WASHINGTON -- Six children were shot as gunfire tore through crowds at the National Zoo yesterday, the result of a feud between youths that began inside the zoo and spilled into rush-hour traffic, witnesses and authorities said.
Three victims were in critical or serious condition last night. The most severely injured, an 11-year-old boy, was suffering from a life-threatening gunshot wound to the head.
The violence erupted at 6 p.m. in a neighborhood filled with children on holiday from school.
As scores of youngsters were leaving the zoo, a fight broke out, witnesses said. The zoo was holding its annual African-American Family Celebration.
In the pandemonium, authorities said, a gunman fired through traffic on Connecticut Avenue, one of Washington's busiest roadways. Shots were also fired just inside the zoo gate, authorities said.
Police said last night that they were unsure how many shooters were involved and had not yet arrested anyone. Helicopters circled the upscale Northwest Washington neighborhood of Woodley Park last night in search of suspects.
Among the victims were a 12-year-old girl with a chest wound and a 14-year-old boy. They were listed in serious condition, officials at Children's National Medical Center said.
Two boys, ages 13 and 15, were reported in good condition with gunshot wounds to the legs, officials at Georgetown University Medical Center said. Another victim, a 16-year-old, was listed in fair condition at Washington Hospital Center.
A pregnant woman went into premature labor, and a man suffered a seizure during the episode, authorities said.
Tourists and business people said they heard rapid-fire. In a harrowing scene of panic, adults grabbed their screaming children and streamed down Connecticut Avenue through traffic. Others ran into the zoo for cover.
"I saw a boy on the ground," said Doug Favero, a psychologist whose office is across the street from the zoo and who said he heard about eight shots. "He never moved again, so far as I could tell."
Police struggled to explain how gun violence could strike young people in a zoo, a place associated with carefree afternoons -- and presumed to be safe.
"These are very young kids, and people feel frustrated we're not able to do something to help 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds," said assistant police chief Terrance Gainer.
Police officers and zoo officials said they could not recall past serious violence in or around the zoo, a national tourist attraction known for many years as the home of two giant pandas from China. More than 3 million people visit the zoo every year.
A distraught zoo spokesman, Robert Hoage, said: "For over 100 years, people have come here for a happy day. They used to come in Easter bonnets and arrive in street cars. It's a terrible tragedy. Our hearts are broken."
After the incident, some youngsters were seen alone and crying. Some parents anxiously searched for their children after becoming separated in the confusion.
The zoo will be closed today as authorities continue to investigate the incident. Last night, investigators reportedly were collecting shell casings from what they believed was either a 9 mm or a .38-caliber weapon. Police closed about a mile of Connecticut Avenue last night.
"We are looking into the possibility that it is gang-related, but we are not certain," Police Chief Charles Ramsey said.
Police said they were looking for a possible gunman -- an African-American man, between 17 and 19, dressed in a dark blue jacket with baggy blue jeans who had run south on Connecticut Avenue.
Authorities from the FBI, district police, zoo police and Secret Service were involved in the investigation last night.
Police said the shooting broke out in two locations -- one across the street from the zoo's entrance and the other several hundred feet inside the grounds.
It was the culmination of a fight that started about a half-hour earlier around the gorilla house and wended its way toward Connecticut Avenue, authorities said.
Washington Fire Capt. Brian Lee said police had been chasing some rowdy teen-agers before the shooting. Shortly after that, an argument between teens flared out of control, and a witness said one youth tipped over a trash container and threw a bottle toward another teen-ager, reportedly hitting a girl in the face.
Bystanders then heard what they described as popping sounds in staccato bursts.
Dale Williams, 41, of Capital Heights, Md., who was at the zoo with her children and her mother, Mary Wilkinson, said she saw a fight break out near the gorilla house between two teen-agers, egged on by young girls.
"We tried to stop the fighting, Williams said.
Wilkinson said she heard the boys taunt each other like two boxers, shouting, "Are you going to do it? You want to do it?"
Witnesses said the fight moved through the zoo, toward the entrance, as more teens joined in.
"I saw him take out a gun," Nikashia Johnson, 17, said of an assailant she described as a young man in dark clothing with a weapon in his waistband. "I heard a gunshot and I took my baby and ran."
The Easter Monday event for African-Americans at the zoo dates back to the turn of the century, when many blacks in Washington who worked as maids and servants on Easter Sunday, were given Monday off.
Eight years ago, the zoo made the event into a formal celebration for African-Americans, with face-painting, dancing, rhythm and blues performances, and other festivities.
But a fun-loving tradition took on a menacing cast yesterday as unruly youths began fighting, and the situation spun out of control.
"It was supposed to be Easter Monday," said Dewayne Watson, 16. "But it was just a lot of kids running around and people getting knocked down."
Some bystanders who heard the gunfire immediately took off running.
"It seemed like they were firing in my direction so I high-tailed it out of there," said Garrett Rothman, a law student who ran when the shooting started.
"We were running alongside Connecticut Avenue -- it was crazy. There were a couple of head-on collisions and people were trying to run on the street," Rothman said.
Annie Beckwith, 31, was with her 2-year-old boy, Declan, who was napping in her backpack. Suddenly, she saw streams of teen-agers run past her.
"There was no stopping them," she said. "We thought maybe an animal got loose."
Shortly after the violence erupted, Vice President Al Gore elicited gasps from a crowd of supporters when he described the shootings during a Democratic fund-raiser in New York City.
"We really have to have mandatory child safety trigger locks," Gore said, hitting one of his presidential campaign themes.
Outside the zoo, a sign taped to a tree near the entrance last night read: "Trigger locks won't fix this."
Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.