Disgruntled Worker Opens Fire Near Empire State Building, Leaving Two Dead and Nine Injured

Two are dead and nine injured after what appears to be a reported workplace dispute escalated into gunfire at one of New York City's most iconic landmarks

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Mark Lennihan / AP

Bystanders and a police officer stand on Fifth Avenue to view the scene after a multiple shooting outside the Empire State Building, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, in New York.

A recently fired retail-store worker shot a former colleague to death Friday morning at the Empire State Building before opening fire on bystanders near the New York City skyscraper, according to police authorities. Two are dead, including the shooter, identified as Jeffrey Johnson, 53. According to police commissioner Ray Kelly, nine people were injured in the shooting, which broke out at 9:03 a.m. as commuters headed to work in the busy business hub in midtown Manhattan. The shooter is thought to have acted alone. A TIME reporter saw a body covered in a white sheet lying on the sidewalk.

Johnson is reported to be a disgruntled ex-employee of a business at 10 West 33rd Street who was seeking revenge on his former company, from which he was fired during a downsizing effort a year ago. According to Kelly, Johnson wielded a .45-caliber handgun as he walked to Hazan Imports, a designer of women’s accessories. After shooting a man identified by police as the company’s vice president of sales, Steven Ercolino, 41, outside the business,  Johnson walked away from the building. When he encountered two police officers making their normal rounds near the building’s Fifth Avenue entrance, he opened fire “and tried to shoot at the cops,” Mayor Mike Bloomberg said. The two NYPD officers returned fire, fatally shooting Johnson using a total of 14 rounds. Nine bystanders were injured in the ensuing gunfire. Bloomberg said, “Some may have been shot accidentally by police officers responding immediately while confronting the suspect.”

(PHOTOS: Shooting Outside Empire State Building in New York City)

A witness who asked to be identified only as Tonya confirmed to TIME that the body on the sidewalk was that of the gunman. “I saw him shooting. I didn’t see who he shot, but I saw him get shot,” she said, just before ducking into a nearby building, fearing for her safety. Queens resident Rebecca Fox told TIME the alleged shooter was a middle-aged Caucasian male.

Guillermo Ratzlaff, a 29-year-old construction worker who was working on scaffolding on the Empire State Building, was on a break at the time of the shooting. When he and his co-workers heard the first shots, they were confused. “We thought it was metal clanking,” the Brooklyn resident told TIME. “Then we heard four more shots, and then we saw a guy walking nonchalantly in a gray suit.” When he reached the intersection of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue, Ratzlaff said, “some guy on the corner tried to grab him, and he got shot [by the gunman]. Then he had a shoot-out with the cops.”

“The police asked him to put down the gun, and when he wouldn’t, he shot at them,” said a man who asked to be identified only as Zameer. The 28-year-old was on a smoke break outside the Empire State Building, where he works at NY Skyride, a tourist attraction inside the skyscraper. The shooting started across the street from Legends Sports Bar on 33rd Street. About 75 to 100 people were walking in the area at the time. A woman who was at work at a nearby deli on 33rd Street, Circa NY, said, “It was crazy, like a movie scene. I was running for my life.” The employee, who asked not to be identified, said there were two distinct blasts of gunfire. The first set of gunfire was just three shots, but during a second barrage, she heard “about 10 bullets” fired. A co-worker of hers, who also didn’t want to be identified, said she was on her way out of the deli when the shooting broke out. “I heard pop-pop-pop as soon as I came out,” she said. “On the second set of shots, I ran in and locked the door.”

Doorman Eddie Valentino, 62, who works at an office building near the site of the shooting heard a commotion around the time of the shooting. “I heard gunfire and people came running into my building,” he said. He also said he knew Ercolino when he worked in his building before moving to Hazan Imports. “It’s a shame. He was a very, very nice guy. I’d say he’s a ladies man.”

Federal officials confirmed to the Associated Press that the incident is not related to terrorism, and a building guard said the shooting occurred in a commercial area of the building far from where tourists gather to visit the tower’s observation deck. “We are on pace to have a record low number of murders this year, but we are not immune to the national problem of gun violence,” Bloomberg said Friday morning. Before Johnson was shot by police, he was pursued by a construction worker who followed him around the outside of the Empire State Building. Bloomberg praised the unnamed worker and said he was doing what we all should be doing: “If you see something, say something.”

The entire Empire State Building has been shut down pending an investigation. FBI and ATF authorities are on the scene.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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