Surviving LAX Attack Encouraged TSA Officer to Pursue “The Voice” Dream

"The Voice" contestant Damien Lawson was among the TSA officers stationed inside LAX Terminal 3 when a gunman opened fire last year

For many of the responding agencies, the anniversary of a gunman's 2013 shooting attack at Los Angeles International Airport is marked with remembrance of the victim who died and reflection on lessons for dealing with future emergencies.

A co-worker of slain TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez discovered a personal insight: Life is uncertain -- you should not put off pursuing your dreams.

"It took me awhile to get over it and get my life together again," recalled Damien Lawson, who still works for the TSA, even while his singing skill is earning him recognition on the NBC program, "The Voice."

Lawson was stationed in LAX Terminal 3 on the second floor at the TSA screening checkpoint a year ago Nov. 1 when the attack occurred.

"I was just doing my regular job and I heard gunshots," Lawson recalled.

The sound came from the lobby below at the foot of the escalator, where Officer Hernandez was working near the terminal entrance. Moments after coming inside, the gunman pulled an assault rifle out of a bag and opened fire, multiple shots striking Hernandez and inflicting mortal wounds. Then the gunman headed upstairs.

"I remember I heard someone say, 'Get down!'" said Lawson.

TSA officers are not armed and no airport police were close by the checkpoint. When the gunman arrived on the upper level, travelers and TSA officers alike began running.

"I got out from under the table and ran and fell and got trampled," Lawson said.

To this day, he is grateful to fellow TSA officer James Speer, who was wounded, but able to pull Lawson back to his feet. Another TSA officer, Tony Grigsby, and passenger Brian Ludmer, a Calabasas high school teacher, also suffered wounds from which they have recovered.

Within five minutes, airport police cornered the suspect gunman, and took him down with gunfire. Paul Ciancia, 23, survived and is in custody awaiting trial. He was carrying a note indicated his intent to "kill TSA," it was alleged in a court filing.

"It's crazy that someone would come and want to kill TSA people," Lawson said.

It took Lawson two months to prepare himself mentally to return to work at LAX in other terminals, longer still before he was able to return to Terminal 3.

Especially at first, he found himself scanning the perimeter and looking over his shoulder.

"I'm more aware of my surroundings than I've ever been," he said.

A decade ago, Lawson had moved to Los Angeles from his native Louisiana to pursue a career in music and work for TSA awaiting his breakthrough. He joined the TSA chorus. It was chorus members who encouraged him to offer his voice in tribute to their fallen colleague, singing "I Believe I Can Fly" at the Hernandez public memorial service in the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

At a time of grief and mourning, it was emotionally challenging to perform.

"I thought I was probably not going to make it through," Lawson recalled, but he did.

Lawson had auditioned twice for "The Voice" without making the cut. It was in the months of contemplation after the attack that Lawson found his resolve to try again, and this time he made it.

"We're so proud of the fact he chased his dream and represents us so well," said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman.

In a matter of weeks, Lawsons's appearances on the program watched by millions each week have made him something of a celebrity in TSA checkpoint, often recognized by passengers on their way through screening.

"Aren't you on The Voice?" asked one traveler Thursday as she approached the screening station in
Terminal One where Lawson was assigned that shift.

"Let me shake your hand!" she gushed.

"Just last month nobody knew who I was. Now people walk up and say I've inspired them," said Lawson somewhat incredulously.

For him, the new phase of his life has been "a blessing," even though there are times when the
troubling recollections of the gunman's rampage come flooding back.

"I have no idea why he chose to do what he did," Lawson said. "I just wish he hadn't done it."

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