LOS ANGELES (AP) — Thousands of Los Angeles International Airport workers had no idea what to do when a gunman opened fire last year in a terminal because they were inadequately trained to deal with an emergency, according to a union report.
Members of SEIU United Service Workers West — sky caps, baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and janitors — weren't prepared for an evacuation, were hampered by poor communication, and were essentially on their own during the chaos, as panicked, fleeing passengers ran onto the tarmac and dove onto luggage conveyer belts. In some instances, passengers were left alone in wheelchairs during the Nov. 1 shooting that killed one airport screener and injured three others.
Many issues outlined in the union report and by the airport itself were identified as deficient in 2011 by a special panel. Los Angeles World Airports began revamping emergency plans that were to be completed last summer. But in June, the airport commission gave the contractor 18 more months.
Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board and an aviation safety and security consultant, said a lack of coordinated planning during an emergency can be a "fatal flaw" that endangers the public and workers.
"The airline industry and airports in particular have spent hundreds of millions of dollars since 9/11 in emergency response preparedness and upgrades, and the reality is that for airport service workers they're always the last ones considered in the planning even though they have absolutely the most direct contact with passengers," said Goelz, who had no role in the report.
The union report obtained by The Associated Press is the latest to document problems that arose when the gunman entered the airport with a high-powered rifle and began targeting Transportation Security Administration workers. The union conducted the study after the airport declined to include its members in a comprehensive review of the emergency response expected to be released next week.
"Passengers are placed at greater risk as a result of a lack of effort on the part of the airport authority to include these workers in emergency response coordination and communications, as well as a lack of training and investment in the contract service workers who provide passenger services on behalf of the airlines," according to the report by the union that represents about 2,500 of the 8,900 service workers at LAX.
The report, which will be released next week, calls for emergency response training, participation in drills, and specialized training for people who deal with disabled passengers or security.
The AP previously reported that the airport investigation found several lapses that led to a delayed response. The only two armed officers on duty in Terminal 3 were out of position when the shooting began; medical help wasn't quickly provided to the TSA officer who died; and emergency phones and panic buttons weren't updated or working.
LAX spokeswoman Nancy Castles said in an email that the airport's review will discuss including the "airportwide community" in emergency response efforts.
Airport officials said in a recent hearing that they're creating teams to update travelers during emergencies and improving the public announcement system, which currently can't broadcast throughout the airport. They said the review also looks at providing more evacuation training and instruction to employees on how to shelter large numbers of people.
The union report detailed multiple instances where airport service workers were critical to the emergency response. One service worker was the first to alert airport police dispatch about the shooting. A union security worker pointed responding officers toward the gunman. Moments earlier, the worker had faced the gunman, who repeatedly asked him, "Where is TSA?"
Suspect Paul Ciancia, 24, was shot and quickly subdued by police. The Pennsville, N.J., native has pleaded not guilty to 11 federal charges, including murder of a federal officer.
While TSA officers followed practiced emergency procedures, union officials said workers were given little or no direction during the attack and the airport shutdown that lasted more than five hours.
More than 23,000 travelers were evacuated or held in areas without official explanation or information. Much information — even for airport workers — was obtained through news reports, social medial and messages from family and friends.
Fanny Fuentes, who rotates between airport jobs and has worked at LAX for 14 years, was in Terminal 1 when 15 passengers tried to enter the terminal from the tarmac.
"They were running right by the planes on the airfield, probably about 10 to 15 feet away from them, which is really dangerous, especially close to the engines," Fuentes said.
When someone yelled that there was shooting inside the terminal, a crowd of about 100 travelers ran outside toward the runway. Disabled and elderly passengers were left unattended as people fled.
"They were just sitting there shaking like, 'What is going to happen to us?'" Fuentes said.
The union report, which did not compare emergency readiness at other airports, also cites multiple instances when radios issued to some workers failed because of battery or transmission problems. Veteran workers said the airport provided inadequate or no training on evacuation routes and procedures.
Multiple employees said they were better prepared for emergencies because of training at previous jobs at places such as Taco Bell, Disneyland or Wal-Mart.
Many workers tried to provide assistance to passengers stuck for hours with limited access to food, water and toilets. Service workers said people were screaming and children crying out of fear and frustration.
Liz Laguna, a customer service worker, and other employees shuttled back and forth to McDonald's in Terminal 5 to get food for children stuck with their families.
Arriving international travelers were locked down in customs, said John Prince, a wheelchair attendant.
"It was no information, no seat, no food, limited water and toilets," Prince said. And because the area was controlled by the government and no official announcements were made, airport workers didn't know what to tell people.
"It must have been awful for people to not know why they were being held," he said.