MORE

The Day the Sky Fell

Don’t even talk about closure. Forget liability suits, extradition warrants and all the other make-it-better palliatives that grow out of disaster, American-style. For that matter, throw out a few civil liberties and the ABM Treaty. These were some of the things running through my mind as I sat in traffic on the Harbor Freeway Tuesday as a gigantic Arnold Schwarzenegger glared at me from the Hotel Figueroa, whose entire side had been painted as an ad for Collateral Damage. In this action flick, Arnold hunts down the foreign terrorists who’ve blown up his family. It reportedly is a remake of an old Randolph Scott Western, Seven Men From Now.

Everyone on the road was still on alert, in the same way that we all revert to an animal wariness after an earthquake or thunderclap. But I was on my way to the safest place on Earth — Los Angeles International Airport. At least it seemed that way to me — a fortified complex now patrolled by hundreds of police, ringed by more gridlock and shut down to all but a few international flights.

The radio was not much of a distraction, except for a tidbit that among the first local places shut down were Salomon Smith Barney and Disneyland. Hardcore KXLU seemed to be the only spot on the dial playing music — elsewhere it was Drums Along the Mohawk as all the other stations crackled with revenge blather and Pearl Harbor allusions. Even NPR and KPFK surrendered their mikes to frenzied counterterrorist experts and government officials promising retribution of an unimaginable speed and technology.

By 10:15 a.m., LAX was mostly deserted on the outside and eerily quiet, the skies emptied of planes. Only the ghostly boom of a man’s pre-recorded voice could be heard: “For your security, do not leave your baggage unattended.” After a few moments of silence, the voice resumed, directing listeners to nonexistent buses. It was easy to spot the American Airlines terminal — it had all the electronic media huddled outside its doors.

Inside, family and friends of passengers on the doomed flights were being interviewed and briefed by FBI agents. After that, uniformed Salvation Army members would be summoned indoors to act as grief counselors.

Major George Baker had gotten the call from the Salvation Army’s downtown headquarters at 7:15 a.m., to go from his Torrance home directly to LAX. “I was stunned and in disbelief,” he said, describing his feelings as he watched the tragedy unfold on TV. “It was like watching a bad movie.” Had he anything prepared to tell the grieving? “Quite honestly, we’ve never been involved in this kind of situation, just natural disasters like earthquakes and floods. Usually in a crisis we let them talk — we’re really here to listen.”

Airport staff members were neither talking nor listening, having been ordered not to speak to the press; law-enforcement officers weren’t saying much more, except to warn away the media from entering the terminals. When an airport traffic cop began answering a few of my questions, he was quickly whisked around the corner of a building by a colleague. The only reply to a question one FBI agent gave was a wave and “I’m Mr. No Comment!”

The G-men and -women, easily spotted in their dark FBI windbreakers, were the only law enforcement present not wearing uniforms or ID tags. The LAX traffic cops wore khakis, fluorescent-lime safety vests and Smokey the Bear ranger hats; the regular LAX cops were in patrol blues. If the FBI had any sort of uniform, it might have been Dockers and walking boots; they seemed the most relaxed, even affable, while LAX cops appeared more tense as they sped around in their cruisers or stalked one TV cameraman who had set up on a parking-structure ramp.

About noon, the passengers from a Quantas flight from Sydney surged out of the terminal and were herded toward a fleet of shuttles that had suddenly materialized. The passengers seemed dazed but calm, and determined to get to the shuttles, although most were willing to speak on the run.

“The pilot said there’d been some terrorist trouble here,” recalled a Sydney resident named Peter. “He was calm but sounded a little concerned. We landed at 10:10 — we had to, there wasn’t enough fuel to go anywhere else. When we got off we were told to get out of here.”

Soon most of the Quantas passengers were gone, leaving small knots of people from other flights who had been abandoned by United Airlines that morning. A young Montana woman sat dolefully on a bench, explaining how her flight to Hawaii had been held back on the tarmac.

“They made us get out on the runway and told us to go the terminal. I tried to call my mother, but someone took the phone out of my hand and told us to evacuate the building. No one knows where I am. I have no money, and the nearest people I know are in Utah.”

A young Continental passenger named Johnny had also been there since early morning, and was wondering how he was going to get to Dallas. An elderly, cheerful couple from Salt Lake City had been waiting since 7 a.m. for someone from United to tell them how to get to their destination, Reno. None of these travelers were griping, though, for the obvious reason that they were alive and a whole lot of people weren’t.


Sponsor Content