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Fleeing airline passengers spilled onto restricted aircraft ramps at Los Angeles International Airport. Travelers were stuck in terminals for hours with little information.
Outside, people — many towing their luggage — streamed onto Sepulveda, Lincoln and Century boulevards. Ground transportation at LAX was paralyzed almost all day.
“It was like a science fiction movie, like the ‘Day the World Ended,’ ” said Schalon Harrison Newton, a businessman who was trapped for almost eight hours at the Tom Bradley International Terminal after arriving from Japan. “Thousands of people were on the street and there were no vehicles except police cars. It was a very strange experience.”
Law enforcement is generally getting high marks for a quick response to Friday’s shooting in Terminal 3 that left a TSA officer dead and several others wounded, including a teacher from Calabasas.
But the scenes that unfolded last week during the second LAX terminal attack by a gunman in a little more than a decade were a nightmare for emergency planners, experts say. How the fleeing crowds were managed throughout the attack and its aftermath is coming under intense scrutiny.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes LAX, called for a sweeping review of the emergency response by public safety agencies and Los Angeles World Airports.
His request comes amid a host of pending evaluations by local and federal officials to determine whether further improvements are needed for airport defenses, the immediate police response when an attack occurs and plans for dealing with thousands of travelers.
“As LAX remains a top target for terrorists, along with others looking to inflict harm,” Bonin said, “there are lessons to be learned on how to minimize the chaos such an incident can cause and improve information sharing, evacuation procedures and care for stranded passengers.”
Airport officials said late Tuesday that their first focus Friday was public safety. But they also promised to “put the response and security efforts under a microscope to identify what went right and where we can improve.”
The councilman cited complaints about emergency exits that weren’t properly marked, poor communications, flaws in evacuation procedures and inadequate support services for passengers.
Many travelers were held for hours in the Bradley terminal, he said, with limited access to food and water and few updates from LAX staff.
Those stranded overnight were not informed about alternatives, Bonin added, including a shelter set up by the Red Cross and contact information for nearby hotels. Others did not receive clear direction from airlines on rescheduled and relocated flights, he said.
Whatever evacuation plan airport officials may have had Friday “wasn’t being followed or implemented,” Bonin said in an interview.
Red Cross officials told The Times they set up a sleep center in Westchester, just north of the airport, and expected up to 300 passengers. Sandwiches and bottled water were waiting, but only one person showed up, raising questions about whether the shelter was properly publicized.
“Really, no one knew anything,” said Andy Dulman, 24, of Los Angeles, an airline passenger in Terminal 3 who was transported to the Bradley after the shooting. “It felt like someone told the buses where to take us, and that was it. It really seemed like we were on our own.”
Dulman said he waited four hours inside the international terminal with no official word from airport staff. Some LAX employees, including baggage handlers, were there, but they had no information on what was happening or what would come next, he added.
Judy Rosen, 56, of Encino fled from Terminal 3 down to the airfield tarmac to escape the bullets. Some of those gathered in the restricted aircraft ramp area used phones and laptop computers to get information on what was occurring, mostly from the news. She said she heard no announcements from airport employees or via a public address system telling passengers either where to go or providing information about Red Cross services.
“There was a communications breakdown after the shooting,” said Marshall McClain, an airport police officer and president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Assn. “The airport website was down. The airport radio station had been closed and passenger contact with employees was weak. People were just told to use Twitter.”
Airport officials said they relied not just on social media, but emails, airport personnel and the news media to continuously inform the public.
A Times reporter had difficulty accessing the LAX website much of Friday, but officials said that it did not crash and that 550,000 page views were recorded during the three hours after the shooting. Messages were sent to more than 57,000 Twitter followers and about 174,000 people visited the airport’s Facebook page, according to the airport.
A hotel hotline was set up, officials said, and LAX staff told stranded passengers about Red Cross accommodations — but some chose to stay on cots set up in the terminals. The Red Cross said 33 travelers used beds provided in the Bradley terminal.
Years ago, the airport set up an informational radio station with a 10-mile range, partly to provide the public with traffic updates and information during emergencies, according to federal records. But it closed last year, officials said Tuesday, and would not have been of significant help in the crisis because the station’s prerecorded broadcasts would not have provided real-time information.
Officials said that part of the delay and disruption in the aftermath of the shooting was the result of continuing security concerns. Police swept the airport to secure terminals, made sure there were no other gunmen or additional threats, gathered up dispersed passengers and collected evidence. Authorities said time was also needed to assist passengers and restore airline service.
“In just over 24 hours, the entire airport was fully operational,” airport officials said.
Bonin praised the use of Twitter as a “very tech-savvy” tactic by airport officials. He questioned, however, how many travelers check LAX’s tweets on a regular basis or even know about the account.
“There was slow information release,” said Jon McDuffie, an emergency management consultant and former Los Angeles Fire Department captain who has worked on LAX emergency plans. “There is going to be fallout from this incident.”
Bonin also wants a formal progress report on scores of recommendations made in 2011 by a panel of experts who analyzed LAX security and emergency response measures.
The panel concluded that the nation’s third-busiest airport was safe, but that more needed to be done to enhance emergency management, the security of facilities and the airport police force. Preparations for handling major incidents were not given a high enough priority by the city’s airport department, researchers said.
Security and crowd control during an emergency has been a heightened concern at LAX since the 9/11 attacks, and a Fourth of July shooting the next year at the El Al Airlines ticket counter in the Bradley terminal that left two dead and four wounded.
(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times
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