TSA lost its first officer in the line of duty 10 years ago today, and the memories of that tragic day are still vivid in the minds of the people who worked with him to protect the traveling public as well as employees across the agency.
On the morning of November 1, 2013, TSA Officer (TSO) Gerardo Hernandez was greeting passengers at the travel document checker (TDC) podium in the Terminal 3 checkpoint of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) when a gunman suddenly opened fire, attacking him and several others.
Hernandez, just days shy of his 40th birthday, tragically lost his life while two other TSA employees and a passenger were seriously injured but survived.
“It’s surreal to think that 10 years have passed since Gerardo’s death,” said LAX TSA Federal Security Director Jason Pantages. “I remember everything about this tragic incident, but the thing I remember most is that a young boy and a young girl lost their father, and a young wife lost her husband purely because of the uniform Gerardo was wearing and the oath he took when he was sworn in as a transportation security officer.”
Pantages was LAX’s assistant federal security director (AFSD)-screening at the time and just drove to a morning staff meeting when about 20 minutes into the meeting, his cell phone started ringing.
“I hit ignore a few times, but people kept calling, so I went outside the conference room to answer and was told there was an active shooter incident at Terminal 3,” Pantages recalled. “I immediately got into the AFSD-law enforcement’s vehicle and responded. It was absolute chaos in and around the airport.”
Shortly after, the world got the message none of us wanted to hear – some of our own at TSA were shot and wounded, and Officer Hernandez lost his life in the line of duty while protecting the traveling public.
“TSO Hernandez was everything you would want in a TSA officer,” noted Pantages. “He took great pride in everything he did. He was professional in how he looked and acted and was passionate about his work as a TSO.”
Hernandez’s death hit Evette Stewart, a TSO for 21 years, especially hard. She, too, was on duty that morning and has vivid memories of that horrific day.
“He had just shared his lunch with me that day before he was killed,” said an emotional Stewart. “I was on X-ray on Lane 5 when we first heard the gunshots. At first, we were told to get down. Then, we heard shots again and were told to run.”
Stewart remembers Hernandez as “a very kind man with a wonderful personality.”
TSO Rafael Ruiz, who joined TSA over 19 years ago, also spent time with Hernandez shortly before the tragic shooting.
“Gerardo and I were in the break room, and that morning, he told me his whole life story while we waited to start our shift,” Ruiz said. “It was almost like he had a premonition, because he told me everything about his life – how much he loved his wife and kids – and told me about his plans for the future. He wanted to do something in the computer science field.”
Just before gunfire rang out, Ruiz, like Hernandez, was at a TDC podium but was tapped out to go to a downstairs checkpoint.
“I heard the shots and decided to leave,” described Ruiz. “There were a bunch of passengers and construction workers who were frozen. I asked where the shots came from, and before they could answer, I heard 15 more shots coming from upstairs. I started running toward Terminal 2 and realized people were still there, so I turned around and told them to start running. They started to run with me. I saw a TSO with headphones heading upstairs. He was listening to music, and I just yanked him and pulled him with me. We went across the street to a parking lot and started to call my brother. My brother had information from the news. We kept running to the farthest terminal – Terminal 7.”
Supervisory TSA Officer William Campos was also on duty at the time and fled from the scene to seek safety. He remembers Hernandez as a person who deeply cared about his family and everyone around him.
“He was kindhearted, friendly, always had something to talk about regarding family or asking about how things were going in my life,” said Campos. “I have a lot of gratitude for his sacrifice. He paid the ultimate price, and I am thankful he called out for help to alert others. I am thankful for his heroism and for God placing him there that day and that I can be here today to share his story.”
Harry Woody was the on-duty TSA manager (TSM) at Terminal 3 where the tragic shooting occurred.
“I was in the TSM office, which is directly adjacent to the checkpoint,” Woody remembered. “When I heard the initial shots, I debated whether to shelter-in-place or evacuate the office. While hearing the second set of shots, I heard passengers self-evacuating into the air operations area through the security identification display area door next to the office, and I made a dash through the door along with them, still not knowing specifically where the shooter was.”
Woody sheltered-in-place with the group of passengers and told them this was an actual event and not a drill. He told them to remain sheltered until law enforcement arrived and determined the area to be safe.
Fellow TSA Manager Alexander Cardona wasn’t on duty the day of the shooting but drove to LAX in his civilian clothes to help his officers and provide support to local police.
Ten years later, Cardona believes Hernandez’s memory still burns bright for all of us here at TSA.
“TSO Hernandez was a great officer who was very knowledgeable and had outstanding charisma,” said Cardona. “He was devoted to his job and performed his duties with honor. TSO Hernandez was an outstanding team player and always willing to lend a hand when he was needed. He was a kind and gentle soul.”
Safety changes at TSA since the tragedy
Woody and Cardona believe this tragedy had a profound effect on everyone at TSA that fateful day and still has a significant impact on the agency.
“I’ve been with TSA since 2002 and have seen many incidents and the resulting changes in TSA’s policies that have affected the agency’s overall objectives,” said Woody. “It fully hit home that day for all of us the seriousness of what we do and how it affects the traveling public and their perception of what we do. I feel all TSA personnel grew closer because of this tragedy, and our organization became stronger.”
“TSO Hernandez’s picture at all our checkpoints and the naming of our local training department after him is a daily reminder that we should all remain alert as terrorism can strike at a moment’s notice, and we should all be ready for contingencies,” Cardona added. “I have noticed an increased law enforcement officer presence at our checkpoints and throughout the airport.”
While he feels nothing could have been done to prevent this horrific tragedy, Pantages said everyone is now more aware of the dangers our uniformed personnel face every day while serving the traveling public.
“At LAX, we have duress alarms at all of our TDC podiums, and we have a large airport police department who is always visible and quick to respond,” said Pantages. “I think our officers are as safe as we can make them, but unfortunately, there are people out there who do not like TSA, so it’s important we always stay vigilant and aware of our surroundings. While we try to make the work environment as safe as possible, our personnel are unarmed, so we rely on our law enforcement partners in and around the airport to keep our officers safe.”
Campos applauds TSA’s commitment to protect officers at LAX and around the country following the tragic event on November 1, 2013.
“I think things have been done; however, there is no fixing something like this,” Campos assessed. “There is always a threat, and we need to continue to bring more awareness and more security to try and stay ahead of it. We need to always have a plan for situations that could occur. It is important to rely on each other.”
By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs