Letter From Lax

For scores of passengers milling around the American Airlines terminal in Los Angeles this morning, the word "cancelled," illuminated over and over again in alarm red across the arrivals board, provided the first hint that something horrible had happened. With no TVs anywhere near the check-in counter, it was left to American attendants in Terminal 3 to inform annoyed passengers of what had just transpired. Then, around 9:30 a.m. (PDT) the families of the victims began to arrive at Terminal 3, and the personal magnitude of today's tragedies became abundantly clear. "Leave us alone," was all the two sobbing couples could say to the press as American personnel whisked them to a private lounge.

Three of the four hijacked commercial flights involved in today's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were cross-country flights, full of jet fuel, bound for Los Angeles. Federal officials shut Los Angeles International Airport indefinitely Tuesday, rerouting flights and trying to clear the terminals of passengers and all but key airport personnel. Meantime, Los Angeles police and airport security have been combing parking structures on bicycle and foot, looking for any signs of explosives.

"Our airport, LAX, has been closed to incoming and outgoing flights, and will continue to be so, I believe, until further notice," said acting mayor Alex Padilla, a city councilman. "Domestic flights have been rerouted to other locations that will not be disclosed for security reasons, and international flights have been rerouted to Canada." There have been reports of several planes bound for Los Angeles landing at nearby Ontario, Calif., airport.

Within the last hour, the Los Angeles airport allowed an incoming Qantas flight from Australia to land because it was running low on fuel and hovering over the Pacific. Passengers on the plane said they had been informed that planes weren't landing in the area "because of a major security breach," but weren't told until they landed what, exactly, that breach had been.

The three doomed flights bound for L.A. were American Airlines flight #11 from Boston, with a reported 92 passengers and crew aboard; American flight #77 from Washington/Dulles, with 64 passengers and crew; and United flight #175 from Boston with 65 people. American announced that the Boston flight, #11, is believed to be one of those that crashed into the World Trade Center, and the Dulles flight is the one that crashed at the Pentagon. United flight 175 from Boston appears to have been the second hijacked plane to slam into the Manhattan skyscrapers. A fourth plane, a United flight bound from Newark to San Francisco, crashed southeast of Pittsburgh.

The scene outside the United Airlines terminal in L.A. was one of alarm and tension, as United officials sealed off the terminal and waiting passengers were left to ponder their personal safety. "I really don't want to be standing at LAX right now," said Eileen Joy, who was scheduled to take off on a United flight to Baltimore this morning. Over at American, grief filled the air. "All I can think of is all those people who have lost their lives," said Pat Stanfield, tears welling in her eyes, who was supposed to fly to Hawaii today for her 50th wedding anniversary.

Jacque Walawander and her husband learned about the multiple tragedies on their descent into Los Angeles this morning aboard a Delta flight from Hawaii, when the pilot came on the P.A. system with the news. Once at the terminal, they walked into a scene of pandemonium. "We were basically told, 'You're on your own, this is a national emergency.'" No formal evacuation announcement was made to passengers leaving the terminals. All that could be heard over and over was a tape recorded voice warning, "Do not leave your bags unattended."

"You wonder what's going to happen to our country," Walawander said.