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Empire State Building Gun Melee Kills 2

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man identified as a Palestinian 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. A Danish musician was slain and six others were wounded before the gunman killed 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. Two of the victims were young children who were thrown to the ground in the pandemonium.

Police identified the gunman from a passport he carried as Ali Abu Kamal, 69, and said he entered the United States last Christmas Eve. The passport indicated Kamal, who died at a nearby hospital without regaining consciousness, was from Ramallah on the West Bank.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said that a receipt Kamal carried showed he purchased the murder weapon--a .380-caliber semiautomatic Beretta--in Florida in January. Police said the handgun was recovered.

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The joint anti-terrorism task force made up of FBI agents and New York Police Department personnel immediately entered the case, though the mayor cautioned no conclusion about motive could be drawn so shortly after the shootings.

“You don’t need anything more than those documents to refer it to the joint terrorism task force,” Giuliani said.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir, who appeared with the mayor at a City Hall news conference Sunday night, said no group had claimed responsibility for the attack.

“I was on the 86th floor. I saw [the gunman] 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.

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“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.

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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 from 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.”

Giuliani hurried to the famous landmark soon after the attack, 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.

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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 most of the wounded were being treated, Giuliani spoke briefly with reporters. He said 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.”

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Giuliani said among those wounded was a Connecticut man, Matthew Gross, 27, who was a friend of the slain musician, a 52-year-old citizen of Argentina, a 30-year-old man from Switzerland, a couple from France who was visiting with their 16-year-old daughter and a 35-year-old man from the Bronx.

“It was a very wide-ranging group of people. They were there enjoying the view and enjoying the Empire State Building when this man opened fire with his Beretta,” he said.

Leona Helmsley, whose real estate company manages the Empire State Building, said the firm would pay for families of victims to be flown to New York.

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“We will do everything possible to lighten their burden during this terrible time,” Helmsley said through Howard Rubenstein, whose public relations firm represents the building.

Giuliani said there was no indication at this point the shootings were linked to acts of terrorism that have occurred in New York, including the World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 16, 1993, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000.

Since that bombing, security at the Trade Center has markedly increased. There were no metal detectors at the Empire State Building, and officials said Sunday there would be a complete review of security procedures at the landmark skyscraper, which has been featured in motion pictures ranging from “King Kong” to “Sleepless in Seattle.”

When the shootings occurred, a security manager, a former police officer, and five guards were on duty in the building. Two were on the 86th floor, but none of the security personnel were armed.

After the bombing of the World Trade Center, guards searched the bags of visitors at the Empire State Building. But the practice was discontinued several months after that explosion.

Rubenstein 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.”

In addition, officials said a tourist managed to videotape the shooting. The tape was being examined by investigators.

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Nys said 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 said investigators were looking into the possibility Kamal made several statements on the observation deck just before the shooting. Police and the FBI were also working to translate several documents he carried.

The 102-story building, which was completed in 1929 and opened on May 1, 1931, has been the scene of previous tragedies--including several suicides, prompting erection of a special barrier to people from leaping off the building.

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.


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