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False report of shooter at LAX triggers panic and hundreds of flight delays

Operations were returning to normal at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday morning, after false reports of an active shooter sent passengers stampeding from terminals and, in some cases, onto the tarmac.

Reports of gunfire in Terminals 6, 7 and 8 were made about 8:45 p.m. Sunday night, prompting airport police to set up a command post and shut down the central terminal area to incoming traffic.

As a further precaution, flight operations were stopped from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on the airport’s two southern runways because passengers, who self-evacuated from the terminals, ran onto the restricted airfield.

An investigation, which included review of closed-circuit television footage, revealed no shots were fired, according to LAX. Airport police are continuing to investigate what caused the incident, but a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said the panic was due to “loud noises.”

“Report of shooting at LAX proven to be LOUD NOISES only No Shots Fired No Injuries investigation continues to locate source,” LAPD Capt. Andrew Neiman wrote in a tweet late Sunday night.

During the 30-minute ground stop, 27 arriving flights were diverted to other airports — 12 diverting to Ontario International Airport. By early Monday morning, passengers from just one diverted flight had yet to arrive at LAX. 

There were 281 arrivals and departures that were delayed, according to the airport. Airlines reported two canceled flights. 

Later in the evening, authorities prepared to allow passengers who fled from the terminals to reenter baggage claim areas and gather the luggage they had left behind.

Before airport police received reports of an active shooter, they detained a man dressed as Zorro in Terminal 7 around 8:40 p.m. Police had received reports of a man dressed in black with a sword, wearing a mask.

The man was detained, questioned and released. Airport police determined the sword was plastic. 

Authorities said all terminals, including the Tom Bradley International Terminal, had been cleared by Los Angeles Airport Police by 10:45 p.m. and passengers were allowed to return.

Nancy Mojarras was one of several travelers who fled Terminal 7 while waiting for her 10 p.m. flight in the United Club Lounge in Terminal 7. She said she had just finished eating a bowl of chicken gumbo soup and was drinking coffee when suddenly a herd of people stormed into the lounge. 

"Someone said there was a shooter," Mojarras said. 

The 51-year-old said she felt terrified, and thought: Is the shooter now coming to the lounge? Was this a terrorist attack? Was it Islamic State? Was this really happening?

Not far away, there was an exit door that is to be used only by authorized airport personnel. 

"Someone said, let's run through there," she said. 

Clutching her black bag, Mojarras ran out with the large crowd, some abandoning their suitcases. They ran down two flights of stairs that led to the tarmac, she said. One man fell down, scraping his arm and hand, bleeding. 

"We were running around like crazy," she said.

The group of about 29 people made their way to United Airlines baggage handlers, who called Transportation Security Administration personnel. Meanwhile, the group was given water, and three elderly people got chairs to sit on.

Mojarras said she took the time to text her family in Chicago, where they had been visiting. She had left early to return to work as a high school Spanish teacher for Clovis Unified School District.

"I told my family, 'reports of a shooter. We're on lockdown. I'm safe,'" she said.

Mojarras said that as the group waited, she prayed and told herself to remain calm. Some people were frantic and talking about what they thought happened.

"Someone said there was a shooter. Someone said a man had been shot and someone said this was all a hoax," she said. "I couldn't buy into any of that because if I did I was going to get more nervous." 

She said she kept her distance and continued to tell herself to stay calm and not panic.

"I was trying to stay coherent," she said. 

About 15 minutes later, a TSA agent was treating the man who had fallen down. Then he led the group to a break room and then they were let outside to the parking garage across from Terminal 7.

Mojarras said the rumors continued outside. Some people reported hearing noises. Some felt frantic and wanted to leave but their luggage was still inside the airport.

She said her family continued to text her about every 10 minutes. After about 20 minutes outside, she said, she saw people crossing the street and going back inside the airport, so she and her group did the same.

She said that as she made her way to her gate, she saw officers with police dogs, one FBI agent and a lot of officers armed with rifles. When she reached her gate she saw her flight had been canceled. 

At the airport, she sat on a black leather seat, her eyes red from lack of sleep. She said a substitute teacher will have to teach her class Monday, as she makes her way to San Francisco, then to Fresno.

She said she's saddened about what terrorism has done to people.

"I'm glad about the way we reacted," she said. "You have to take everything serious."

"It's sad we feel that way and react that way, but it's better to be safe than sorry." 

Anne Dudek, an actress from Santa Monica, also fled from Terminal 7 after her United Airlines flight arrived about 8:30 p.m.

She said she went down the escalator to baggage claim about 8:45 p.m. and a man who appeared to be panicked ran by, warning everyone to run because people were being shot.

"People started dropping bags and running out of the terminal," she said. "Panic spread."

Dudek said she did not hear any shots, but decided to leave Terminal 7. She ran across the street, headed through the parking structure and made her way to the area near Southwest Airlines. She eventually reached her parked car and left the airport.

Other travelers missed their flights.

Stephanie Blackwell, 39, and her husband were on their way to Terminal 7 to catch a flight back home to Baltimore when they saw a sea of red lights.

"We thought it was a traffic jam," she said.

So they got out of their relative's car and began walking -- other people were doing the same. Their flight was departing at 10:20 p.m.

Then a man with a yellow vest stopped everyone near Terminal 1 and said, "Nobody can get by until we find the shooter."

She said their flight was delayed more than once but it wasn't until close to midnight -- after authorities cleared the area -- that they were able to reach the ticket counter at United Airlines. Unlike other travelers, they missed their flight.

"I'm pretty ticked off," she said.

She was initially frazzled when she heard there was the possibility of a shooter at the airport. "But after a little while it seemed like it was a false alarm," Blackwell said. "That's when things were a little hard to swallow."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the chaos that unfolded at the airport appeared to be a case of old-fashioned panic and miscommunication that spread quickly.

"It's almost like a game of telephone, by the time people were hearing things, I think they heard it was an active shooter … that's when chaos can break out," Garcetti said on radio station KNX-AM (1070). "It wasn't really the technology, it was just … one person yelling out to another and yelling to another."

After a shooting incident that happened two years ago at LAX, a system was put in place to send text messages to people, he said. However, law enforcement officials can't send anything out until they know the situation is safe.

Within half an hour, there was 80% certainty "that this was probably an incident resulted to some kind of mischief or misunderstanding of some young individuals that were in the terminal area," Garcetti said.

All roads on the arrival and departure levels in the central terminal area also were reopened to traffic late Sunday night.

The incident follows another false alarm earlier this month at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. On Aug. 14, police searched and cleared two terminals after receiving 911 calls about shots fired. 

The reports, which set off a panic, were later determined to be unfounded. Afterward, the New York Times editorial board noted “serious flaws” exposed in airport security.

“Officials were slow to respond and seemed confused or even ignorant of security protocols, and there were reports of T.S.A. agents abandoning their posts,” the editorial stated. “There was no obvious chain of command, and no coordination among the responsible agencies — all of which was deeply alarming, given the terrorist attacks this year at airports in Brussels and Istanbul.”

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UPDATES:

8:21 a.m.: This article has been updated with details of a previous false alarm at JFK airport in New York. 

7:27 a.m.: This article has been updated with details on flight delays.

5:15 a.m.: An earlier version of this article gave the name of one of the passengers affected by the LAX incident as Nancy Monjarras. Her name is Nancy Mojarras.

4:35 a.m.: This article has been updated with an additional witness account. 

2:37 a.m.: This article has been updated with information from travelers. 

Aug. 29, 12:45 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Mayor Eric Garcetti.

This article was originally published on Aug. 28 at 9:30 p.m.

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