Thousands stranded in California; Japan flights boarded
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Thousands of frantic air travelers were stranded far from their intended destinations as the nation’s air traffic was grounded and jittery security officials evacuated California’s largest airports Tuesday.
Passengers whose flights were canceled or rerouted scrambled for ground transportation and shelter, straining municipal commuter systems and harrying hotel clerks.
All four of the hijacked planes involved in the terror attacks were destined for California. Two destroyed the World Trade Center, a third severely damaged the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Everybody on board was believed killed.
Runways were kept open for incoming flights but by early afternoon most major airports were deserted, including airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego. Some 3,000 people were evacuated from San Francisco International Airport alone.
Flights were scheduled to resume at San Francisco International at 9 a.m. Wednesday. It wasn’t clear when flights will resume at other major California airports, but officials warned travelers to expect tough security and long delays.
”It will be a lot more restricted,” said Mike McCarron, assistant deputy director at San Francisco International. ”It is not just going to be where you can hop in on a plane and go. You may have to open up all your bags, I don’t know.”
The few flights that did land in California Tuesday after the terrorist attacks were subjected to intense scrutiny.
About a dozen flights were diverted to San Francisco, including two from Japan to Los Angeles. U.S. Customs agents quickly boarded both planes and checked passports. One of the flights was escorted in by U.S. fighter jets.
On Northwest Flight 2 from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, passengers said the flight crew became suspicious of a group of about 19 passengers and corralled them in the rear of the plane. Customs agents isolated the group after the plane landed, and urged other passengers to leave quickly.
”I’m totally shaken,” said Jonathan Leitner, a 31-year-old electrical engineer on the flight. He said passengers were told a ”medical emergency” was the reason their flight was diverted.
Thai Airways Flight 722, also from Narita, later landed safely under the escort of two U.S. fighter jets and also was swarmed by uniformed Customs agents.
There were no arrests reported. Airport and Customs officials declined comment on the precautions.
There were no specific threats directed at Los Angeles International Airport, said Michael D. Giralamo, deputy executive director of operations, but they evacuated the complex nonetheless to be safe.
”We have 2,100 flights everyday and nothing is operating. You can just multiply that out and see what the impact is,” Giralmo said.
Counseling centers for the relatives of those aboard were set up at Los Angeles and San Francisco international airports. No relatives had arrived at San Francisco’s center by midday, airport spokesman Ron Wilson said.
Many of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, were headed for Sacramento and Fresno. A passenger manifest had not been released pending notification of next of kin.
”This is a time for compassion. It’s not a time for long sermons,” said Father John Delariva, a Catholic priest who was part of the counseling team in San Francisco.
Stephen Ryan, a San Francisco police officer, walked his bomb-sniffing German shepherd, Brando, through the waiting areas as the airport emptied. ”All we’re doing is walking the terminal and acting as a deterrent,” Ryan said.
Some passengers tried to figure out other ways to travel or find rooms at hotels, some of which were charging premium prices.
”We phoned the hotel but the price went up and we didn’t want to pay,” said French vacationer Anne Lepinay, whose flight to Washington, D.C. was canceled.
Extra commuter buses and trains were sent to transport the stranded passengers from the darkened airports to shelter. Thirty buses and shuttles were used to transport stranded passengers to San Francisco-area hotels.
Rita Muoio, 37, of Bridgeport, Conn., was ordered to leave the American Airlines terminal at Los Angeles. She said she would take the bus all the way home.
”We feel it’s safer to take the bus. Body bags don’t suit me. We’re doing it whether it’s a problem or not,” she said.
At San Diego’s airport, Beth Tabler was on her way to Cleveland when she heard reports of the attacks. She was relieved when her flight was canceled.
”They brought America to our knees and it scares the hell out of me,” she said.
It will take days for air travel to return to normal once the Federal Aviation Administration lifts its order grounding the nation’s planes.
”When this breaks and the FAA opens up the air space again, everything is not going to be peachy keen again,” Wilson said. ”There’s airport and flight crews in place around the country where they shouldn’t be.”
”Air travel will never be the same. It’s a shame. It’s not a pleasure flying anymore,” Wilson added. ”The airports, the airlines really work hard to try to make it safe, but if you have someone intent on doing something, how do you stop something like that?”
Airline information numbers: 1-800-245-0999 American Airlines, 1-800-932-8555 United Airlines.
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