What started out as a routine flight home turned into a nightmare for Dr. Levon A. Saryan.
The Armenian activist was returning home from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) over the weekend after visiting his mom when he came face-to-face with a terrorist pointing an assault rifle in his face.
“You TSA?” barked the shooter.
A petrified Saryan shook his head no, and his life was spared.As bullets whizzed by him as he ran for cover, the prominent Armenian numismatic collector and deacon of the church felt debris falling on his shoulder. He thought for a moment as if he had dodged a bullet.
“You can call it divine intervention or whatever, but I want to believe it was the hand of God which led me to safety,” he said. “I was a sitting duck. It was not the way I would have wanted to part with my coins but life is more precious. I was worried that I might part from my loved ones without having had a chance to say goodbye. The guy had his finger on the trigger. Why didn’t he pull it?”
Saryan’s 92-year-old mom Armine was resting comfortably inside her home at Thousand Oaks, Calif., totally unaware of what transpired, even now.
“So far she seems to not realize anything went wrong that day,” Saryan said. “We hope to keep it that way.”
Moments after the ordeal, Saryan notified his family in Racine. His son, Armen, who had just changed jobs as a radio producer, wasn’t aware of the news and got the exclusive back home for his station.
At the Milwaukee airport, Saryan was met by a bevy of TV stations and a media onslaught. The sight of his wife Shirley and family turned into an emotional homecoming. The embrace was long and tearful.
Daughter Ani works as a family practice physician in Racine, while Shirley is a special education diagnostic teacher and city alderwoman in Greenfield. The Saryans have been married 32 years. Both children were active AYF members and held executive roles over their time.
Aside from being considered the world’s top numismatist of Armenian coins, Saryan is an ordained deacon of the church and former NRA representative; a Gomideh member for 40 years; a member of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS); and vice-president of the church trustees.
Few may know about his 50 publications in MR imaging and biochemistry, along with lead and cancer research. What they also might find fascinating are his 100 publications covering all facets of Armenian coins.
After retiring as a toxicologist of 30 years, he is now a commissioner of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer System.
In 2009, he was inducted into the National Academy of Arts and Sciences in Yerevan. Thanks to his research findings, a ban on leaded gasoline was introduced, which likely reduced the blood lead levels in Yerevan children considerably.
His resume aside, the harrowing encounter has brought Saryan unprecedented acclaim as every leading newspaper and TV network throughout the land has been at his disposal.
ABC called from New York. So did Anderson Cooper. Australian radio interviewed him. Good Morning America did not, only because he turned them down.
“They were willing to fly me out, put me in a hotel, just to get an exclusive,” Saryan confirmed. “I’m not giving any of those shows an exclusive. I’m not in this for a nickel. Why should I love them more than Fox?”
Saryan admitted he had a “soft spot” in his heart for the Armenian Weekly, being a lifelong subscriber and contributor. He’s also written articles for the Armenian Review, whether it’s on the subject of coinage or the Mekhitarist Fathers. His vast knowledge of Armenian history and linguistics has made him a wealth of information throughout the community.
Word quickly spread throughout the Armenian land about Saryan’s ordeal. Phone calls by the drove, e-mails that battered his computer. People stopping him in his tracks waiting for a personal account.
In everyone’s mind, he’s “the man who cheated death.”
The shooting occurred just after noon on Friday, killing a TSA employee and wounding seven others in an attack that frightened passengers and disrupted flights nationwide. The suspect identified as Paul Anthony Ciancia is now in custody.
Saryan speculates that the bullet that found a TSA agent might have been meant for him while he was running for safety. The weapon was identified as a .223-caliber semi-automatic assault-style rifle.
“The shooter was spraying bullets down the corridor before he caught up with me,” Saryan described. “He had his gun ready to shoot. I was at his mercy and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I just prayed to God. That’s all I did. I prayed.”
Saryan had just passed through the security check and was picking up his belongings when the boom was lowered. He still had his shoes and belt discarded when the shooter came through with a rifle that immediately found a target.
Saryan said the gunman approached the security line firing his weapon, hitting the TSA agent who had been helping him.
According to Saryan, the gunman fired three or four shots before powering through the security line, scattering the crowd.
“There were more shots with glass shattering,” he noted. “With his rifle in hand, he was ready to shoot anyone he wanted to, anyone he didn’t like.”
Saryan escaped to another terminal while the airport remained on lockdown. He called his wife at work and said he almost got shot and had been hiding.
When the shooting subsided, Saryan ran to the TSA agent who had been shot. He found the man bleeding and offered to help.
Safely back home, Saryan is hoping to put the past behind him, provided he can. It’s the type of notoriety he can do without.
“I’m back to work, back to a normal lifestyle, looking for ways to distract my thoughts in a positive way,” he says. “It’s too early to tell how this will change my life. I won’t be haunted by it.”
"The Armenian Weekly," November 6, 2013