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Metal detectors planned after man shoots six, self in Empire State spree

February 24, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Empire State Building shut its 86th-floor observation deck today to add metal detectors a day after an English teacher from the Gaza Strip shot seven other visitors, one fatally, and then himself.

Police and FBI worked today to piece together what brought Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, a 69-year-old Palestinian, to the United States.

Abu Kamal died late Sunday, five hours after he opened fire at the crowded tourist attraction, wounding seven and setting off a panicky stampede, and then shot himself in the head.

Relatives in Gaza City said Abu Kamal was distraught over losing his life savings, more than $300,000. He had no ties to Palestinian radical groups, they said.

Abu Kamal arrived from Cairo on Christmas Eve, went to Florida _ where he apparently bought the .380-caliber Beretta semiautomatic handgun _ and came to New York, officials said.

The observation deck was closed while the investigation continues, officials said.

At the reopening Tuesday morning, metal detectors will be at the second-floor elevator to the observation deck, said Steve Rubenstein, a spokesman for the building.

He said the equipment would be installed and security staffers trained in using the stationary scanner and hand-held detectors this afternoon.

Some other local attractions already have metal detectors, including the World Trade Center, site of the bombing that killed six and injured hundreds of others four years ago this week.

Abu Kamal was carrying a receipt showing the purchase of the pistol in Florida, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said today. He wouldn’t say where in Florida the gun was purchased, but added that Abu Kamal established Florida residency by staying at a ``fleabag hotel.″ He gave no details.

Federal law requires aliens like Abu Kamal to be a resident of a place for 90 days before getting a gun, a requirement that someone arriving Dec. 24 could not possibly have fulfilled. But John Limback, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, says the form gun buyers fill out doesn’t specifically say that.

Abu Kamal went to buy the gun Jan. 30 but didn’t obtain it until Feb. 4, the normal three-day waiting period having been lengthened by the intervening weekend, Giuliani said.

Giuliani said it was not clear when Abu Kamal came to New York and wouldn’t discuss details of his travels.

Witnesses said the man muttered something about Egypt seconds before he began firing at about 5 p.m. Sunday onto the panoramic, outdoor deck on the 86th floor.

Police weren’t sure of the significance of the man’s reference to Egypt.

``I heard a loud popping noise,″ said Jean-Luc Will, 40, a French tourist visiting New York with his family. ``I thought at first it was little child playing with fireworks. There was one shot, then two or three seconds passed then three shots, pop, pop, pop.″

In Gaza City today, relatives of Abu Kamal made preparations for a wake at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, erecting a white mourning tent outside his one-story house near the Mediterranean.

``I’m in shock. I can’t believe my father carried out this act,″ said his daughter, Linda Abu Samra.

His son-in-law, Ramez Dahshan, said it was unlikely Abu Kamal had political motives. In fact, Abu Kamal had been a victim of Islamic militant vigilantes. In 1992, he was kidnapped by followers of the Hamas group and severely beaten. Wall graffiti signed by the group at the time accused Abu Kamal of smoking hashish, drinking alcohol and violating Islamic law.

Relatives said Abu Kamal was distraught over losing some $300,000 in life savings he had amassed in his 50-year career as a teacher and private tutor to wealthy clients. They did not elaborate on the loss.

The dead tourist was identified as Christoffer Burmeister, 27, of Denmark, a member of a rock band called Bush Pilots. Another band member, Matthew Gross, 27, of Montclair, N.J., was in critical condition at Bellevue Hospital.

Five other people were in serious condition at Bellevue or St. Vincent’s hospitals: Mario Carmona, 52, of Mendoza, Argentina; Jacob Schaad, 32, of Switzerland; Patric Demange, 44, and Virginie Demange, 36, of Verdun, France; and Hector Mendez, of New York. The French couple’s 16-year-old daughter was unhurt but was treated for mental shock, authorities said.

Gerard Guntner of Jersey City, N.J., said he found a man with a bullet wound in the head, and tried to help him by cradling his head in towels.

``He was bleeding profusely. He was coughing blood. I took the towels and wrapped them around his head. I just said, `Hang in there,‴ Guntner said.

Another witness, Belgian businessman Stef Nys, said he saw the gunman shoot himself in the head and fall to the floor outside a souvenir shop.

``I have never seen so much blood in my life, but the most scary part was when people started to panic,″ Nys said. In the rush for the exits, two children were hurt when knocked from parents’ arms, and four women suffered minor injuries.

Howard Rubenstein, another spokesman for the Empire State Building, said a security camera taped Abu Kamal after he bought a ticket in the ground floor lobby and rode an escalator to the elevator entrance a floor above. The tape was turned over to police.

He also said Leona Helmsley, who controls the building, offered to fly victims’ family members to New York and pay for their hotel bills.

The 102-story Empire State Building was the world’s tallest when it opened in 1931. It has long since surrendered that title, yet it remains the quintessential Manhattan skyscraper.

Its worst disaster occurred July 28, 1945, when a U.S. Army B-25 bomber crashed into its 79th floor, killing three plane crewmen and 11 civilians.

Standing 1,250 feet _ 1,472 feet with its spire _ the building has been the site for hundreds of scenes in movies like ``King Kong,″ ``An Affair to Remember″ and ``Sleepless in Seattle.″

The building’s lighting bathes its granite sides in various colors to commemorate the seasons, holidays or special events. On Sunday, the lighting was all white.

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