LOS ANGELES – At a memorial service filled with tears, prayers and songs, the Transportation Security Administration officer who was killed by a gunman at Los Angeles International Airport was remembered Tuesday as a devoted public servant who greeted every traveler with a grin and never passed up an opportunity to talk about his children.
Gerardo Hernandez became the first TSA officer killed in the line of duty Nov. 1 when a man authorities say held a grudge against his agency pulled a rifle from a bag and opened fire at the airport's Terminal 3. The man methodically targeted TSA agents, wounding two others and also a school teacher before airport police shot and captured him.
Some 500 people turned out Tuesday to honor Hernandez at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, including the two agents who were wounded.
The nearly two-hour memorial began with a solemn eulogy offered by the Rev. Paul Griesgraber, who quoted Psalm 23. It was followed by a soulful rendition of "Amazing Grace" that was performed by a chorus of blue-uniformed TSA officials.
As the group sang, some in the audience of law enforcement officers, firefighters, military personnel and others wiped tears from their eyes. Those who attended included U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
The mayor said Hernandez's upbeat manner "spread the love through every corner of this Earth" as he greeted travelers from all over the world.
He was the perfect person to have around to lighten the mood of travelers and TSA agents during stressful times, several colleagues said.
"His charisma was contagious," recalled fellow TSA Officer Lisandro Jimenez.
Hernandez, who joined the TSA in 2010, was checking passenger IDs and boarding passes when he was shot.
"Every single day, he took pride in the role he played to keep the American people safe," Holder said. "Over the years, the contributions that he and others have made – and the tireless work of TSA employees across the country – have too often been unappreciated, overlooked or even discounted."
As he was working, a gunman walked up, pulled a semi-automatic rifle from a duffel bag and shot him at point-blank range, then shot him again as he lay wounded, authorities have said. Paul Ciancia remains hospitalized but his condition was upgraded Tuesday from critical to fair. He has been charged with crimes that could get him the death penalty.
The 23-year-old unemployed motorcycle mechanic had a handwritten letter stating he made the conscious decision to try to kill multiple TSA officers and "instill fear in your traitorous minds," according to authorities.
Authorities haven't given a motive for the attack, but federal agents are investigating possible ties between Ciancia and a widely circulated conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is preparing to establish a totalitarian state.
Among others at the ceremony were the wounded TSA agents, Tony Grigsby and James Speer, as well as Hernandez's wife, Ana, and the couple's 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
During a particularly emotional moment, acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers left the podium to kneel before Ana Hernandez and present her with an American flag.
The ceremony concluded with the choir singing "America The Beautiful."
Born in El Salvador, Hernandez moved to the United States when he was 15. Four years later he met his wife, and they married on Valentine's Day in 1998. He was killed a week before his 40th birthday.
"Gerardo's story is like so many others in this city," Garcetti said. "Coming here from another country, another state, another place to call this home."