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West’s Tallest Building Shrugs Off Threats

Times Staff Writers

Working in the West Coast’s tallest building has its share of thrills -- those gut-grabbing high-speed elevator rides, the windows rattled by Santa Ana winds during business meetings and the drop-dead gorgeous sunset views that wrap around the horizon.

So in the 72-floor U.S. Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles, workers were taking the details President Bush offered Thursday about a previously reported foiled terrorist attack, perhaps on their building, with a stiff upper lip.

“Everybody kind of puts it in the back of their mind. Since 9/11, we’ve known we work in a target,” said Alicia Mitchell, a West Los Angeles resident who works on the 65th floor. “You go to work and hope for the best. And it’s a great place to work -- an awesome place.”

The tower, with its interlocking granite planes and curves rising above the city, has long dominated the Los Angeles skyline. Developers were able to break the height record and build the tallest office structure west of the Mississippi River under a complex deal with the city that involved rebuilding the fire-damaged Central Library across the street in the 1980s.

Despite its high profile, the 1,018-foot tower, at 633 W. 5th St, has ranked low on the list of terrorist targets.

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In 2003, a state attorney general’s office list of California’s most vulnerable targets placed the tower 39th, after such sites as the Golden Gate Bridge, Dodger Stadium and even a freeway interchange in Walnut. Los Angeles International Airport was ranked first.

Still, U.S. Bank Tower workers say they have been well aware that their landmark, 1.3-million-square-foot building makes it a potential target. And the president’s comments Thursday that Al Qaeda allegedly plotted to have young Asian men use shoe bombs to breach a jet’s cockpit and crash the plane into the building was causing ripples in the tower from top to bottom.

One reason for the concern is that jetliners crossing the Pacific regularly make a lazy circle over downtown as they line up to land at LAX from the east. Sometimes the huge planes come in low too.

“A couple of weeks ago one came right toward us. Everyone just stopped and stared with their mouths open,” said Erol Andal, a Glendale resident who manages a sandwich shop on a plaza outside the tower’s second-floor entryway. “I had my escape already planned if it had hit. I would have run right down that escalator there and away from here.”

Up on the 56th floor, Eric Bender, vice president of a property management company, said workers pause when they glance out and see flights bound for LAX seemingly headed directly at them.

“It’s very scary to watch these planes come in very low, very slow as they make this big loop,” said Bender, whose firm is a subtenant in the tower. “I’ve often thought that they should change the landing pattern and make it psychologically less scary.”

Mostly, though, high-rise workers’ fears have become dulled in the nearly 4 1/2 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “I know personally of no one who has left this building because of that. This is still a great building with great security. It is a wonderful place to work,” Bender said.

From his desk, Bender has a view that stretches from the San Fernando Valley to Orange and San Bernardino counties. He looks down on other high-rises, as well as at the Hollywood sign, Dodger Stadium and the San Gabriel Valley. About 1:15 p.m. Thursday, he watched as a brush fire sprang to life in Elysian Park.

“When I leave at night, I can look up the Hollywood Freeway all the way to Universal Studios and tell if there are lots of red brake lights and I should take I-5 instead,” said Bender, who lives in Oak Park in Ventura County.

Former Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner’s law firm occupied the tower’s 70th floor at the time of the 9/11 attacks. That elevation allowed it to call itself “Los Angeles top law firm” until last month, when it relocated to another building.

His partner, Ray Riley, had come to work early Sept. 11, 2001, and watched on an office TV as the second hijacked jet crashed into the World Trade Center.

“Ray got on the telephone and started calling everyone, telling them, ‘Don’t come in,’ ” Reiner recalled. “He got hold of everybody, including me. A little later the building itself was evacuated as a precautionary measure. There was no indication then that the building was under any threat, except for its iconic stature.”

Still, the tower’s occupants were jittery for a while.

“Being on the 70th floor, they would probably hit below us. We made nervous jokes about that -- there was a lot of black humor,” Reiner recalled Thursday.

“We had one client who did a lot of flying. He had this parachute that opened without having to pull a cord. He wanted to come up and give us all parachutes. He said with flames licking at the backside, you would have to jump anyway.”

When the Los Angeles Police Department learned in 2003 that an alleged terrorist said the tower was a potential Al Qaeda target, it was no surprise to the building’s workers, Reiner said.

“When that threat came out, it wasn’t anything as specific as what Bush said today,” he said. “It was more of, ‘There are a number of targets in the U.S. and this is one of them.’ We were perceived as being on a terrorist list of ‘things to do.’ ”

Reiner said he was sad to leave the tower to move with his firm to a new 12th-floor office at 801 S. Figueroa St. His old views from the 70th floor were breathtaking, he said.

“You could see sailboats in Marina del Rey and ships in the harbor at Long Beach. You could see a valley beyond the Valley. The joke was that on Wednesday you could see the weekend,” he said.

Over the last four years, access to the tower has been severely restricted, with guards requiring workers to use electronic card keys to pass through security checkpoints outside elevator lobbies. Pylons were placed along West 5th to eliminate a curbside drop-off area and prevent vehicles from being driven close to the building.

There were no unusual security procedures in effect Thursday after the president spoke.

“The threat is 4 years old. It certainly takes you back,” said Peggy Moretti, spokeswoman for Maguire Properties, the building’s operator. “Beyond that, it’s old news.”

Reiner said he always felt safe at the tower -- and already misses spending his days in a one-of-a-kind workplace.

“One time we went up and stood on the roof and looked around. You could see everything. If a big wind had come up I was going to flop on my belly. It’s not that big of a space up there.”

But it’s a long way down.

Times staff writers Tanya Caldwell and Roger Vincent contributed to this report.


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