Controlled Chaos Seizes Day at L.A., S.F. Airports

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Thousands of travelers were stranded as Los Angeles International Airport was shut down and evacuated Tuesday, its normally bustling terminals transformed for hours into silent passageways, patrolled by heavily armed agents and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Confusion and raw emotion reigned as officials responded to the terrorist attacks on the East Coast by grounding all domestic and international flights. Disoriented passengers stepped off flights from Australia and other distant locales to find police urging them to keep moving.

"Everyone must leave the airport now!" an officer barked outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal. "Get on the buses! Get on the buses!"

At 6:25 a.m., officials closed the airport. Police began evacuating LAX sometime after 9 a.m., about three hours after the first hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and two hours after the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights.

"I'm so far from home. I'm here by myself," said Tracey Jackson, 22, an exchange student from Sydney, Australia, tears streaming down her face. She was caught hundreds of miles from her destination in Canada. "I have no idea where I'm going to stay tonight."

The scenes were repeated at San Francisco International and other major airports throughout the West, where fears of new attacks brought the normal routine of air travel to a standstill.

"We will walk the airport with our eyes, dogs, everything we've got," said San Francisco airport spokesman Michael McCarron, describing the elaborate security precautions at that airport.

Anxiety and security precautions were particularly high at Los Angeles and San Francisco because the cities' airports were the intended destination of all four hijacked jets.

The sudden show of force stunned travelers at LAX.

"This was the first time I've seen guns and Uzis in an airport," said Arthur Patrick, a resident of Lawton, Okla., who arrived at the airport on his journey back home from New Zealand. With all domestic flights grounded, Patrick and his wife, Kim, hoped to rent a car for the 25-hour drive home to Oklahoma.

The administrative staff at LAX was evacuated to a remote building on the western end of the facility. Above, skies normally humming with 2,200 flights a day were virtually empty. The third-busiest airport in the United States was open only to a handful of trans-Pacific flights, and 178 stranded aircraft were parked at airport gates or on taxiways. The only aircraft leaving Southern California airports were ferrying police, FBI, emergency and blood supplies workers to New York City and Washington, D.C.

Officials said they expected to open the airport today but warned of long delays.

Airport Police Chief Bernard Wilson said the quiet reminded him of the days during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when elaborate security measures were implemented.

On taxiways, passengers sat in planes that were suddenly prevented from taking off. Empty shuttle buses circled the terminal for an hour until police closed off Century Boulevard and other streets leading to the airport after 9 a.m. Customs officials rushed through one group of inbound passengers without even inspecting their bags.

Albuquerque resident Ron McDaniel recounted how the pilot of his flight from Sydney announced, just before landing, that "incidents of terrorism" had occurred and that all airline flights in the United States had been grounded.

A hush fell over the plane, followed by a few sobs, said McDaniel, who had been vacationing in Australia.

"Everyone just gasped when the captain came on," he said. "Nobody said anything. Some people started to cry."

Once on the ground at LAX, passengers briefly watched the horror in New York and Washington unfold on television screens. People pushed carts, juggling children, some crying and others talking on cell phones.

Some passengers lingered around the terminal's lower deck, camping out with their luggage and waiting for rides. Airline employees stood outside empty ticket counters, refusing to let passengers inside.

Nearby, a Qantas worker frantically scribbled on a clipboard. "I'm just trying to get some organization here."

By noon, the pace of evacuation at LAX had accelerated, with police urging harried travelers to move along. Families and businesspeople hustled onto buses to remote parking lot B, which was turned into a temporary dispersal center. Many later found their way to the lobbies of nearby hotels. Most rooms were fully booked within hours.

Squad cars with flashing lights patrolled the streets circling the terminals.

The search by dozens of LAPD officers and FBI agents moved methodically through the airport, beginning with the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Explosives-sniffing dogs could be seen through the terminal windows leaping onto ticket counters and behind baggage stands to complete their task.

The scrutiny was particularly intense in a few areas, including around a suspicious parcel in Terminal 4, where American Airlines flights normally arrive and take off. No bombs were found as the search continued into the evening.

The scene was much the same at San Francisco International, where about 3,000 people were evacuated, most to hotels or to stay with friends and family. Before the airport was officially closed at 3 p.m., a few final flights straggled in. One of the flights, from Thailand, was accompanied by two F-16 military jets, a report confirmed by McCarron.

McCarron said he didn't know the reason for the escort.

The public can expect heightened levels of security when the airport reopens, McCarron said. "Much like the world changed on Dec. 7, 1941, you'll see significant changes," he said, referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the U.S. into World War II.

He speculated that airports will be staffed with more armed police, bomb-sniffing dogs and baggage inspectors, similar to practices at some European airports. "It's going to be a lot more restrictive," McCarron said. "It will not be hop on a plane and go."

But airport officials said it was unlikely those precautions could be put in place quickly and they predicted that the facility would remain closed today.

Once the airports were cleared Tuesday, neighboring hotels became the locus of anxiety and regrouping. At the Holiday Inn near LAX, rooms quickly filled up and clerks diverted customers to hotels as far away as Long Beach.

"People were confused, some of them were upset," said Irfran Rizwi, the hotel's reservations manager. "But most understand the gravity of the situation."

At one of the hotels, the Airport Marriott, American Airlines set up a briefing center for friends and relatives of the victims. Less than a dozen families had reported there by late Tuesday, said a Red Cross official. The victims' loved ones met with counselors from both the Red Cross and the airline. They had little to say to the media. Several asked how they could donate blood.

Travelers were struggling to find alternative routes home.

Amtrak officials added extra trains Tuesday on the route between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. All of them ran full. Today, big crowds were expected. Even trains to Seattle were completely booked, an exceedingly rare occurrence.

Back at the Airport Marriott, retired history professor Peter Shattuck nursed a bourbon and tried to decide whether to cancel a long-planned trip to Europe to start this morning from LAX.

"All day long my wife and I have been debating about this. Yes. No. Yes. No."

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Times staff writers Hector Tobar, Tim Reiterman, Susan Spano, Louis Sahagun and Duke Helfand contributed to this story.

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