– By JENNIFER PELTZ

The Associated Press

New York officials proudly tout the Big Apple as the safest big city in America. But blasts of gunfire in front of crowds near some of the city’s best-known destinations this month painted a picture at odds with its tame, tourist-friendly image.

Police confronted a knife-wielding man in Times Square and then shot him to death a few blocks away Aug. 11 as onlookers followed along and snapped photos. And on Friday, a gunman with a workplace grudge shot a former co-worker dead outside the Empire State Building — and then was killed by police in a burst of bullets that left at least nine bystanders wounded, some apparently by police rounds.

“I thought it’s impossible for something like this to happen here,” Julien Berthoud said after his parents, visiting from Switzerland, ran from the gunshots and then returned a few minutes later to see victims lying on the ground, some of them bleeding, as onlookers frantically called 911.

The recent shootings might not leave a lasting mark on the public’s view of New York, which has seen its appeal to tourists endure terrorism. Only one of the injured bystanders was from out of town. Still, Friday’s violence spurred officials to assure visitors they were safe, even as it spotlighted the difficult task police face in confronting threats at thronged landmarks where some onlookers are more inclined to record the danger than to run from it.

Tourist Linda Signorini, for one, isn’t fazed. The customer service worker from Melbourne, Australia, headed to the Empire State Building on Friday evening with her husband, Con, and their 27-year-old daughter, Erica.

They’d been startled by news of the shootings that morning, but it didn’t change their outlook on the city, Linda Signorini said. Noting the number of police officers they had seen on the streets, “we felt pretty safe,” she said.

That’s exactly the message city officials have strived to send for the past two decades, making aggressive efforts to combat crime, to turn once-seedy Times Square into a G-rated entertainment district — and to cast tourism as an economic-development priority.

More than 50 million visitors came to the city last year, a record. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office says tourism will contribute $45 billion in direct spending to the city and add 30,000 new jobs to its work force by 2015.

Asked what he would say to tourists who might be concerned about Friday’s shooting near the iconic skyscraper, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reiterated that New York is America’s safest big city. The oft-invoked description is based on FBI crime statistics for the nation’s 25 most populous cities. The data comprise a total of seven major crimes, including murder, rape and robbery; New York has the lowest rate per 100,000 residents.

VIOLENT INCIDENTS

n Just days before Friday’s mayhem, police said a street vendor shot two men outside storied Yankee Stadium in broad daylight in what witnesses described as a dispute over sales space. It joined a list of violent incidents at New York landmarks in recent years.

n A terrorist tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, coming close enough to succeeding that a vendor spotted smoke coming from the SUV and alerted police. City officials have said other terror plots against the city’s subways, transit facilities and landmarks have been thwarted since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

n And the Empire State Building itself became the site of bloodshed in 1997, when a gunman killed a tourist, wounded six others and killed himself on the 86th-floor observation deck.

The tower remained open throughout the chaos outside Friday, and the owner stressed that Friday’s shooting “had nothing to do with the Empire State Building.”

The gunman, Jeffrey Johnson, shot a clothing company vice president he blamed for his layoff last year, police said. The victim, Steven Ercolino, was heading to work at the company’s office across the street from the building.

Surveillance video shows Johnson pointed a gun at police; investigators believe he didn’t fire. Two officers fired a total of 16 shots, and some of them were likely the stray bullets that hit bystanders as gunfire ricocheted off planters, investigators said.

About an hour after the gunfire, Louie Echave and his girlfriend, Jennifer Maurer, went to visit the Empire State Building, unaware of the situation that had unfolded.

It didn’t change the itinerary of the residents of Zurich, Switzerland, or their perception of the city.

“I still say it’s pretty safe,” Echave said later Friday. “You can’t say, in general, that New York isn’t really safe because one person did something.”

Added Maurer: “People go crazy everywhere.”POLICE GUNFIRE LEAVES NINE BYSTANDERS WOUNDEDAll nine people injured during a dramatic confrontation between police and a gunman outside the Empire State Building were wounded by gunfire from the two officers, police said Saturday, citing ballistics evidence.

The veteran patrolmen who opened fire on the suit-clad gunman, Jeffrey Johnson, had only an instant to react when he whirled around and pointed a .45-caliber pistol at them as they approached him from behind on a busy sidewalk.

Officer Craig Matthews shot seven times, and Officer Robert Sinishtaj fired nine times, police said. Neither had ever fired their weapons before on a patrol.

The volley of gunfire felled Johnson in just a few seconds and left nine other people bleeding on the sidewalk.

In the initial chaos Friday, it wasn’t clear whether Johnson or the officers were responsible for the trail of the wounded, but based on ballistic and other evidence, “it appears that all nine of the victims were struck either by fragments or by bullets fired by police,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters Saturday.

Police officials have said the officers appeared to have no choice but to shoot Johnson, whose body had 10 bullet wounds in the chest, arms and legs.

The officers confronted Johnson as he walked, casually, down the street after gunning down a former co-worker on the sidewalk outside the office they once shared. The shooting happened at 9 a.m., as the neighborhood bustled with people arriving for work.

The gunman and his victim, Steve Ercolino, had a history of workplace squabbles before Johnson was laid off from their company, Hazan Import Corp., a year ago. At one point, the two men had grappled physically in an elevator.

John Koch, the property manager at the office building where the men worked, said security camera footage showed the two pushing and shoving. The tussle ended when Ercolino, a much larger man, pinned Johnson against the wall of the elevator by the throat, Koch said. Ercolino let him go after a few moments, and the two men went their separate ways.

After shooting Ercolino, Johnson, an eccentric T-shirt designer and avid bird-watcher who wore a suit every day, even when photographing hawks in Central Park, walked away as if nothing had happened.

Alerted by a construction worker, Matthews and Sinishtaj gave chase as Johnson rounded a corner and walked along Fifth Avenue in front of the landmark skyscraper.

A security videotape from the scene shows several civilians scattering as the officers opened fire. Police have determined that three people were struck by whole bullets and the rest were grazed “by fragments of some sort,” Kelly said.

Both Matthews, 39, and Sinishtaj, 40, joined the nation’s largest police department 15 years ago.

Matthews had drawn attention this year by suing the New York Police Department, accusing his superiors of unfairly punishing him for not meeting arrest quotas. A judge threw out the complaint.

— The Associated Press