Off-duty Portland cop gets caught up in the chaos at LAX

LOS ANGELES - When shots were fired at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday, and people began fleeing in terror, a Portland police officer who happened to be there said she felt helpless.

"We go through a lot of advanced training for an active shooter," said Portland Police Officer Sarah Kerwin, who was at the airport on Friday. She and her family were returning home from a vacation at Disneyland. "But I obviously couldn't do that here. I'm not capable - I don't have body armor or anything."

Kerwin said the chaos began while she and her family were in a shuttle van. They did not know at the time that a gunman had opened fire at a security checkpoint, killing a Transportation Safety Administration officer and wounding at least three others.

"All of a sudden, we just started to hear people running like crazy and screaming," said Shannon Kerwin, Sarah's sister. "We rolled down the window and asked what was going on and they're screaming "SHOOTER, SHOOTER!" and trying to get into our van."

"We were trying to get them in, but the van automatically locked the doors," Shannon said. "So by the time we got the door open, people were just running away at that point."

"We're trained to look for indicators," said Sarah, "such as people running from a location all in groups, and then looking for gunfire. But I didn't hear any of that - just people screaming and running."

But even without hearing a single shot, she knew something was very wrong.

Sarah Kerwin talks about what happened at LAX upon her arrival back in Portland on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. KATU photo.

"I instantly knew something bad was happening because these people were terrified," she said. "I've seen people scared. I've been involved in a lot of scary things being with the police force in the last seven years."

This was a different situation, though. Sarah wasn't there in her role as a police officer. In this case, she was a bystander like everyone else.

"That's the closest I have ever actually been in a civilian role," she said. "I've always showed up after the fact, so this is a very different perspective to have on it."

And she said this was actually the one time she decided not to travel with a firearm, which made her feel even more helpless.

"I saw no reason to have a firearm with me inside Disneyland - it's the happiest place on Earth," she said. "I shouldn't be carrying a gun around."

After a shootout with police, the wounded gunman was taken into custody. The suspect was later identified as 23-year-old Paul Ciancia of Pennsville, N.J.

The TSA officer was the first killed in the line of duty in the 12-year history of the agency, which was founded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

KATU Reporter Hillary Lake and the Associated Press contributed to this report.