NEW YORK (Reuters) - A man shot dead a former co-worker near New York's Empire State Building on Friday and was killed in return fire by police who also wounded bystanders, creating chaos and shocking commuters and tourists who witnessed the bloody scene outside the famous skyscraper.
The gunfire wounded eight bystanders, who were all expected to survive, city officials said. All the shooting took place on the sidewalk at the height of the tourist season next to one of the city's most popular attractions
Jeffrey Johnson, a fashion accessories designer disgruntled over being fired a year ago, shot a 41-year-old former co-worker three times at close range with a .45 caliber handgun, officials said.
As police closed in, Johnson fired on them. The police returned fire and killed him, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Investigators were attempting to determine whether Johnson shot anyone beyond his initial target. Some of the surviving victims could have been hit by the two police officers who returned fire, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg described the wounded as being "grazed." Two of those wounded were women, the rest men. None were children or elderly, Kelly said.
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Johnson, of Manhattan, had worked at Hazan Imports across the street from the skyscraper, Kelly said.
A white tarp covered Johnson's body in front of the entrance to the office building. There was no link to the historic tower -- it just happened to be next door -- and Bloomberg ruled out any connection to terrorism.
"I heard the gunshots. It was like pop, pop, pop. It was definitely in a bunch," said Dahlia Anister, 33, who works at an office near the 102-story building.
It was the third mass shooting of the summer in the United States, following an assault on a crowded cinema in Colorado and an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, rekindling debate about gun control in America. This shooting was distinct in that Johnson appeared to have only one intended victim.
DECLINING CRIME RATE
"We are not immune to the national problem of gun violence," said Bloomberg, a leading national proponent of gun control and founder of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Bloomberg has often called New York the safest big city in America, citing a declining crime rate that had the city on pace for another record low number of homicides in 2012.
"It's time to get the guns off the street," said Brandon Thorpe, 23, a janitor on his way home from work who said he has lost five friends to gun violence. "This is a tourist attraction. How are we supposed to make people feel safe if they come here and see something like this?"
The Empire State Building is walking distance from Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Terminal, two of New York City's main transportation hubs, and the shooting took place shortly after 9 a.m. (1300 GMT) at the end of the morning rush hour.
Police cordoned off the area and closed several streets in the heavily transited area.
President Barack Obama was notified of the shooting shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Friday by his homeland security adviser John Brennan, and was continuing to receive updates, the White House said.
Mail courier James Bolden, 31, said he saw a "guy laying on the (sidewalk), bleeding from the neck and barely breathing."
"Everybody was crowded around him taking pictures and video, and security guys were yelling everybody to get back, and give him space. He was barely breathing," Bolden said.
One witness said she saw a woman who was shot in the foot and another woman being taken away in an ambulance.
"I was walking down 33rd (Street) and there's a dead guy. I just saw pools of blood. He was laying down and the was blood pooling (around him)," Justin Kellis, 35, who works nearby.
SUMMER MASS SHOOTINGS
The United States has had two other mass shooting cases this summer. On July 20, a gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58.
On August 5, a gunman killed six people and critically wounded three at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee before police shot him dead in an attack authorities treated as an act of domestic terrorism.
This was the second high-profile shooting incident in two weeks in New York's tourist-heavy Midtown Manhattan. On August 12 New York City police shot and killed a knife-wielding suspect as he sought to evade them through Saturday afternoon traffic and pedestrians in Times Square.
The Empire State Building was the world's tallest building for 40 years from its completion in 1931 until construction of the World Trade Center in 1971.
Several skyscrapers around the world have since surpassed the New York buildings. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building was again the tallest building in New York City, though it was recently surpassed by a new tower under construction at Trade Center's site.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Chris Francescani, Edith Honan and Anna Driver; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Vicki Allen and Philip Barbara)
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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2012 23:15:38 IST