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What 9/11 Was Like In Los Angeles

A group of people of various races gather for a candlelit vigil. Along with holding candles, there are two American flags. A person in the foreground wears a Los Angeles sports jersey in silver and black.
File: A man in a Los Angeles jersey joins in a prayer vigil for the victims of terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 15, 2001 in Huntington Park.
(David McNew
Getty Images)
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Editor's Note
  • This story was originally published in 2018 and has been updated to reflect the current anniversary.

It's been 20 years since 9/11. The tragedy was felt here in Los Angeles as it was around the world, and like other major cities across the country, L.A.'s emergency services had to swing into action. Three of the four planes used in the attacks were supposed to be headed for L.A.

How L.A. reacted

File: A person walks with the L.A. Times newspaper about the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centers on Sept. 12, 2001 in Santa Monica. (Photo by Jason Kirk/Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles Police Department took the lead after news of the attacks came, according to Rob Freeman with the city's Emergency Management Department. The decision was made to evacuate non-emergency personnel from City Hall, with the LAPD advising private downtown high-rises to evacuate as well.

"None of us knew what might happen next, and there was a concern L.A. was also a target for the terrorists," Freeman said in an email.

Air travel across the country was shut down by the FAA, including at LAX and other regional airports, leaving travelers stranded.

Alex Padilla, then City Council president, was acting mayor while Mayor James Hahn was in Washington.

"He was brought down to the EOC and got a crash course on emergency operations and counter-terrorism," Freeman said.

File: Construction workers are sent home from work at City Hall, rear, in downtown L.A. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
(Kim D. Johnson

Hahn wasn't able to return for three days, so Padilla — then 29 — was left in charge. He delivered remarks to the city on the afternoon of Sept. 11.

"I watched him write out his comments on a yellow legal pad," Freeman said. "His task was to explain to our residents and the world whether L.A. was at risk and what we were doing to safeguard the City. His comments were clear and concise. He reassured us all that we were going to get through this in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania and L.A."

Padilla spoke under the bridge between City Hall and City Hall East, in the shadow of those two high-rises, according to Freeman.

"He gave his remarks in English and then without skipping a beat gave them in Spanish, certainly something that no recent mayor such as Bradley, Riordan or Hahn could do," Freeman said. "He was our Rudy Giuliani and he conducted himself with great composure and sense of duty."

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Once it was determined that L.A. wasn't going to be a direct target, the city started mobilizing to help those who had been hit, Freeman said. Local fire departments sent their urban search and rescue teams to New York, where they helped with recovering victims in the rubble.

Freeman himself was part of a team that went to New York to debrief in January 2002.

"9/11/2001 was a tipping point for expanding the scope of government and business partnership in our national counter-terrorism efforts," Freeman said. "To that point it was largely law enforcement and the fire service. Since 2001 terrorism awareness and planning became everyone's concern."

9/11 at a theme park

File: Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure theme parks are closed Sept. 11, 2001 in Anaheim in response to the terrorist air attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

9/11 was felt everywhere, including at Disneyland. It was still early morning on the West Coast when the attacks occurred, so the park had not opened, and it remained closed for the day, according to Laughing Place.

"The happiest place on Earth, on the saddest day I can remember being there," longtime Disneyland employee Ginger Fleming said of the day, according to Laughing Place. Fleming worked in security.

Still, the park tried to keep spirits high — Disney characters were sent to entertain kids who were confined to Disney's hotels for the day. The park reopened the next day.

L.A.'s Emergency Management Department began operations on July 1, 2000, but funding for a new Emergency Operations Center came from a March 2002 ballot initiative. 9/11 was a factor in its passage, Freeman said.

The planes

File: Michelle Polfrey, a television crew member, looks away from a television monitor showing the destruction from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo by Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images)

Three of the four planes used on 9/11 were supposed to be headed for Los Angeles. Instead, hijackers crashed two into the World Trade Center, the other into the Pentagon, killing all the L.A.-bound passengers inside.

Two of the 9/11 terrorists, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mindhar, arrived in Los Angeles in January of the year 2000 — that's where they first entered the United States. They met up with Omar al-Bayoumi, who'd been in San Diego since 1995, at an L.A. restaurant. He helped them to get settled in the U.S. They didn't like L.A. and were having a hard time because they didn't know anyone, according to the report.

Other averted attacks

Los Angeles has long been a desired target for terrorists. In earlier planning, L.A. was a proposed target for plane attacks by Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to the 9/11 Commission, he'd envisioned hijacking 12 planes to hit targets on both coasts, including the U.S. Bank Tower.

A potential Osama bin Laden threat to a flight out of L.A. to New York was investigated in 1999. Al Qaeda terrorist Ahmed Ressam had planned an attack on LAX on New Year's Eve 1999, but was caught before he could act thanks to questioning by a Customs inspector. He'd looked at several L.A.-area airports as he planned, but according to the 9/11 Report, he chose LAX because it was "the largest and the easiest to operate in surreptitiously."

Security has been upgraded numerous times since then, with everything from moving security checkpoints closer to entrances, to the limitations travelers face with what they can carry onboard.

More photos from 9/11 in L.A

File: Formerly homeless residents of Dome Village hold a vigil for victims of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, 2001 in Los Angeles.
(David McNew
Getty Images)

File: Blood donor Harry Wechadtowski (R) watches news bulletins from New York as he gives blood at a Red Cross Center in Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2001. The Center was telling people to return later as it was inundated with potential donors responding to the state of alert in Los Angeles. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images)

File: American Muslim women are filmed as they pray for the victims at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 2001. The center had police protection after it received death threats in vengeance for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. (Photo by Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images)

File: Tractor-trailers block the truck entrance as cranes stand idle in the background at the APL Terminal as this and every other facility in the Port of Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach were shut down Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Ships bound for the harbors were forced to wait at anchor outside the breakwater, far background. (Reed Saxon/AP)

File: Security personnel at Los Angeles International Airport watch TV coverage of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2001. (Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images)

Workers stream out of Paramount Studios in Hollywood after the studio was shut down for the day in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Ralph and Sabina Meier, German tourists, watch a large-screen projection of the World Trade Center from their car along the Sunset Strip after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. (E.J. Flynn/AP)
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