Californians abandoned offices, raced home to families and prayed for victims in a wave of fear, anxiety and grief after four airliners bound for the state were hijacked Tuesday and turned into devastating terrorist weapons in attacks in the East.
Landmarks from San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid to Disneyland were shuttered, and security was heightened from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Mexican border. Airports were closed and evacuated, stranding travelers.
The San Ysidro port of entry east of San Diego, the world’s busiest land border crossing, was closed for nearly two hours Tuesday night following a bomb threat, said Lauren Mack a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in San Diego. It was reopened after a sweep by bomb-sniffing dogs turned up nothing.
Traffic at the crossing backed up into Tijuana, Mexico, earlier Tuesday as federal agents carefully searched each northbound vehicle before letting it through.
The state remained free of attacks, but an emotional wound was opened as the enormity of the destruction at New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the vulnerability of the nation became apparent.
“They brought America to our knees and it scares the hell out of me,” traveler Beth Tabler of San Diego said at Lindbergh Field, where her flight to Cleveland was canceled.
“It’s beyond comprehension,” said George Straight, a loan officer in Tustin. “The actual effect of the attack, the loss of life is beyond comprehension.”
Three of the hijacked flights were bound for Los Angeles and one was headed to San Francisco. Officials expected the passenger lists would show many Californians.
“This is a time for prayer and for coming together as a country,” Gov. Gray Davis told a press conference in West Sacramento.
Richard Garcia, special agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said the agency did not know who was involved in the attacks but had collected a “massive” amount of information.
“We did not have any specific information on any threats dealing with the West Coast, but we also didn’t have any information about the East Coast,” Garcia said.
The daily hum of California life came to an abrupt halt: Theme parks closed down and planned public gatherings such as the Latin Grammys, scheduled Tuesday night in Inglewood, next Sunday’s Emmy Awards and sporting events were postponed.
Local military bases were under heightened alert. Special measures were taken to protect California’s electrical grid, water distribution system and key bridges, Davis said.
California Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick said authorities had received threats in the state “but none of them have been verified so we are not aware of any real threat to our people.”
Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid were among facilities and buildings closed as the attacks sent shock waves the length of the state. Both were among sites mentioned as possible targets in a recent terrorism trial in Los Angeles. The roads and terminals of Los Angeles International, which handles more than 67 million passengers a year, were eerily silent after the morning evacuation.
Only two or three families of crash victims came to Red Cross grievance counselors, spokeswoman Lourdes del Rio Valdes said. Red Cross officials also said they were setting up a shelter for stranded travelers who didn’t have hotel rooms.
Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, speaking for the city leadership because Mayor James Hahn was stranded in Washington, said authorities had received “no credible threats” against the city. Police Chief Bernard Parks sought to reassure citizens but he had to concede uncertainty.
“We certainly have no guarantees, but we’re certainly looking at all of the precautionary measures to ensure that the community is as safe as possible,” Parks said.
Security cordons were established around federal, state and local government buildings. Coast Guard vessels escorted ships entering California ports. Landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge remained open but security was heightened.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s like a movie,” sheriff’s Deputy Mazen Barbari said while standing guard in front of San Francisco City Hall.
California Highway Patrol officers, sheriff’s deputies and heavily armed FBI agents wearing bullet proof vests dotted the perimeter of the Federal Building in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. A police helicopter circled overhead.
Norma Gonzales, a UCLA Medical Center worker, waited anxiously for her car pool back to her home in San Bernardino.
“I want to go home and be with my baby. It’s like Pearl Harbor,” she said.
The pandemonium at ground zero of the attacks was more than 40-year-old Virginia Roberts could take as she stared, transfixed, at a TV at an Irvine gas station.
“I just want to go home,” she said. “I’m scared. I’m scared for everybody,” Roberts said.
“I just want to go home because I don’t feel safe here,” Elaine Galicia, office assistant for state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Commerce, said as officer workers filed out of the Capitol in Sacramento.
Downtown Los Angeles’ business core emptied rapidly, leaving few people other than security guards by late morning. A recorded phone message at the Building Owners and Managers Association said that by 10:30 a.m. more than 60 Los Angeles-area buildings had closed.
“It’s a ghost town, man,” cab driver Adrian Escalante said as he waited in vain with other cabbies for fares on Grand Avenue.
“There’s so many ways we’re vulnerable; that’s what’s frightening,” guitarist Eric Henderson said as he waited at Los Angeles’ Union Station for a train home to Laguna Beach.
Californians also responded to a call for blood donations, with hundreds lining up at a San Francisco center.
As phalanxes of television sets broadcast terrible scenes into an Orange County electronics store, Dennis Loi, 35, could only shake his head.
“I’m nervous. What’s next? What is going to happen next?” he said. “That’s all I can think about.”