CLEVELAND — Nearly 20 years ago on September 11, shortly after two planes hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m and 9:03 a.m., respectively, Cleveland office workers flooded into downtown streets.
Though 460 miles from the terrorist attacks unfolding in New York City, Cleveland was much closer to potential tragedy than most cities.
Just west of Cleveland in Lorain County, United Flight 93 – which was left Newark for San Francisco – was being highjacked.
“No one knew where it was going to come down,” said Marty Flask, Cleveland’s former safety director and chief security manager at Hopkins International Airport on Sept. 11. “And people often forget the largest building between Chicago and New York City is right on Public Square.”
In a recent interview with 3News, Flask recalled the confusion and panic as all U.S. flights were grounded and airports were closed for the first time in history.
“We had passengers intending to go to California or Chicago and their aircraft landing here,” Flask said. “It’s a challenge to evacuate that many people from anywhere. There was a lot of confusion here on the roadways. I can remember people -- we had passengers pulling their suitcases on wheels up Route 237 because that was the only way they could leave the airport.”
His boss, Mayor Michael R. White, was pulled out of a cabinet meeting to respond to the news.
“All we knew was there was this plane in our airspace. It’s been highjacked and headed for downtown Cleveland,” White told 3News’ Leon Bibb in a recent interview. “So, with that small amount of information, the goal was to get as many people out of downtown from what could be ground zero.”
Flask said downtown was a mess as office workers headed out and into the streets.
“We had traffic jams,” he said. “Police were out there doing what they could do.”
White ordered that Euclid and Carnegie avenues be turned into outbound streets in all lanes.
“You got to be calm,” White said about the morning’s events. “That’s what we tried to do. We tried to give them as much information as we could. We told them as much about the safety plan.”
(In the video above, you can see video shot by 3News photographers showing the evacuation, including how police using their vehicle speakers to order people to leave downtown.)
In Lorain County, controllers at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin were tracking United Flight 93.
On the ground there, Tom Kelley, director of the Lorain County Emergency Management Agency, was dealing with an unnerved public.
“I started getting calls from superintendents – we have like 16 school districts in the county – and they said they were getting a run from parents coming to pick up their kids,” Kelley said.
Kelley was also paying attention to Cleveland.
“The traffic coming West Bound on I-90 was bumper to bumper,” he said.
As Lorain and Cleveland officials focused on helping people get home, United Flight 93, now headed East toward Washington, crashed in a Pennsylvania field -- after passengers stormed the cockpit to prevent the highjackers from hitting another target. (United Flight 93 crashed at 10:03 a.m. in Shanksville, Pa.)
The attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93 forever altered how Americans live. The immediate aftermath was disorienting to many, Flask said.
“The whole world changed,” Flask said. “We had armed National Guard with M16 rifles at the checkpoints. It was a trying time, and it was a solemn time.”
The work of Kelley – who just retired this summer -- and other safety officials was also quickly refocused.
“We went from having shelter for tornados and floods and snowstorms and that type of thing,” he said. “Now, we are working on terrorism attacks and anthrax attacks. The white powder kicked up after that.”
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks on September 11, including 441 responders - most of them firefighters. Those losses still shaping lives two decades later.
“It definitely is something that sticks with every firefighter and that it always in the back of our mind,” said Emmett O’Connor, a second-generation firefighter working just his second shift with the Elyria Fire Department. “Anytime I ever thought about it, I just had admiration. Admiration for those people who went in knowing there was a good chance they weren’t coming back.”