MANHATTAN — A women's accessories designer who was fired from his job gunned down his former office manager outside the Empire State Building Friday morning, sparking a chaotic shootout with police that left several other people injured and sent crowds running for cover.
The wild scene unfolded around 9 a.m., and left the gunman, Jeffrey Johnson, 58, lying dead at the base of the iconic skyscraper on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, a block north from where he gunned down former co-worker Steven Ercolino, 41, police said.
Nine other people — two women and seven men — were shot and injured, and were likely hit by two officers who fired a total of 16 times.
Johnson, who lived on the Upper East SIde, was fired from his job at Hazan Imports of 10 W. 33rd St., just off Fifth Avenue, about a year ago.
He was laying in wait for Ercolino, with whom he had a long-standing beef, outside the building Friday morning. A woman who had once worked with both men at Hazan, but now has another job nearby, said she saw Johnson out of the corner of her eye walk up to Ercolino and shoot him several times with a .45 caliber handgun, according to sources.
"He shot guy in the temple," said Mike Miller, an electrician from Bay Shore, LI, who was standing 15 feet away from the shooting. When Ercolino dropped to the ground, Johnson did not stop firing.
"He stood over him and shot him three more times," said Miller. Sources said that Johnson got off five rounds, hitting Ercolino in the head and body.
A construction worker followed Johnson as he made his escape and alerted two police officers assigned to the Bronx's 42nd Precinct who were at an anti-terrorism footpost outside the Empire State Building, sources and witnesses said.
"The cops was running...with his guns in the air," said a witness who only gave his first name as Tate, adding that the cops told frightened bystanders to “Get out of the way, get the f--k out of the way.
“I’ve never seen nothing like this, not in Midtown.”
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Johnson, who had worked at the company for six years, whipped a gun out of the bag and was shot by police.
"Police confronted him and asked him to stop," said witness Jamal Yahaya, who sells tickets for NY SkyRide, a virtual reality ride inside the building. "Right in front of Fifth Ave., he opened his briefcase and pulled out a gun and started shooting."
The NYPD released a video Friday evening that shows Johnson pointing the gun at cops. It was not clear from the video whether Johnson got a shot off before he was gunned down by cops.
Lisa Robles, who works at New York Skyride, said that Johnson "was coming right at us" when he was stopped by police.
Her manager grabbed her and told her to run, but was shot in the leg. Another man who works for the sightseeing bus company Grey Line, was also struck and "dropped to the floor real hard."
"We’re all traumatized," she said. "I cry for these people.”
Several surrounding streets around the famed building were blocked off after the incident that sent dozens of workers and tourists scrambling for safety. About half of the crowd dashed towards Sixth Avenue and the other towards Fifth Avenue.
"I was like, run!," said Kay Hudson, who works a block away and saw a man who was shot fall to the ground after hearing seven or eight shots. "You've got to run!'"
Raphael Riegler, 19, who was traveling with family from Austria said that he thought he had stumbled on the set of a movie when he heard more than a dozen shots.
“Everybody ran, my family thought it was a film. I said, 'run, run, run,'” he said.
The stunned tourist was about 20 yards away from the shooting, saw a victim fall in the middle of the street.
"He fell down, no movement,” he said.
One of the officers fired seven times and another fired six, hitting Johnson seven times. Three of the bullets exited his body.
Most of the bystanders who were shot were hit with bullet fragments, mainly in the legs, and were not seriously injured. Preliminary, the shooting appears to be within department guidelines, according to sources.
“Some of the victims may have been shot accidentally by police officers while responding immediately," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after the shooting. "All of them are not seriously wounded.”
Six people were rushed to Bellevue Hospital and another three to New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center with injuries that were not considered life-threatening. All of the victims were from New York, except for a 21-year-old woman from North Carolina.
Among the victims was Erica Solar, 30, of The Bronx, a mom of two who was shot in her left leg, just behind the knee.
Solar, who works as a receptionist on West 37th Street, was walking to Dunkin' Donuts when she heard shots.
“She’s fine she just a little restless," said her brother, Louis Lleras, 32, outside New York Hospital. "The [emergency] room was just intense.”
Johnson's gun .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun was recovered at the scene with one round left in the clip and one in the chamber. He also had another clip that held six bullets in his bag.
Sources said that the suspect, who had no criminal record or mental history, bought the gun in 1991 when he lived in Sarasota, Fl., where he resided between 1983 and 1992.
Co-workers of the construction worker who alerted police to Johnson lauded his actions.
"He's a goddamn hero," said Chris Ogden, 23, who fellow construction worker who works for Skanska.
This is not the first time that the Empire State Building has been touched by gun violence. In 1997, a Palestinian gunman shot seven people on the observation deck because of America's support for Israel.
In a statement, the Empire State Building Company said that the skyscraper remained open throughout the chaotic incident.
"Today, a disgruntled employee of a company which neighbors the Empire State Building fatally shot a former co-worker," the statement read.
"This unfortunate event had nothing to do with the Empire State Building or with terrorism...We express our deepest concern for those innocents who were hurt and our appreciation to the NYPD."
With reporting by Farran Powell.