A man carrying anti-government material and an assault rifle shot his way through security at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, killing one Transportation Security Administration worker and wounding as many as three others — after sending a suicidal text message to his family, authorities said.
The gunman who sent travelers diving for cover and fleeing onto the tarmac — identified as 23-year-old Los Angeles resident Paul Anthony Ciancia — was shot in the chest by law enforcement and taken into custody in critical condition.
Officials said at a news conference Friday afternoon that the crime scene is extensive and authorities are still investigating the suspect’s background. While airport terminals 1 and 2 are being reopened, Terminal 3 remains shut down, officials said.
The motive is not clear but it's believed the suspect had anti-government views based on written materials he was carrying, the officials said. He texted his brother in New Jersey before the shooting and said he was thinking about killing himself, police told NBC Philadelphia.
Federal officials told NBC News it was unclear whether Ciancia was targeting the TSA or was trying to gun his way further into the airport. But one witness said the shooter, calmly walking through the terminal with his weapon, approached him with a one-word question.
"All he said was, 'TSA?' Just like that," Leon Saryan told MSNBC.
The shooting started at about 9:20 a.m. local time at Terminal 3, which serves Virgin America and other airlines.
The suspect walked through an "exit" lane reserved for passengers leaving the secure area of the airport, pulled the .223-caliber semiautomatic assault-style rifle out of a bag and opened fire at the security checkpoint, officials said.
As he walked through the terminal, still firing, airport police pursued him. At a cluster of restaurants in the rear of the terminals, near the waiting area for some of the gates, they shot him several times in the chest, law-enforcement sources said.
"He’s been shot and he’s been treated. He survived," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
The mayor added that the suspect had more than 100 rounds remaining.
When the gunfire erupted, travelers who were waiting to snake through the security line suddenly had to abandon their suitcases and hit the ground.
"We were just standing there in line and somebody started shooting," said Nick Pugh, a witness, who told NBC Los Angeles that he heard eight to 10 shots. "Everyone dropped to the floor and started crawling along the ground."
The shooting brought one of the nation’s busiest airports to a standstill.
Officials said 746 flights were affected, 46 of which were diverted. The rest either were either held on the ground in Los Angeles or at the originating airport, said Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports.
"This has been a trying day for everyone I know," Lindsey added.
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights at LAX, where 1,500 flights take off and land every day. Passengers heading there for departing flights were stuck in colossal traffic jams. Some abandoned their rides and rolled their suitcases the last distance to the airport.
Saryan said he was "cowering in a corner" when the gunman came over and asked whether he was with the TSA, even though he was in street clothes.
"He was calm. He was walking slowly," Saryan said. “He must have felt that he was in control, because he had his weapon and nobody else did at that time.”
"But for the grace of God, you know, I would have been one of the fatalities," he said.
The airport said that seven people were injured in all, but the nature of all injuries was not clear.
A doctor from Harbor-UCLA Medical Center said two victims were taken there, including a middle-aged man who was killed by a round that broke into fragments inside his torso, causing massive bleeding and chest and abdominal injuries.
Dr. David Plurad said the victim didn't have a pulse when he arrived and surgeons worked for more than an hour to try to revive him.
"We made every effort to stop the bleeding and get the heart to beat on his own," Plurad said.
The union that represents TSA workers told NBC Los Angeles that the slain employee was a behavioral detention officer who scans passengers for unusual behavior and had been transferred to LAX from Montana recently.
Another TSA worker was shot in the leg, said Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the TSA.
Brian Adamick, an accountant who was waiting for a flight to Chicago, spoke with a TSA agent with a leg wound on one of the buses that sped to the tarmac to evacuate passengers taking cover there.
"His right ankle is injured and he gets on and sits in the seat next to me, and I said, 'Are you OK?' He said, 'I'm fine. I got shot. Don’t worry, I've been shot before,'" Adamick told NBC News in a telephone interview.
"I said, let me take a look, and he pulls up the pant leg and there’s a flesh wound — 3 to 4 inches — looks like it’s straight out of Hollywood, maybe a drop of blood or two,' he said.
Another witness told MSNBC that there was an initial round of shots, then a pause, then more shots. An airline worker told them, "Go out! Go out!" and people streamed down the stairs and onto the tarmac for safety, he said.
Authorities said the suspect was living in Los Angeles but is originally from Pennsville, N.J., where his parents and brother still reside.
Pennsville Police Chief Allen Cummings said Ciancia texted his brother in the morning and said he was thinking about taking his own life. The family called local cops, who alerted the LAPD. Officers went to Ciancia's apartment; he wasn't there but his roommates said everything was fine, Cummings said.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the shooting, the White House said in a statement.
In 2002, an Egyptian national opened fire at the El Al ticket counter at LAX, killing two Israelis before he was shot dead. Authorities ruled it a terrorist incident, even though the shooter was not tied to a known group.
Kristen Welker and Becky Bratu of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published November 1 2013, 5:18 PM