Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — A false report of gunshots that sent panicked travelers fleeing from Los Angeles International Airport came right after officers with weapons drawn detained a masked man dressed in black and possibly carrying a plastic sword, officials said.
Soon after, hundreds of passengers raced onto streets or the tarmac, causing major flight delays that the airport was still recovering from Monday. Video shows at least six officers confronting the man dressed as the fictional crime fighter Zorro outside Terminal 7 around 8:40 p.m. Sunday.
Investigators were focusing on what prompted the first of several 911 that came from multiple terminals, airport police Officer Rob Pedregon said Monday. The initial 911 call came in Terminal 8 around 8:45 p.m. — about five minutes after officers detained the man dressed as Zorro.
Pedregon said Monday that police have found no connection between the two incidents.
A search uncovered no evidence of a gunman or shots fired. Officials said Sunday night that loud noises spurred the reports, and police are still investigating their source.
False reports of an active shooter quickly spread, and passengers in five terminals evacuated or pushed through security checkpoints, airport police said.
Officers with rifles stormed the airport but uncovered no evidence of a gunman or shots fired.
The confusion was similar to a false alarm that led to a panicked evacuation two weeks ago at Kennedy Airport in New York, when a boisterous celebration of the Olympics may have been misinterpreted as gunfire, according to authorities.
The Los Angeles scare created a mess, with three terminals shut down, roads closed and flights held in the air and on the ground, but no one was hurt. About 280 flights were delayed, and at least 27 planes were diverted to other airports. Two flights were canceled, airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said.
Sam Macon of Los Angeles was waiting for his bag when he noticed the man dressed as Zorro walk past. He followed the man outside to snap a photo. That’s when Macon saw police with guns drawn “snaking their way through the crowd” toward the man in the costume.
He said police and airport personnel began yelling at people to get back, while the masked man sat calmly on the bench. Macon filmed as police asked the man to get on the ground then handcuffed him. The panic started soon afterward, he said.
“Lots of crying, yells and misinformation traveling rapidly,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. Macon said he was fairly certain the whole time that it was a case of mass hysteria.
Vehicle traffic was flowing again on the upper departure level during Monday morning rush hour, but cars backed up on the lower arrival area, Castles said.
All terminals and roads into the airport reopened by 11 p.m., about two hours after the initial reports, officials said. Besides traffic, travelers faced a massive backup in security lines because those who fled had to be rescreened through security.
“We were on the jetway, and someone starts pushing behind us,” Jon Landis, a sales representative from Boston who was boarding a flight home, told The Associated Press. “One man was frantic, saying there was a shooter.”
Police officers, including one with a shotgun, eventually led passengers out of the terminal, through a security gate and into a parking lot, where several hundred people waited. Ninety minutes after the scare, Landis said he was still waiting for word on his flight.
Scott McDonald said he was getting off a plane in the middle of the chaos and the crew told him to get back on. Looking out the window, he said he could see many evacuees gathered on the tarmac, a strange sight even for someone who travels constantly.
“I’ve never seen passengers, just normal people, on the tarmac anywhere in the United States,” McDonald told Los Angeles news station KCAL-TV.
Douglas Lee, who was traveling home to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife and son, said the greatest danger was being trampled.
“You can imagine hundreds of adults trying to go through an exit door,” he said.
At one point, he picked up his young son and left their luggage. Abandoned bags littered sidewalks as people fled.
Corey Rosenbusch was relaxing inside a terminal club during a layover between his home in Washington, D.C., and Sydney when the lights went off and the staff told everyone to shelter in place.
“People immediately started looking at social media, where they saw reports that there was an active shooter,” Rosenbusch told the AP.
He said several officers, including some with assault rifles, led the group out of the area.
The false alarm came as police investigate whether a raucous celebration Aug. 14 at JFK Airport led to noises people believed were shots. The ensuing chain reaction turned into a panic as crowds ran to evacuate.
The Los Angeles airport had an actual shooting in November 2013, when a man opened fire in the terminal, killing a security agent and wounding three other people.
Associated Press writers Justin Pritchard and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.