No Safe Place

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 Worlds broadcast -- 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 Press publisher 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.

In the meantime, stranded passengers from out of town were being directed to local hotels, while Houston travelers were sent back home. City aviation officials are asking people not to drive to either airport. Ceppi said it is aviation department policy not to discuss security issues at the airports. She also could not give an idea of when flights would resume. She said that was the FAA's call.

By 11 a.m. the feeling of isolation was overwhelming. City Hall was virtually vacant, having shifted to the weekend duty of a frazzled guard manning a weapons detector. "I'm sorry," he apologized without need. "I haven't seen any of the news. I don't know what's going on."

City Hall's back entrance featured the oddest of sentries: cows. It was the immovable art collection to be shown off for CowParade Houston 2001. The reflecting pool resembled a pasture of gaily colored bovines, their leader nothing more than "E-moo-ly the major moo" -- with high-topped helmet and braided shoulder ornaments suggesting a pre-World War I Slavic general. In a corner, striped-top tents were being systematically dismantled by a team of immigrant workers.

Mayor Brown summoned the Houston media together -- not at City Hall but at the TranStar building on Old Katy Road, which houses the city's emergency command center -- to convey his message to a nervous public to stay cool and that all was under control.

"We want to remind everyone that we want to remain calm," said Brown.

Or, in the words of one local television newswoman reporting on a tropical disturbance several years ago: "Don't panic until we tell you to panic."

Flanked by his chiefs of fire and police, and other administration insiders, Brown went on live television at 11 a.m. to assure residents that he and his staff were all over the situation. And after summarizing what everyone already knew at that point, the mayor explained that there really was no crisis situation here -- sort of.

"The Houston Police Department and the FBI are currently conducting threat assessments to determine the potential for other attacks," said Brown. "And let me stress the point that, at this time, we have no information to indicate a problem here in the Houston area."

Brown announced that the city's emergency personnel were on a stand-by alert level, that security sweeps of all public buildings in the city had been completed, and that everything seemed secure. (Ironically, despite the presence of Harris County sheriff's deputies on the perimeter of the building, security at TranStar seemed extremely lax, as reporters were allowed to walk into the sensitive facility without once being asked for identification.) Brown also emphasized that no evacuations had been ordered. Still, if people felt like going home, maybe they should.

"We have advised employers to use their discretion," said Brown. "We'll do the same thing in city government."

Brown also disclosed that he had been part of a conference call with Texas Governor Rick Perry and the mayors of the other large cities in the state and that, just like Houston, all was quiet in the rest of Texas.

Throughout the press briefing, Brown had that customary deer-in-the-headlights look as he mulled over a simple question from the audience of a news conference reacting to the terrorist attack. Why had the U.S. security policy debate over the past few years focused on trillion-dollar missile shields, billion-dollar anti-narco-terrorism programs, and biological warfare defenses when the real threat turned out to be infinitely simpler?

Just hijack a passenger jet -- a flying bomb with full fuel tanks -- and crash it into the target du jour. Brown had sat on the cabinet of President Bill Clinton as the drug czar in charge of combating narco-terrorists. Surely he had some opinion on how all the law enforcement brains in the land failed to consider such a low-tech possibility.

You could see Brown's mental jaws chewing ponderously on the subject, masticating and then verbalizing. Blind spot? What blind spot?

"Not to my knowledge," replied Hizzoner. "When you talk about intelligence, you don't leave anything out. Oftentimes, intelligence is of such a nature you don't publicly talk about what you're talking about, otherwise your intelligence is not as effective as you want it to be."

Think planes, Lee. Had anybody in high government ever seriously considered that terrorists might use U.S. passenger jets as a weapon? After all, there was that Hollywood bomb about a blimp crashing into the Super Bowl.

"I can't tell you anything was left out," concluded the mayor in a cover-your-ass declaration. "Certainly my experience was such that nothing has been left out during the time I served in Washington. We talked about all aspects of intelligence."

Brown then went on to make the major decision of the news conference. The civic show must continue, and there was no reason why City Council couldn't go on with its scheduled meeting at City Hall that afternoon. After all, what terrorist in his or her addled mind would put that esteemed body high on a hit list?

Cooler minds prevailed later in the day, and the meeting was postponed until Wednesday.

Brown could hardly be blamed for babbling on, with an unseen enemy with an unimaginable target list loose in the country. Behind him stood the massed minions of his administration, including local drug czar Don Hollingsworth, Police Chief Clarence Bradford, and the unlikely pair of chief of staff Jordy Tollett and councilman and mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez. They seemed to be radiating the message to the masses "We ain't afraid of no ghosts" in a much more convincing manner than CBS's rattled Dan Rather, who kept demanding his reporter confirm for him that the twin towers had collapsed even though they had already disappeared from his own television monitor.

Not everybody stayed with the ship. Enron, Dynegy and other energy towers emptied in a flash.

Brown encouraged Houstonians to donate blood in this time of need. Not a bad idea, really. At least it gives you something to do. Indeed, all in all, it was actually good to have his press conference to attend instead of simply feeling impotent and staring at the television screen.

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