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Local officials rethink recently made plans to deal with terrorism

Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They trained for all kinds of modern disasters, from fires in skyscrapers to nerve gas attacks in Downtown subway tunnels.

But emergency operations officials in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh hadn't trained for what happened Sept. 11. They had never rehearsed what to do about a hijacked plane flying just nine miles south of Pittsburgh International Airport, heading east along the Allegheny-Washington county line.

No one had.

"Never in our wildest dreams did it ever come to the table that they would be using passenger aircraft as missiles," said Bob Full, chief of emergency operations for Allegheny County.

Full chairs the Region 13 Terrorism Task Force, a coalition of officials from 13 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. For three years, they have been developing plans to respond to chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist attacks. They have staged terrorist attacks in a subway station Downtown and a vacant shopping mall in Westmoreland County.

But the events of Sept. 11 will make local and national officials rethink many aspects of terrorism that they had never considered.

"It is a wake-up call, a resounding wake-up call, that we need to do some things better than we have done in the past," Full said.

And even if emergency officials improve their response capabilities, he acknowledged, there is only so much they would be able to do to limit damage from terrorism, especially a hijacked airliner entering Pittsburgh's air space at hundreds of miles an hour.

Full; John Rowntree, chief of the city's 911/Emergency Operations Center; Deputy Mayor Sal Sirabella; and others have determined that several things need to be improved in their operations, including:

More phones -- Full said there were 55 telephones at the county's 911 Center in Point Breeze, "but we learned very quickly that we needed more phones." Since last week, 100 phones have been added to handle any full-scale emergency.

Better traffic control -- The traffic gridlock that occurred Sept. 11, when Downtown workers were sent home after the terrorist attacks, demonstrated a need for better traffic management, Rowntree said.

Improved communications -- Better communications systems are needed to squelch rumors that run rampant during times of crisis. "For a full 20 minutes after we knew there was no plane in our area, we had to deal with the perception of city employees who felt they were in danger," Sirabella said.

City and county officials haven't had time to fully analyze every action that was taken here Sept. 11, a day when most Downtown employers started sending their employees home in the middle of the morning, which created gridlock on city streets.

It wasn't a forced evacuation, officials noted, just a reaction to the crash of two planes into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and fears that the fourth plane that crashed in Somerset County had been headed to Pittsburgh.

It is clear from 911 tapes that local officials had less than 15 minutes' warning that the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 was in Pittsburgh airspace before the plane crashed at 10:06 a.m. in Somerset County, killing all 44 people aboard.

Full learned about the errant plane at 9:53 a.m. That's when he got a call alerting him that the control tower at Pittsburgh International Airport had been evacuated. Thirteen minutes earlier, he had talked to an airport official who had no indication of any threat.

Between those two conversations, the Pittsburgh tower had received a call from the Cleveland air traffic control tower, saying a plane was heading toward Pittsburgh and refusing to communicate with controllers. The FAA ordered the Pittsburgh control tower evacuated at 9:49 a.m.

Full said Flight 93 was probably traveling at 300 to 400 mph. At that speed, Full said, "there is nothing we could do" to evacuate people before a crash.

Once the plane had crashed, "we made a joint decision with the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County that there was no credible threat on our territory and we would not order a mandatory evacuation," Full said.

Nevertheless, many Downtown building managers sent workers home, creating the huge traffic jam that turned streets into virtual parking lots.

Based on reports that passengers attacked the hijackers on Flight 93, Full noted that if they had done so a few minutes earlier, the plane might have crashed into a heavily populated part of Allegheny County instead of a reclaimed strip mine in Somerset County.

And there's nothing local officials could have done about that.

As the events were unfolding, officials here weren't certain whether a full-scale attack was being carried out on cities across the United States.

"I had a series of thoughts," County Chief Executive Jim Roddey said. "My first thoughts were that it can't be coming toward Pittsburgh. They are hitting national symbols like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Then I thought maybe this is happening in cities across the country."

Roddey said there were problems, though, with ordering the evacuation of Downtown buildings in such emergencies.

"It would probably cause a panic. If a plane was coming and we had all these people on the streets, that might be more dangerous," Roddey said.

Full anticipates more terrorist attacks. He said the lesson emergency workers had learned in their training missions was that terrorists would target large population centers, and that even with years of training and sophisticated equipment to try to thwart such attacks, "people are going to become victims."

But through constant training and preparation, Full said, emergency teams can "cut the numbers of victims."

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