A man opened fire Sunday on the crowded observation deck of the Empire State Building 86 floors above Manhattan, turning a day of sightseeing into sheer terror. One person was killed and six others were wounded before the gunman turned his weapon on himself.
At least six other people were being treated Sunday night for injuries sustained in the crush as panicked tourists tried to escape the shooting. One of the victims was a child who was trampled.
Police said the gunman, who was not immediately identified, was unconscious and in critical condition at a local hospital.
“I was on the 86th floor. I saw him when he fell down and when he shot himself,” said Stef Nys, the 36-year-old owner of a printing company in Belgium. “People were screaming. Everyone was yelling. I was helping little kids because they were running over them.
“I was just trying to calm people down because they were really going berserk. There was a thick panic. It is a small, small area, and it was really scary.”
Nys said the observation deck was packed with sightseers when the man opened fire about 5:15 p.m. EST.
As the gunfire erupted high above Manhattan, some of the tourists fell to the floor, seeking to escape the cascade of bullets. Others tried to flee down stairs to lower floors.
“I think he shot randomly,” Nys said. “Everyone was really in panic.”
“A man with an automatic gun was firing, and everyone was saying, ‘Go down! Go down!’ and we started turning back [down the stairs leading to the observation deck],” said Kay Dar, who was visiting from Newton, Pa. “We heard the gunshots. I hit the floor.”
“We were so scared. I was worried about my kids. I could not stop shaking. My hands were shaking and cold.
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani hurried to the famous landmark and then visited the wounded in hospitals. Streets surrounding the 1,250-foot tall Art Deco structure were filled with ambulances and police emergency equipment. Eyewitnesses to the tragedy, some crying, others looking dazed, were escorted to a nearby police precinct station, where they were questioned.
One of the people questioned at the station house told reporters that he saw the gunman face to face before he opened fire. Another woman was crying as she left the police station, still shaking from the ordeal.
“You get down and hope for the best. People were screaming and pushing, and it was kind of a mob scene,” said a man who declined to give his name after being questioned by detectives.
As he emerged from Bellevue Hospital, where 10 people--four with gunshot wounds-- were being treated, Giuliani spoke briefly with reporters. He said that one victim was undergoing emergency surgery.
“I met with some of the family members who were able to get here already, and of course they are in shock,” the mayor said. “They are very, very upset.
“The man who did the shooting is under arrest. He is in custody. He is very, very seriously injured, critical with a life-threatening injury which he imposed upon himself,” Giuliani said. " . . . He is in a hospital, he is in custody. He shot himself. As far as I know, he has been unconscious from that point on.
“He is still alive, but he is described as likely to die,” the mayor added.
Police said a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun used in the shootings was recovered.
Howard Rubenstein, whose public relations firm represents the Empire State Building, said a security camera recorded the gunman after he purchased a ticket on the ground floor to gain admission to the observation deck.
“He had a long coat, and the gun was under his coat,” Rubenstein said. “You couldn’t see it.”
Nys said that another person who was on the observation deck told him that the gunman kept asking questions about Egypt before he opened fire, inquiring whether people were from such cities as Alexandria or Cairo.
Giuliani, in his brief remarks, indicated the crime did not appear to be an attack on New York.
“When you hear the facts of this case, it will have nothing to with the image of the city,” he said. “When you hear the facts of this case, it will have very little to do with the city itself.”
Police did not immediately identify the gunman or any of his victims.
The 102-story building, which was completed in 1929 and opened on May 1, 1931, has been the scene of tragedy before.
The worst incident occurred 52 years ago when an Army Air Force B-25 bomber flying through fog crashed into the structure, killing 13 people. The plane crashed into the north side of the 79th floor, but flames soared to the 86th floor, trapping some of the victims in their offices.