Despite stepped-up security at Los Angeles International Airport, an Egyptian-born man pulled a gun and opened fire Thursday at a busy ticket counter of El Al Israel Airlines, killing two people and wounding several others before an airline guard shot him dead, authorities said. The attack delayed thousands of passengers and closed the airport’s international terminal for hours.
Although Israeli officials said they believed the shooting was an act of terrorism, U.S. authorities said it appeared to be an isolated incident.
FBI officials said the shooter had two driver’s licenses, one identifying him as Hesham Mohamed Hadayet and the other as Hesham Mohamed Ali. He was 41, entered the country in 1992 and was a resident of Irvine. One of the licenses listed his birth date as the Fourth of July.
When police arrived at the man’s apartment, they found a note on the door saying, “Read the Koran.”
Passengers and others who witnessed the attack said the gunman appeared to grow agitated while talking to a ticket agent at the El Al counter. He pulled out a gun and shot her, then began firing at people in line, witnesses said.
“There were people laying all over the floor. There was blood,” said Arie Golan, who joined a security guard in wrestling the man to the floor.
Witnesses said the security guard shot the man once at close range after the attacker had been disarmed and was being held on the floor.
The shooting occurred at an airport that has been on high alert for a terrorist attack, on a holiday when the entire nation was warned to be on the lookout, and at the counter of an airline generally considered to have the best security in the world.
The gunfire, which began just before 11:30 a.m., forced the evacuation of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, delaying 35 outbound flights and 10,500 passengers. Delays stretched up to eight hours. The south section of the terminal reopened at 4:30 p.m., but the rest remained closed while the FBI completed its investigation of the shooting scene.
Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, who unveiled a $9.6-billion reconstruction plan for LAX this week, said he plans to reassess airport security. He said security now focuses on preventing passengers from getting on a plane with weapons, not screening people at ticket counters.
“Our airport security is much like airport security around the world,” Hahn said. “The perimeter you establish for protection is just outside the area where the airplanes are and the gates. Parking lots, lobbies, ticketing areas are not past those security points--they’re before them.”
An FBI official in Los Angeles, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the gunman carried no identification but investigators were able to identify him through other means. Authorities also said they had found Hadayet’s vehicle in an airport parking garage.
The dead bystanders were Israeli emigre Jacob Aminov, 46, a diamond importer who lived in North Hollywood, and a woman the Israeli Consulate identified as Vicky Chen, a 20-year-old Israeli working for a company under contract with El Al.
Among those injured, Sarah Phillips, 61, a Canadian, was shot in the foot and reported in stable condition at Centinela Medical Center, police said. The others were treated for heart palpitations and other stress-related ailments and released, authorities said.
Aminov was taken to King-Drew Medical Center, where grief-stricken family members gathered. They described Aminov as a hard-working, devoutly religious man, and said he was seeing friends off at the airport when he was shot. He was hit at least once in the chest, doctors said.
Aminov was in cardiac arrest when he arrived by ambulance at the hospital shortly after noon, said Dr. Jean-Claude Henry. Doctors worked on him for nearly an hour before declaring him dead, Henry said.
Aminov’s wife, who is pregnant with the couple’s sixth child, was at the hospital when she learned her husband could not be saved. By coincidence, Aminov was a friend and neighbor of Golan, the man who helped subdue the shooter. Golan, 54, said he spotted Aminov in the check-in line, walked over to say hello, and then was on his way outside to smoke a cigarette when the shooting began.
Dozens of people watched the attack unfold as they stood in line at El Al and surrounding airline counters in the crowded terminal.
Guillermo Fergoza was with his wife, Yolanda, about 25 feet away when he noticed a man talking to an agent at the El Al counter. “They started arguing at the counter,” said Fergoza, who was at the airport to put his son on a flight. “He stepped back and pulled the gun out of his waistband. A lot of people started falling to the floor.”
Two brothers, Paul and David Parkus, were standing in line at a nearby Singapore Airlines ticket counter.
“I heard ‘pop, pop, pop!’ and spun around and saw this guy shooting away,” said Paul Parkus, a 38-year-old Los Angeles photographer. “The El Al guys came over the top of the counter” and tackled the shooter, they said.
David Parkus, 39, a trauma surgeon from Beaumont, Texas, said he ran to the ticket counter and helped the guards subdue the gunman, whom he described as weighing 200 to 250 pounds. The man stabbed at least one of the security guards, Parkus said.
