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Former LA mayor, LAPD chief remember 9/11

September 11, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks recall their memories of Sept. 11, 2001.

Those who remember Sept. 11, 2001 also remember exactly how unclear everything was. In the hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, no one knew what would come next.

Protecting American citizens in those first days following Sept. 11 proved to be a daunting task.

Then-Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn tried for three days to get home after being stranded in Washington, D.C. on that fateful Tuesday 10 years ago.

"We want to make sure these terrible times are over, but we understand the world changed this week," Hahn said back then.

Hahn had been Los Angeles mayor less than three months and was meeting with a White House liaison when he learned about the terrorist attacks.

Now a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, Hahn remembers that day.

"As I was walking out of the executive office building, I looked to my left and saw smoke coming up, and someone says, 'Oh my god, they hit the Pentagon.' I looked to my right and people were running out of the White House," Hahn recalled. "That was a scene I'll never forget."

Neither cellphones nor pay phones worked. The mayor finally reached Los Angeles from the emergency operations center in Washington. Hahn said he made sure to confirm with then-LAPD Chief Bernard Parks that the city was on tactical alert.

"I got dressed and immediately came to work, and we opened up the city's emergency response," recalled Parks. "We had our operation going. We basically put the department on 12-hour shifts."

Now a city councilman, Parks did not wait for anyone's directive.

"The city is safe. The community should feel safe," Parks told the public back then.

Some streets were closed, but the city of Los Angeles got back to most business as usual.

"The smartest decision in the first half of that day is when FAA grounded every plane. There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to be the recipient of one of those planes in the air," Parks said.

But the grounding of planes including military transport is how the mayor was stuck in Washington. He was just about to rent a car, when he got on the first jetliner cleared to take off again from Dulles International Airport.

"We all got on the plane. You could hear a pin drop. Everybody was within their own thoughts. 'Hey, we're the first plane in the air. What's that going to be like?'' Hahn recalled. "As we looked out on the tarmac, we noticed the entire ground crew of American Airlines was standing on the tarmac, and one of them was waving a huge American Flag."

The mayor returned to Los Angeles, touring the airport where security was visible everywhere as were long lines of anxious travelers.

"I hope we haven't gotten so busy that we forgot the lessons of 10 years ago. The terrorists didn't go away, and certainly in other parts of the world, they're experiencing acts of terrorism almost on a daily basis. We've been very fortunate here in the United States, but we can't be complacent about it," said Hahn.

For the former police chief, the Los Angeles response to 9/11 was faster and smoother than most cities because of extensive training for emergencies like earthquakes.

And while police conduct intelligence, the public can't be discounted.

"We can't ever let the community believe they don't have a role in alerting law enforcement when they see something that is unique or different," said Parks.

Also, Parks said we need to better secure our borders, our trains and our harbor and not only look to the skies.

As for civic lessons learned since 9/11, when the Emergency Operations Board met that day, it did not include the harbor or the airport. It does now.

View photos of the ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York.

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