seemed to be at the base of the escalators, and we weren’t sure if the suspect was going to come up the escalator or not so we fled the scene and we rushed through the TSA checkpoint into the gate area.
"We ran all the way down Terminal 3 and then we went through one of the terminal gate doors, actually like where you would board an aircraft, and went down onto the tarmac. We ran all the way over to Terminal 2 and my wife only has one shoe, I mean her ID, everything was left back there, my briefcase, all that stuff was left on the TSA belt. We literally ran for our lives."
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which runs security screenings at U.S. airports, confirmed that one of its agents had been killed, the first from the agency to die in the line of duty.
Bowdich said a total of three people had been shot, including two TSA agents, and that a number of other people were hurt while fleeing the scene as gunfire rang out.
Lauren Stephens, 47, said she had just put her luggage on the scale at the ticket counter at Terminal 3 when she heard a series of gunshots.
"Everybody hit the ground. I jumped over the desk where the conveyor belt is. The woman who was checking me in hit the ground, all the workers did. Everybody pancaked down on the ground," she said.
"More gunshots started. Somebody just yelled 'Run' at the top of their lungs. It sounded like he was coming our way. I don't know if that was just because he was turning the gun around," Stephens said. "I just left my bag and I just ran like hell. Everybody ran. People were falling. People were just trying to help each other out."
Video footage broadcast on CNN showed airport police shouting at travelers to get down as hundreds of people sprint past them, some carrying or dragging luggage. Loud alarms sound in the terminal and police sirens can be heard wailing outside.
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 (18 to 27 meters) 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."
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.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that had police not moved to stop the gunman as quickly as they did the carnage could have been much worse.
"There were more than 100 more rounds that could have literally killed everybody in that terminal today," he said. "If it were not for their actions, there could have been a lot more damage."
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.
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