Los Angeles becomes a ghost town
By DOUG SAUNDERS
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
LOS ANGELES -- As explosions and flames shook the cities of the U.S. East Coast, America's second-largest city was rendered uncannily silent and still. At Los Angeles International Airport, the destination for three of the four doomed flights (the fourth was en route to San Francisco), hundreds of people milled about in confusion, many waiting to meet passengers who never arrived.
Airline officials whisked them away to be counselled, as thousands of others learned their friends and relatives had been diverted to Canada.
Meanwhile, teams of Federal Bureau of Investigation officials raced to the airport and evacuated several of its seven terminals so they could detonate suspected bombs.
It was a scene of confusion and despair. LAX, as it's known, is a major gateway for international flights. Thousands of passengers were stranded in terminals, then ordered to leave the airport.
"I don't know where to go, but I'm afraid to get on an airplane again," said Bobbie Lieberman, whose flight from Chicago to Honolulu was ordered grounded in Los Angeles.
Elsewhere in the city, the normal cacophony of traffic and helicopters was silenced, as citizens huddled in fear and precaution. Almost all businesses and services were closed.
It was a similar scene in major cities across the United States, effectively shut down by their authorities and evacuated by panicked citizens, most of whom did not bother going to work or school. All airports and most government facilities were closed, all working police and FBI officials were put on the streets, and the tallest skyscrapers were evacuated in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland and Minneapolis.
Los Angeles was transformed into a ghost town. A handful of people who bothered going to work stood on the streets. The skies, normally filled with helicopters and jetliners, were empty. Busy city squares emptied. All of the city's 9,000 police officers and 600 FBI agents were ordered into action, and few non-uniformed people were seen on the streets.
"You're going to see a great visibility of officers. I think all of these things cause a different consideration for security in a free society," said Bernard Parks, chief of the L.A. Police Department. "I think we've given up a little bit more of our freedom today."
Security was especially high in the second-largest U.S. city because it is a potential target for terrorists. Ahmed Ressam -- the Algerian terrorist who lived in Montreal and was convicted on terrorism charges in a thwarted bomb plot pegged to millennium celebrations -- testified in court that he had been planning to bomb LAX.
Antiterrorism teams swept L.A. yesterday, closing not only the aiports but also freeway exits and public-transit lines. Buildings with more than 13 floors were evacuated. The major movie studios, television production facilities, and large tourist attractions such as theme parks were closed. Entertainment events such as this Sunday's Emmy Awards were cancelled. For the first time since John Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Disney World was closed. For the first time since the death of president Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, all Major League baseball games in the United States were postponed.
The controversial Latin Grammy Awards -- moved from Miami to Los Angeles, for security reasons -- were cancelled.
By noon, Los Angeles and many other major U.S. cities had been placed on high alert, and transportation stopped moving on major roadways. The Canadian and Mexican borders went on high security; traffic ground to a halt at the Mexican border at Tijuana, which normally handles more than 40,000 vehicles a day.
"Basically, everyone is on full alert," said David Murphy, a spokesman for the Customs Service in San Diego.
State and federal government buildings were evacuated. The entire Pacific coast was "sealed down" by military officials. The U.S. Coast Guard boarded and inspected all cargo ships arriving in the major West Coast ports, including Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland.
Shortly after news of the disasters broke yesterday morning, the rush-hour traffic that clogs L.A.'s famous freeways made an almost immediate U-turn, and routes were soon clogged leading out of the city.
"There was a mass exodus," said police Sergeant Robert Arcos.
Many businesses closed their doors, adding to the ghostly quality of the city's downtown core. "I don't think it will be back to normal for a long time," said Richard Wattenbury, owner of a store that shut its doors mid-morning, along with most of its neighbours.
Swarms of FBI agents wearing protective vests and armed with shotguns periodically ran into buildings around Los Angeles, in a level of armament and security much higher than that deployed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Military bases across the U.S. went on alert. Extra security was added at the U.S. Department of Energy's nuclear weapons and research complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., home to the U.S. army's main germ-warfare defence laboratory. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida was under an "enhanced security awareness."
As stock exchanges in New York and Chicago halted trading, corporations across the country voluntarily followed suit. Major businesses in the Atlanta area, including Coca-Cola Co., CNN Center and BellSouth Corp., were closed to all but essential personnel. The Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit, headquarters of General Motors Corp., the world's largest automaker, was evacuated.
The country's largest shopping mall, the Mall of America near Minneapolis, was emptied. "While we have not received any threats, we believe this is a prudent precaution," said Maureen Bausch, a mall vice-president.
The attacks prompted Utah Governor Mike Leavitt to meet with law-enforcement officials to review security planning for the 2002 Winter Olympics. "It's a reminder the entire world is vulnerable to lunacy," he said, adding he was more determined than ever to have "the world's most sophisticated security" for the Olympics.