WASHINGTON - A feud between youths at the National Zoo ended in a hail of gunfire Monday evening, leaving one boy brain dead and wounding five other children at one of the capital's most popular tourist sites, police officials said.
Police were investigating whether the shooting was gang related and sought at least one teen-age gunman who fired a handgun into groups of youths after a confrontation escalated to bottle throwing and then shots, according to authorities and witnesses.
The victims ranged in age from 11 to 16 and were attending a century-old post-Easter gathering at the zoo celebrating African-American families.
A high-ranking police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a boy, either 11 or 12 years old, was shot in the head and declared brain dead at a hospital. The boy was being kept alive by machines to allow his family to donate his organs, the official said.
Officials at Children's Hospital National Medical Center, where the boy was being treated, would only say the boy remained in very critical condition.
A 12-year-old girl was in serious condition with a wound to the pelvis, a 14-year-old boy was in serious condition with a leg wound, and three other youths were hospitalized with less serious injuries, according to officials at the hospitals where they were treated.
Hours later, police still circled the zoo in helicopters. ''We are looking into the possibility that it is gang-related, but we are not certain,'' Police Chief Charles Ramsey said.
The zoo, a unit of the Smithsonian Institution, is one of the most visited sites in Washington, drawing 3 million local residents and tourists each year. Nestled inside one of northwest Washington's wealthiest neighborhoods, it has seldom experienced violence and was better known for the rare Chinese pandas it housed for over two decades.
The gunfire shortly after 6 p.m. EDT in broad daylight stunned visitors.
''I am not bringing them back. These are my grandkids. It is not safe,'' said Sandra Edwards, who was visiting the zoo with her grandchildren when she heard the shots and saw youths fighting.
In addition to the shootings, a seventh victim suffered a seizure and a pregnant woman was taken to the hospital after going into apparent labor, authorities said.
Witnesses said the shooting occurred near the entrance along Connecticut Avenue, one of the city's main thoroughfares.
Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer said police suspected a 9 mm handgun was used and roped off two shooting scenes - one just outside the zoo entrance and the other about 300 feet inside the zoo.
Nakisha Johnson, 17, said she saw one young man open fire after a feud between youths became violent. She said the children who were wounded were caught in the middle of the two groups.
''He was just shooting at the people he was fighting'' but struck the children bystanders, Johnson said.
The zoo planned to remain closed Tuesday. ''It is just a terrible, terrible tragedy. Our hearts go out to the families,'' zoo spokesman Robert Hoage said.
Witnesses said the shooting occurred when a bottle was thrown from one group of youths at some other youths in a crowd near the zoo gate. A piece of glass struck a young woman in the face, and then shots rang out, the witnesses said.
Mayor Anthony Williams visited Children's Hospital to console victims' families.
About an hour after the shooting, Vice President Al Gore announced the shootings at a Democratic fund-raiser in New York City, bringing gasps from the audience that included actress Lauren Bacall. ''We really have to have mandatory child safety trigger locks,'' Gore told the crowd, sounding a frequent administration theme.
The zoo was established by Congress in 1889 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. It covers 163 wooded acres along Rock Creek in the heart of the capital.
Though located on one of the capital's main boulevards, it has seldom experienced violence.
In 1995, a Little Rock, Ark., woman was found mauled to death in the lion exhibit. Police and the medical examiner ruled the death a suicide.