Los Angeles International Airport, better known as LAX, is the third-busiest airport in the country and ranks number six in the world. But travelers - like me - who frequent the airport’s Terminal 3 might never guess.
Terminal 3 is an oddly quiet corner of a bustling place. I pass through it a few times each year because it serves JetBlue and Virgin America, which are the airlines I prefer on coast-to-coast trips. Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant are the other domestic carriers that fly to and from Terminal 3, and Virgin Australia uses it for departures. But most LAX traffic passes through the terminals that house the big domestic carriers, as well as the sprawling new Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Though not new or plush, Terminal 3 has the intimate, quiet feel of a small-city airport, like those in the Florida cities of Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, where I do most of my flying. It’s no surprise I feel at home.
The dining options are limited to a Gladstone’s fish restaurant, a Burger King, a bakery and a couple of Starbucks. There are not a lot of shopping opportunities, either. But after fighting through the traffic to get to LAX and riding the bus from the vast Hertz off-airport car rental facility, Terminal 3 usually feels like an oasis of calm.
That calm was broken last Friday when a clearly disturbed young man, for reasons probably known only to himself, packed a semi-automatic rifle and a stack of ammunition, asked a roommate to drive him to Terminal 3 - though he had no ticket - and opened fire at the security check-in line.
Transportation Security Agency officer Gerardo Hernandez died in the fusillade that Paul Anthony Ciancia, 23, unleashed that morning. Two other TSA agents were wounded, though both had been released from the hospital by early this week. A traveler, Brian Ludmer, 29, from the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, remained hospitalized in fair condition after being shot in the leg, CNN reported.
After shooting his way through the security checkpoint and setting off a panicked scramble by passengers and workers, Ciancia would have proceeded down a long, narrow corridor, with shops, restrooms and airport service facilities on his right and a single departure gate - Gate 30 - on his left. News reports, citing witness accounts, say Ciancia asked individuals he encountered whether they worked for TSA. If they did not, he left them alone.
At the end of the corridor the passage forks; one side leads to gates 31 through 34 and the other to gates 35 through 39. But those gates are really just on opposite sides of a single rotunda, which includes a large central waiting area and banks of restrooms and telephones. On the end of the rotunda closest to the security station, there is a small food court area with Burger King one side and Gladstone’s on the other. I often grab a bite at Gladstone’s before boarding my flight.
Armed police and airport security agents responded quickly to the reports of shots fired. They caught up to Ciancia in the rotunda and, according to press reports, brought him down near the Burger King. Ciancia was still hospitalized in critical condition yesterday. Authorities say he carried an anti-government note, and that he had sent a series of disturbing text messages to family back in New Jersey. Relatives contacted local authorities, who asked Los Angeles police to check on Ciancia - a call that came a little too late to stop his airport assault.
Hernandez, a married father of two, is the first TSA officer to be killed on duty since the agency was formed shortly after 9/11. His death brought calls from a TSA employees union to provide firearms to at least some TSA personnel. But it is hard to see how having armed security officers at the crowded checkpoint could have resulted in fewer casualties; it seems more likely that additional people might have been injured or killed in the crossfire. In any event, TSA agents are not law enforcement officers, and do not have the training to make the instantaneous shoot-or-don’t-shoot decisions that police are taught to make. If we had to put all our TSA workers through such training, I doubt we could find sufficient qualified staff to man our checkpoints.
Moreover, random shootings can - and do - happen just about anyplace. College campuses, elementary schools, shopping malls (just this week, in New Jersey, a lone gunman fired shots and set off another near-panic before being found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot) and workplaces all are vulnerable. These days business owners like me are called upon to establish procedures in case building security announcements alert us to the presence of an “active shooter.” We used to only worry about fire drills.
I may not agree with the idea of putting guns at every TSA checkpoint, but I certainly recognize that the people who put on those uniforms every day make themselves targets for any angry person who thinks he has a grudge against Washington. Like Hernandez, those men and women who greet me at the Terminal 3 checkpoint (and others like it all over the country) are just trying to support themselves and their families, keep me safe and - with remarkable frequency - make the travel experience a little less stressful by offering a joke or a smile or a “have a good flight.” They don’t get thanked enough for their efforts.
I’m sure I will remember the events of last week the next time I pass through Terminal 3. I will also try to remember to say thank you to any TSA agent I meet there.