In an episode eerily reminiscent of the panic that gripped JFK Airport only two weeks before, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) evacuated five terminals on Sunday, August 28 after reports of an active shooter that never actually existed. Around 8:40 pm, police responded to reports of a suspicious man, who later turned out to be dressed as Zorro, outside of Terminal 7. Police released the man shortly after detaining him when they determined that he was a street performer carrying a plastic sword. The man was approached by at least six officers with their weapons drawn and a K-9 unit, with the entire event transpiring in full view of the public near Terminal 7, leading some to speculate that the arrest was the source of the fear-driven panic that followed. At this time, authorities are unsure of exactly what sparked the frenzy.
Police received the first 911 call reporting an active shooter at about 8:45 pm, just minutes after the Zorro incident, from Terminal 8. Assistant LAX Police Chief Dave Maggard was quoted saying, “Some reported hearing gunfire,” referring to several 911 calls around the same time. That “gunfire” may have been the sound of heavy locking mechanisms releasing as panicking passengers used emergency exits to flee from the terminal to the tarmac. The doors also set off alarms, adding to the sense of urgency and causing more passengers to begin running.
LAX lauded airport police officers for responding within a minute of the first reports. Police evacuated terminals 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8, and reported that they cleared all nine terminals in under an hour. Passengers were allowed to return to the airport by 10:45 pm, though all evacuated passengers had to be rescreened upon reentering the gate area.
Three people were hospitalized for minor injuries sustained in the stampede. The event disrupted the airport’s flight operations, with 120 arrivals and 161 departures delayed, 27 flights diverted, and 2 flights cancelled. LAX reported that, just after 9 pm, it halted incoming traffic on the south runway for about 30 minutes. Police also shut down the roadways into the airport, disrupting nearby traffic and contributing to gridlock. Early the next morning, traffic on the departure level had resumed normal movement, but the arrival area was still congested. At that time, LAX was still experiencing an average delay of 49 minutes for arrivals and 1 hour and 40 minutes for departures.
Though airport authorities were pleased with handling of the incident, the American Alliance of Airport Police Officers released a statement on August 31, criticizing what they saw as security failures at LAX during the incident. They claimed that the frenzy caused luggage to be left unattended and allowed unscreened passengers to run through TSA checkpoints.
No developments on the investigation regarding the source of the panic have been released thus far, though airport officials are also reportedly examining whether their “own tactics contributed to the panic,” one official told ABC News.
LAX has been a target in the past, as recently as the 2013 shooting that wounded three people and killed a TSA agent. The airport partially attributed the relatively quick response to security improvements made following that attack.
Sources and Further Reading:
“The 25 Busiest Airports in the USA” About Travel
“Airport Information” LAX
“Moments before LAX panic, officers confront man dressed as Zorro” Los Angeles Times
“False report of shooter at LAX triggers panic and hundreds of flight delays” Lost Angeles Times
“False gunfire report causes near panic at airport” Los Angeles Wave