[KHTS] – The recent LAX shooting found Santa Clarita Valley resident Kirk Stinson inside of Terminal 3 and running for his life.
What should have been a joyous surprise for his sister’s 50th birthday quickly turned into horror and fear for Stinson, a Saugus resident, when the sound of gunfire erupted on Friday in Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport.
“At first it didn’t sound like a gun, it sounded like someone had dropped a broomstick, or something fell, then we heard what sounded like repeated gunshots,” said Stinson. “I stood up and said, ‘that’s gunshots, everybody get down, get down.’”
Stinson said he urged the people around him toward the nearest exit, an open doorway that took the fleeing passengers down the jetway ramp toward a waiting airplane.
“At the end of the ramp we had to wait for a gate agent to unlock the door so we could go down the stairs to the airport tarmac,” he said. “She was so panicked she forgot the code. She was saying, ‘I can’t remember the code, I can’t remember the code.’ We had to wait until another gate agent came and unlocked the door.”
Stinson sought refugee with others behind a pillar and waited.
“We were just looking for anything to hide behind, you didn’t know which direction the gunfire was coming from,” he said.
As the fleeing passengers waited for the door to be unlocked more and more passengers fled onto the jetway, some almost climbing atop the people already crowded into the small space.
“The terminal was fairly crowded so you had hundreds of people trying to get out of, maybe, four doors,” Stinson said. “Then there was a rush of blue shirts and TSA people also trying to get away from the gunman. People were panicked because we could hear the shooting.”
After Stinson and the others made it to the tarmac buses quickly arrived and took everyone to a holding area behind the Tom Bradley International Terminal.Kirk Stinson, wearing a red vest, stands on the tarmac outside of Terminal 3 after escaping from a gunman on Friday. Photo courtesy Kirk Stinson.
During the shooting incident TSA agent Gerardo Hernandez, 39, was killed and three other people were wounded when a gunman identified by police as 23-year-old Paul Anthony Ciancia opened fire at an LAX TSA checkpoint in Terminal 3. The incident shut down the airport for hours.
Stinson had caught an early ride to the airport with a friend who was on his way to Manhattan Beach. He arrived at LAX sometime around 6 a.m.
When Stinson heard the first shot he was preparing to catch a 10 a.m. Spirit Airlines flight to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport for his sister’s surprise birthday party.
“Who knows where I would have been if I had not caught that early ride,” he said. “Instead of being as far into the terminal as I was, I might have been at the TSA checkpoint, or walking down the hallway, when the shooting started.”
Stinson, owner of Plumbing by Kirk, Inc. in Santa Clarita, said he was on the phone with his wife, Nicole, when the first shot rang out.
“I told Nicole, ‘I think I just heard gunshots,’” he said. “Then I knew for sure it was gunshots and in the chaos I lost my phone. I peeked out the doorway (of the jetway) and saw a guy running my way trying to seek cover and he kicked my phone toward me so I got my phone back.”
While his wife frantically tried to call him Stinson was busy trying to find a way out of the terminal.
“It wasn’t a good time for me to stop and talk on the phone,” he said. “By the time I got out on the tarmac she didn’t know if I had been shot, or what was happening.”
When Stinson knew he was safe he called his wife, who was relieved he was unharmed.
Stinson said he was in the holding area until 6 p.m. Snacks were the only food distributed, said Stinson.
“They had the packages of peanuts you get on the airplanes, but they didn’t have enough for everybody. They were gone in minutes,” he said. “If I hadn’t had an extra granola bar and a small bag of pretzels I would have been in trouble.”
Stinson said as the day wore on in the holding area the mood changed from “being thankful for being alive to, holy crap, there’s a thousand people in this room and only 25 outlets to charge our phones.”
After someone discovered USB ports in the back of the televisions above the counters Stinson said phones could be seen dangling over the desks hanging from charging cables.
“It became kind of humorous,” he said. “People would say, your 15 minutes are up, now it’s my turn to charge my phone. There were a couple of bickering fights.”
Stinson said as the hours progressed people became increasingly annoyed at the lack of information being conveyed to the waiting throngs and the long wait to leave the holding area, but most people coped well with the situation.
Kirk Stinson took this photo of himself outside a terminal at LAX to show some of the police response to the shooting at LAX. Photo courtesy Kirk Stinson.When Stinson was released he had hoped to catch a FlyAway bus to Van Nuys, but after waiting an hour he learned that all the roads in and out of the airport were still shuttered and no FlyAway buses were coming for several hours.
He walked away from LAX down Century Boulevard finding hotel after hotel completely booked. He finally found a room at a Motel 6, a mile from the airport.
“I didn’t want my family to try and come down and get me,” said Stinson. “I knew it would take them hours because the roads were still all closed.”
After Stinson’s wife put out an appeal on Facebook, Natasha Gagarin, who exercises at the same gym as Kirk Stinson, replied that she was on her way to pick up her car at LAX and could bring Kirk home.
Gagarin picked Stinson up at the Motel 6 and drove him back to the SCV.
“She came into the hotel and met me and said, ‘I’m so sorry you had to go through this,’” he said. “She was awesome, she was my angel.”
Stinson had met Gagarin only once, but he said they both cried all the way home.
It wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. that he returned to Saugus.
“It was very emotional,” he said. “I was very thankful that I was able to see my family that night.”
Stinson has two children, Peyton, 13 and Paige, 8.
“They met me at the car and I held on to my wife and kids for a good five minutes before we went inside,” he said.
The Stinsons have long believed in “giving back to the community.”
Nicole, a realtor, with Estate Realty Group, has worked on many fundraising activities for SCV nonprofits. She has also co-founded a charity cook-off to benefit several nonprofits and headed up efforts to provide holiday gifts for the unprivileged.
Kirk has donated his services to the “Gentleman for a Cause” fundraisers for Soroptimist International of SCV. He has also dressed up as Santa Claus to distribute gifts to underprivileged children in the SCV.
“I’m also going to help the SCV Youth Project,” he said.
The experience has had a profound effect on Stinson.
“When I was talking to Nicole on the phone, after I heard the shots, I told her, ‘You know, if anything happens, you know I love you, and tell the kids I love them.’ It was hard to fathom that I had to say those words,” he said.
Stinson said he no longer “sweats the small stuff.”
“This jarred something inside me and all I can think about now is spending more quality time with my family,” he said.