Nation's emergency response preparation gets post-Sept. 11 test
WASHINGTON -- The new way of responding to emergencies kicked in Monday and yielded this quick determination: The old way would mostly do.
Within minutes of the plane crash in New York, senior White House, military and law enforcement officials joined others in a conference call to plot action. They are not the normal squad called together for a plane crash.
President Bush, handed a note about the crash while at a national security meeting, considered closing America's air space, as happened after the terrorist hijackings on Sept. 11. It was soon judged sufficient to put the blanket over New York airports alone.
Tom Ridge, the homeland security director, a position created because of the terror attacks, learned of the event from New York radio personality Don Imus during a telephone interview. Ridge immediately cut stopped the interview, then spent the morning in the White House Situation Room, working the phones.
But with early evidence pointing to an accidental cause for the crash of the American Airlines jetliner, officials decided to have the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, not Ridge, announce what the administration knew.
No alarms sounded
Aides did not want to raise the level of alarm by having Ridge -- indelibly associated with the response to the hijacking and anthrax attacks -- be the one to step forward.
Continuity of the nation's emergency response system was emphasized over the extraordinary measures put in place since Sept. 11 -- such as the military patrols now constantly deployed over New York in case terrorists strike again.
A Pentagon official said, however, that many jet fighters were sent aloft at several bases across the country Monday to defend the nation's air space, and patrols over New York were supplemented by additional fighters. The flights were dropped after several hours.
Responsibility for investigating Monday's crash was assigned to the familiar authorities, with the National Transportation Safety Board serving as the lead agency.
"There is a routine functioning here at the White House," Fleischer said, "a 24-hour Situation Room that is manned by some very good experts who have developed a long history of monitoring events around the world of all types."
Bush reworked his schedule to stay on top of developments, putting off a meeting with Russian and American journalists the day before Russian President Vladimir Putin was to visit.
The details of Putin's trip, including a visit to Bush's Texas ranch, remained unaffected.
Federal employees off
Most federal employees were home for the post-Veterans Day holiday. Had the crash been judged a terrorist attack and perhaps the harbinger of more, sending them to safety would not have been the challenge of two months ago when departments were closed and streets were jammed with people trying to get away.
A State Department counterterrorism official said he was following developments on TV from home and had no phone communications with his department.
The nation's nuclear power plants already were on a high state of alert, with National Guard troops supporting private security forces at plants in a half dozen states.
After the crash, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised plant operators to stay at on high alert but said there were no specific threats, said commission spokesman William Beecher.
New York precautions
But in New York, the crash in a Queens neighborhood set off a wide range of precautions. Bridges and tunnels were temporarily closed except to emergency vehicles, the United Nations was partially locked down and the Empire State Building was evacuated.
Bush started work at 6:58 a.m. Monday, speaking by telephone with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. He was reviewing the war on terrorism with his national security staff when he got the note at 9:25 a.m. telling him about the crash, Fleischer said.
Ridge immediately came into the room and began a conference call with Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Defense officials, as well as the transportation and emergency advisers who would normally be handling the response to a plane crash.
Whatever the cause of the crash, it placed another burden on a city struggling to recover from the obliteration of the World Trade Center. Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, went quickly to New York.
"We're just being tested one more time," Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. "And we'll pass this test, too."
Allbaugh had four urban search-and-rescue teams on standby in New York.