NEW YORK – New York officials proudly tout the Big Apple as the safest big city in America. But blasts of gunfire in front of crowds near some of the city's best-known destinations this month painted a picture at odds with its tame, tourist friendly image.
Police confronted a knife-wielding man in Times Square and then shot him to death a few blocks away Aug. 11 as onlookers followed along and snapped photos. And on Friday, a gunman with a workplace grudge shot a former co-worker dead outside the Empire State Building -- and then was killed himself by police in a burst of bullets that left at least nine bystanders wounded, some apparently by police rounds.
"I thought it's impossible for something like this to happen here," Julien Berthoud said after his parents, visiting from Switzerland, ran from the gunshots and then returned a few minutes later to see victims lying on the ground, some of them bleeding, as onlookers wept and frantically called 911.
The recent shootings might not leave a lasting mark on the public's view of New York, which has seen its appeal to tourists endure terrorism. Only one of the injured bystanders was from out of town. Still, Friday's violence spurred officials to assure visitors they were safe, even as it spotlighted the difficult task police face in confronting threats at thronged landmarks where some onlookers are more inclined to record the danger than to run from it.
Tourist Linda Signorini, for one, isn't fazed. The customer service worker from Melbourne, Australia, headed to the Empire State Building on Friday evening with her husband, Con, and their 27-year-old daughter, Erica.
They'd been startled by the news of the shooting that morning, but it didn't change their outlook on the city, Linda Signorini said. Noting the number of police officers they had seen on the streets, "we felt pretty safe," she said.
That's exactly the message city officials have strived to send for the past two decades, making aggressive efforts to combat crime, to turn once-seedy Times Square into a G-rated entertainment district -- and to cast tourism as an economic-development priority.
More than 50 million visitors came to the city last year, a record. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office says tourism will contribute $45 billion in direct spending to the city and add 30,000 new jobs to its workforce by 2015.
Asked what he would say to tourists who might be concerned about Friday's shooting near the iconic skyscraper, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reiterated that New York is America's safest big city. The oft-invoked description is based on FBI crime statistics for the nation's 25 most populous cities. The data comprise a total of seven major crimes, including murder, rape and robbery; New York has the lowest rate per 100,000 residents.
"Over the last few decades, the strides that the city has made have been significant in increasing its appeal" to tourists, and the recent shootings aren't likely to change that, said Anna Maria Bounds, a Queens College sociologist who researches urban tourism.
As for city residents, "in general, New Yorkers are resilient," said Dr. Charles Marmar, the chairman of NYU Langone Medical Center's Psychiatry Department, which conducts research on post-traumatic stress and dispatched clinicians to meet with people wounded in Friday's gunfire.
Just days before Friday's mayhem, police said a street vendor shot two men outside storied Yankee Stadium in broad daylight in what witnesses described as a dispute over sales space. It joined a list of violent incidents at New York landmarks in recent years.
A terrorist tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, coming close enough to succeeding that a vendor spotted smoke coming from the SUV and alerted police. City officials have said other terror plots against the city's subways, transit facilities and landmarks have been thwarted since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
And the Empire State Building itself became the site of bloodshed in 1997, when a gunman killed a tourist, wounded six others and killed himself on the 86th-floor observation deck.
The tower remained open throughout the chaos outside Friday, and the owner stressed that Friday's shooting "had nothing to do with the Empire State Building."
The gunman, Jeffrey Johnson, shot a clothing company vice president he blamed for his layoff last year, police said. The victim, Steven Ercolino, was heading to work at the company's office across the street from the building.
Surveillance video shows Johnson pointed a gun at police; investigators believe he didn't fire. Two officers fired a total of 16 shots, and some of them were likely the stray bullets that hit bystanders as gunfire ricocheted off planters, investigators said.
"Talk about the ultimate complexity for a police officer or a security officer to have to face -- he's being shot at, or he's being threatened, and understands that his ability to hit a target shooting at him or coming at him (is limited), that he may hit somebody else," said William J. Bratton, who headed the New York and Los Angeles police departments before becoming chairman of Kroll, a private security firm.
To stop someone armed with deadly force, police are trained to shoot at the person's torso so as to have the greatest chance of hitting their target in a stressful, fluid situation -- and even so, most shots miss, said Bratton, who was a Boston police sergeant when he found himself facing a bank robber who had a gun to a teller's head in front of onlookers in 1975.
"There was no way I could chance shooting at him without potentially killing her or missing him and shooting someone else in the crowd," Bratton recalled, so he lowered his weapon and asked the gunman to do the same. That worked.
But the New York officers involved in Friday's shooting might not have had the same option, Bratton said by phone.
About an hour after the gunfire, Louie Echave and his girlfriend, Jennifer Maurer, went to visit the Empire State Building, unaware of the situation that had unfolded. It didn't change the itinerary of the residents of Zurich, Switzerland, or their perception of the city.
"I still say it's pretty safe," Echave said later Friday. "You can't say, in general, that New York isn't really safe because one person did something."
Added Maurer: "People go crazy everywhere."