Golan, a 54-year-old veteran of the Israeli army who was on his way to visit his grandchildren in Israel, described a similar scene, differing on some details.
“I heard a lot of shots, maybe 15 or 20. It was very quick. I heard the shots, turned, and I saw the security guard jump over the rope,” he said. As the guard began grappling with the shooter, Golan said, he dashed over to help.
“I just wanted to stop him,” he said. “I jumped on him. He still had the gun in his hand. It was a small gun, maybe a .22. We wrestled him to the ground.”
Golan said the shooter lost his grip on the gun, which fell and skittered out of reach across the floor. According to witnesses, as the two men struggled to hold down the shooter, who was lying on his back, another El Al security guard ran over, stood over the man and shot him once in the abdomen.
Golan recounted his role as he sat on a curb outside the terminal, his clothes splattered with dime-size drops of blood, a cigarette held in a trembling hand.
He described the shooter as powerfully built, about 5-foot-10, his hair tinged with gray.
FBI spokesman Matt McLaughlin said the man carried .45-caliber and 9mm handguns, as well as a six-inch knife. A law enforcement source said the gunman also carried additional ammunition clips.
At the man’s apartment in Irvine, FBI, LAPD, immigration officers and Irvine police had set up a cordon and were preparing to search the home late Thursday. Police said the man’s wife and two elementary school-age sons were not home when they arrived and their whereabouts were unknown.
A neighbor, who would not give his name, said that his wife and the gunman’s wife had volunteered together at a local elementary school. “They seemed like nice people. It’s all pretty shocking to us,” the man said. Neighbors said the man worked for a limousine service and was seldom seen outside the apartment except when he stepped out to smoke.
During a 30-minute news conference Thursday afternoon, authorities said they believed the shooting was an isolated incident. Still, an FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said later that authorities had not ruled out terrorism as a motive.
Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, Yuval Rotem, said he did not believe it was random.
“It seems like a terrorist attack and it looks like a terrorist attack,” he said, based in part on past airport killings. Rotem cited a 1985 attack at the Rome airport that killed 17 people, as well as incidents in Paris, London and other European cities.
The gunman did not say anything while he was shooting, Rotem said. But he added, “It was very obvious. He was trying to target and gun down as many Israelis as he can. It may turn out to be one more attack against Israel.”
Rotem credited Haim Sapir, the chief of El Al security, with saving lives. He said Sapir was stabbed and shot before shooting the man.
Guard ‘a Hero’
“He’s a hero,” Rotem said. “He and his colleagues were able to save many passengers.”
Sapir, believed to be in his early 40s, was treated at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Rotem said the attack would not interfere with El Al’s daily operations.
“Our answer to terrorism is to be as normal as we can even if it’s an abnormal situation,’ he said.
The FBI took charge of the investigation, with the Los Angeles Police Department acting as an assisting agency.
Acting LAPD Chief Martin Pomeroy said additional police would be deployed at the airport, beginning today. He urged people to continue with holiday celebrations, and Hahn encouraged the public to continue flying.
“There’s no reason for the traveling public to shy away from air travel,” the mayor said.
Most flights in and out of the airport continued to operate normally throughout the day, which launched a four-day weekend for many people. During the time that the Bradley terminal was closed, passengers waited outside on the lawn, reading books on benches, standing on top of parking structures and watching the terminal.
El Al, the Israeli national air carrier, prides itself on having the industry’s most stringent security. It places undercover armed guards on every flight, much of its airport ground staff is also armed and cockpits are reinforced to prevent unauthorized entry. Israel noted that its airliners have not fallen victim to air piracy for more than two decades.
El Al points to its rigorous screening as its best defense. From the moment a traveler purchases a ticket for an El Al flight, the person’s name and data are sent to Israeli intelligence. Once a passenger reports to an airport, he or she is subject to intensive questioning.
It varies from airport to airport, but El Al officials occasionally call the traveler’s contacts in Israel to verify information.
Questioning is often intrusive and searches can be extremely thorough, to the point of shaking each piece of underwear in a suitcase and unscrewing every bottle of makeup or shampoo.
Contributing to the coverage of the shootings at LAX were Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Erin Chan, Tina Dirmann, Greg Krikorian, Mitchell Landsberg, Laura Loh, Anthony McCartney, Jennifer Oldham, James F. Peltz, Beth Shuster, Kurt Streeter and Kelly Yamanouchi in Los Angeles, Josh Meyer in Washington, D.C., and Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem.