By Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker
A Mar Vista preschool teacher who came within just a few feet of the suspect in Friday’s deadly shooting rampage inside Terminal 3 of Los Angeles International Airport said bystanders pulled together to help each other through the traumatic situation.
But the only person who appeared to stay relaxed throughout the chaos, she said, was the man holding a gun.
While trying to exit the terminal after seeking cover from initial gunfire, 38-year-old Jessica Maurer spotted the man not far from the gate where she had been waiting to board a flight to Minneapolis.
“He had a gun [held] to his chest. He wasn’t smiling, wasn’t saying anything. He seemed calm, kind of, standing there walking around,” Maurer said. “I knew something wasn’t right, so I dove under the chairs right in front of me.”
Paul Ciancia, 23, of Los Angeles has been charged with the murder of Transportation Security Administration agent Gerardo Hernandez and other crimes during a shooting spree that began around 9:20 a.m. at a security checkpoint, according to law enforcement officials.
Hernandez, 39, is the first TSA agent to die in the line of duty since the agency’s formation. Six others, including two TSA agents, were hospitalized with gunshot wounds, and a seventh person was not struck by gunfire but suffered related injuries.
Maurer, who teaches at a private school, said she ducked under chairs at Gate 31 after hearing loud bangs and people running for cover away from the security checkpoint.
“I remember hearing a commotion and then I see this wave of people come running … kind of like something out of that move ‘The Blob,’ she said. “I don’t remember if someone told me to get down, but I just hid underneath the chairs. I don’t know how long I was there.”
Later, someone shouted for people to “get out” and Maurer began to follow others toward exits when she spotted the armed man and once again sought cover under seating.
“Through the whole thing my head was so clear and focused, but … my heart started pumping, I was shaking,” she said. “I was worried about making eye contact with him, so I just put my head down and started praying and focusing on my breathing to stay calm.”
Maurer said she sent text messages to her sister and worked to help calm a teenage traveler and her grandmother who were also hiding under the same row of chairs, even as she looked up to see the apparent gunman pass by chairs a few rows over.
The next person Maurer recalled seeing was a police officer who asked which direction the shooter had traveled.
Awaiting further instruction, she stayed in place and heard “a bunch of single shots and then a session that was a bit more rapid-fire” coming from elsewhere in the terminal.
Ciancia was injured during a gun battle with officers who took him into custody.
Maurer and others were eventually ordered into the next-door Tom Bradley International Terminal — moving past “glasses, purses, wallets, baggage, stuff people just dropped and left behind,” she said — where bystanders received information updates not from law enforcement but from others with access to news reports on their cell phones and computers.
“Afterwards, when we were waiting, people really came together,” sharing cell phones and chargers to help people contact loved ones and offering each other food and water. It felt like everybody was trying to be very compassionate with each other,” Maurer said.
“It was comforting to talk with everybody else and decompress with them. If I would have gone straight home I might have been even more of a mess,” she said.
After what seemed to her a long and disorganized process of waiting to be interviewed by FBI agents and police, Maurer said she and others were finally allowed to leave the airport but received little direction of where to go.
Maurer boarded a parking lot shuttle that took her near the intersection of Westchester Parkway and Sepulveda Boulevard and walked two miles past gridlock traffic before the wife of a fellow displaced traveler picked him up and offered her a ride home.
In the days after the shooting, reports surfaced that airport police had removed armed officers from TSA checkpoints earlier this year.
Arif Alikhan, LAX’s deputy executive director of Homeland Security, Law Enforcement and Fire, countered such reports during a Monday press conference.
“Police officers at LAX are still required to be at security checkpoints,” Alikhan said. “They have never been moved.”
Others have suggested arming TSA agents, but Los Angeles World Airports Police Chief Patrick Gannon told reporters it is unlikely armed agents could have prevented the shooting and saved Hernandez’s life.
“I’m not of the opinion that more guns mean more safety,” Gannon said.
For Maurer, the events of the day still feel somewhat unreal.
“When I think back, trying to go over what I witnessed, it’s almost like I’m watching a TV show. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. It doesn’t happen to people I know,” she said.