The crowd at Bourbon and Orleans streets was light and meandering early Sunday morning.

A man pleaded for beads from people on a balcony, while others sipped beer and chatted.

Then, without warning, two gunmen sprayed the French Quarter corner with a shower of bullets, sending nine people to hospitals, two of them in critical condition.

People scattered in a panic. Some crawled or tripped over each other into open storefronts, and at least one man took cover behind a trash can.

One victim tumbled into the gutter and rolled about, agonizing in pain.

“It was like the running of the bulls,” said a Bourbon Street kitchen worker, who asked to not be identified because he feared for his safety. “Everybody was scared. Everybody was looking at these people bleeding all over world-famous Bourbon Street.”

He dove off his bicycle and hid under a car when the shooting erupted, he said.

When the gunfire stopped, surveillance footage showed, those who ventured back out to the suddenly deserted street found at least two people lying wounded on the ground and rushed to their aid.

It was two “cowardly” men arguing about “something stupid” who were responsible for the wounds to the nine victims, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said at an afternoon news conference at the scene.

“This is a heinous crime. This is two young men, both armed with firearms, who chose to settle a dispute between themselves without a moment’s care for anyone else,” Serpas said.

Seven of the victims were taken to Interim LSU Hospital, where two were in critical condition, according to Dr. Jeff Elder, director of the city’s EMS department. Two other victims were being treated at Tulane Medical Center.

By Sunday evening, five victims remained at Interim LSU, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Two were still critical, while three were stable.

Tulane representatives said both victims have been released.

The shooting was the third major occurrence of gun violence on the city’s most famous tourist street in recent years, prompting Mayor Mitch Landrieu to pledge to “bring these perpetrators to justice.”

It happened about 2:45 a.m. in the 700 block of Bourbon, near Orleans Street.

A witness told WWL-TV that one man, apparently angry with another, began to fire aimlessly into the crowd.

“He seemed pissed off at some dude, whipped the gun out, started shooting the guy, then turned around on the crowd and started shooting on us,” the witness said.

Gary Shell, who was in town for his daughter’s wedding, said he heard two bursts of gunfire from his third-floor room at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Shell said he first thought the sound was fireworks, but then he walked out onto his balcony and saw a frenzied scene on the street below.

“People were screaming and there was chaos,” he said. “Once we figured out it was gunfire, we headed back inside.”

Shell, who lives in Houston, said the incident didn’t make him feel unsafe in the city.

“I know this happens once in a while,” he said.

Serpas said investigators believe two men fired at each other but were at a loss as to what led to the gunbattle.

“We know it was about something stupid, I can tell you that,” Serpas said.

Responding to concerns there were not enough officers on the street because of the NOPD’s dwindling manpower, Serpas said the French Quarter was properly staffed.

Twenty-five officers were on patrol Sunday morning in the 8th District, which includes the Quarter, he said.

Nine or 10 officers were on foot or horseback on Bourbon. Nine other officers were in cars patrolling the rest of the district, while three officers were assigned to a task force designed to look for crime and three detectives were on duty.

Serpas said three officers were within a block of Bourbon and Orleans when the gunfire erupted.

“Within moments, within seconds, police officers were on the scene,” he said.

The first paramedics were on the scene within five minutes, Elder said.

Between video camera evidence and eyewitness accounts, Landrieu said, he’s confident the perpetrators will be caught.

“Our crime fighting efforts have brought murders in the city of New Orleans to a historic nearly 30-year low,” he said in a statement, adding that keeping the city safe is his top priority.

“But on days like today, the statistics don’t matter because every life is precious — from the 9th Ward to the French Quarter. We will not rest until every corner of this city is safe,” he said.

Serpas said that while investigators had not yet identified the gunmen and were still reviewing surveillance footage, detectives had begun to collect some leads.

“I hope that they’re listening, I hope that their friends are listening, I hope their mom and them are listening. We know a little more about them than they think we know,” the superintendent said of the unknown gunmen. “We’re gonna catch these two little uh ... young men.”

Mass shootings have not been rare on Bourbon in recent years.

On Halloween night 2011, one person was killed and several others injured when two people opened fire on each other in the 400 block, at St. Louis Street.

In February 2013, an argument in the same block ended in bloodshed that saw four people hospitalized.

Serpas said the Police Department has $300,000 in overtime pay for officers during the Essence Festival, which brings tens of thousands of visitors to town. It will take place this coming weekend.

On Sunday evening, some of those hanging out in the 700 block said they were rattled by the shooting, while others said they had become accustomed to the city’s spurts of violence.

“I’m scared to walk down Bourbon Street at night,” said Chaz, a 53-year-old who said he lives a block away on Royal Street.

A fortune teller working in the block, who declined to give her name, said she always makes sure that someone accompanies her when she leaves her post at night.

In the midst of blaring karaoke and occasional catcalls, the incident was on the minds of many of the security guards, doormen, street performers and other regulars on the block.

Employees at some businesses said they had been instructed not to talk to reporters about the shooting. Others groused that the national publicity the incident was getting would be bad for the city’s tourism industry.

The kitchen worker who witnessed the shoot-out dismissed a question about whether he feared for his safety.

“I’m from New Orleans. I’m from the 504, you heard?” he said. “If I’m going to live my life scared, I might as well be buried.”