Did Zorro cause a panic at Los Angeles International Airport that resulted in a stampede of hundreds of scared passengers, false reports of gunfire, terminal evacuations and canceled and delayed flights?
Officials Tuesday worked to figure out exactly why LAX turned into a scene of chaos when no actual threat existed — and how such a scene may be avoided in the future.
Sometimes dealing with a false threat and panic can be more difficult for security officials at a major airport than finding a real “active shooter,” according to experts.
“To keep people calm, you’d like to say that there’s nothing going on, but you don’t know that, and you can’t say that,” Brian Jenkins, a Rand Corp. security expert at the Santa Monica think told the Los Angeles Times. “People do unpredictable things in panic situations.”
Just prior to the false report of gunfire Sunday night, police detained a man at gunpoint in Terminal 7 dressed as the famed movie and TV icon Zorro, wearing all black with a mask, and who was carrying what appeared to be a sword.
Officers searched the man and found a plastic sword. Maggard said the man works for tips posing for photos with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard, and claimed he was meeting someone at the airport. The individual was released.
Maggard could not yet confirm that the Zorro character’s detainment and the active shooter reports were related.
“Zorro” was a fictional character first depicted in a 1919 pulp publication. He supposedly was a kind of Mexican or Spanish-era Robin Hood in early California. The dashing black-clad outlaw protected ordinary people against corrupt, inept officials.
Numerous “actors” dressed in the costumes of fictional heroes and characters patrol parts of Hollywood Boulevard near the Chinese movie theater in Hollywood, trying to make money for posing for photographs with tourists.
Los Angeles International Airport was shut down for more than an hour Sunday night due to what turned out to be the false reports of gunfire.
Thanks to the chaos of the scare, 27 flights were diverted to other airports, but all but one had arrived at LAX by mid-morning Monday, said Airport police Officer Robert Pedregon.
Three people were taken to a hospital Sunday night for examination of minor injuries apparently caused by surging crowds as people rushed to evacuate terminals, Pedregon said. Terminals 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 were impacted, Pedregon said.
According to LAX Public Relations Director Nancy Castles, 281 flights were delayed — 120 arrivals and 161 departures. Two flights were canceled, she said.
Airport staff used audio and visual messages to keep passengers apprised of flights and delays, Castles said. Concessions stayed open past closing time to serve passengers on delayed or diverted flights.
Traffic on the upper departure level was flowing smoothly but traffic on the lower arrival level was congested this morning, she said.
“Motorists picking up arriving passengers are advised to wait for free in the cell phone waiting lot at 96th Street and Vicksburg (Avenue) until their arriving passenger calls to say they are at terminal curbside ready for pickup,” Castles said.
Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection agents were continuing past the end of their shifts to screen passengers whose departure was delayed and those arriving for delayed flights, she said.
Meanwhile, law enforcement continued to investigate multiple 911 calls at 8:45 p.m. Sunday saying there was an active shooter in Terminal 8, Assistant LAX police Chief Dave Maggard said before dawn this morning.
“Some reported hearing gunfire,” he noted.
As airport police checked the terminal, there were reports of gunfire in other areas, Maggard said. The airport terminals were evacuated and roadways into the airport were shut down, causing gridlock on area streets.
Officers and teams with bomb-detecting K-9s searched the terminal area but found no indication of an active shooter, he said.
Throughout the event, the public and passengers were kept informed of developments, and a new wireless emergency alert system passed information to cell phone customers within five miles of the airport, Maggard said.
“We are grateful it was not actually an active shooter,” he said.
The news of possible gunshots prompted some people to rush out the wrong security doors, setting off alarms that added to the sense of danger, LAX police union head Marshall McClain told KNX 1070 Newsradio.
McClain told the station some people inside the airport heard loud noises they knew weren’t gunshots, but said it was possible the noises induced some other people to call 911.
Following an intense search of the areas, an “all-clear” was issued about 9:50 p.m., but a logjam of vehicles and people stranded by the evacuations brought airport operations to a crawl.
“Report of shooting at LAX proven to be loud noises only,” Los Angeles police Capt. Andy Neiman wrote on Twitter Sunday night. “No shots fired. No injuries.”
All passengers needed to be re-screened through airport security before returning to the terminal, authorities said.
A passenger from Anaheim Hills named Mike said he and his wife were at a baggage claim area in Terminal 7 when they heard orders to evacuate and joined a rush of people crowding onto the sidewalk as uniformed personnel with assault rifles ran into the terminal.
“It was pretty scary,” he told KNX.
Departure and arrival roadways into the Central Terminal Area reopened at about 10:50 p.m. Sunday, LAX officials said.
The scare affected air traffic nationwide, as flights in and out of LAX from airports across the country were re-routed or canceled.
—Staff and wire reports