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On Tuesday morning, Houston stirred under bright blue skies, the follow-up to the first fresh hint of a cool front. A sketchy news bulletin broke into the inane banter of morning TV shows. Radio reports were interrupted with a similar brief report. A plane had supposedly crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. Interesting, somewhat ominous, disturbing, but not yet terrifying.
Then in a bizarre scene, as people drove about town, as others munched their cereal, one tower of the World Trade Center took on the appearance of a 100-story chimney. Witnesses said a plane had done the damage. What kind of plane, they couldn't say. They could only talk about the noise, the smoke, the shattered glass. Now there was terror.
Cameras were ready when the second passenger jet made its sweeping turn and took out the other tower. By the time reporters broke in with the update on the collapse of the towers and the inferno at the Pentagon, Houstonians knew this was no freak event. This was horrific tragedy.
Hundreds, thousands of people were dead. Two more planes crashed -- one outside the Pentagon and another in Pennsylvania. No fake War of the Worldsbroadcast -- this was real.
And the great Texas metropolis never felt more vulnerable. Houston's much-touted skyline suddenly seemed to be nothing more than huge, looming, gleaming but vulnerable shooting-gallery targets for terrorists winging in on hijacked airliners. Workers emptied out of downtown in huge traffic jams. Sweating cops blew brief blasts on whistles as they wrestled with the stunned exodus. On this late morning, there were none of the typical rush-hour megawatt car sound systems blasting rock music. Autos in line all tuned to somber news accounts. Mayor Lee Brown called a press conference, urging calm, but saying that if you were upset, it was okay to go home, okay to be with your kids.
At a bus stop on Louisiana near Walker, a crowd was no longer strangers. They huddled around one suited man who tuned in on what looked like an antique transistor radio. With the speaker to his ear, he relayed updates to the surrounding group. They looked at one another, started to speak, but only listened. And looked up at the high-rises surrounding them.
Indeed, Houston's reputation as an international city -- usually a source of great pride -- suddenly felt uncomfortable with the increasing certainty that the East Coast terrorist attack originated overseas.
Within minutes, downtown was almost deserted. The cops had moved their traffic and retreated. So had most pedestrians. It was eerily quiet on the downtown canyons running through the high-rises. Passenger jets, the ones that normally used the airspace just south of the central city on their routine runs in and out of Hobby Airport, were nowhere to be seen.
By all indications, this was a day that muted even the sky above.
At George Bush Intercontinental just before 9 a.m., drivers hoping to board outgoing flights became frustrated when -- despite signs to the contrary -- there were no parking spaces available. People began getting out of their cars, pulling out cell phones to call the airlines to find out what was going on. That's when they discovered the airport had been closed. Planes were scattered on taxiways, stranded there by the unexpected shutdown.
Inside the terminals, the scene was equally surreal. All the TVs were turned off. Dallas Observer editor Julie Lyons, who'd flown into Houston from Dallas on Continental, said passengers "were told nothing on the flight or on the ground." The only unusual sign was that it took the crew a long time to open the door to the plane upon arrival, she said. But no one said anything to them, and Lyons got a leisurely breakfast before making her way to the gate for her connecting flight to Phoenix.
At check-in, Lyons found the departure time pushed back a half-hour. When she asked why, only then was she told a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. People got on their cell phones and many began crying, she said, as the news came in. Some hurried to escape the airport but found long lines for cabs, and no rental cars.
Houston Presspublisher Stuart Folb, who was flying from Houston to Phoenix Tuesday morning on Southwest Airlines, thought he was landing in Phoenix, only to be told by the pilot that the plane had been diverted to El Paso. "We were told to get off the plane and that monitors in the terminal would tell us what was happening," Folb said.
The Houston Airport System had few answers late Tuesday morning. City aviation officials, minus director Richard M. Vacar, who was stuck in Montreal on business, were meeting with the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines at both Houston airports to determine the next course of action. HAS spokesperson Tina Ceppi said both Bush Intercontinental and Hobby terminals were closed, and that all flights had been grounded by FAA orders. Ceppi was not sure how many planes en route to Houston were allowed to land here. Some landed at the two airports shortly after the New York and Washington, D.C., incidents, but others, Ceppi believed, were routed to the nearest cities. She urged friends and family of passengers headed to Houston to contact the airlines for more information. HAS had not yet done an accounting of all departures and arrivals at the city's two airports to see if any flights were missing.