Reactions to an attack

Ripples of a tragedy
Devastation caused by terrorist attacks felt in Midpeninsula

by Weekly Editorial Staff

Hours after airplanes were grounded because of East Coast terrorist attacks Tuesday, Menlo-Atherton High School students outside for P.E. class were startled by the roar of an airliner overhead.

They looked up and recognized the words "Air France" on the side of the plane, and then saw two fighter jets escorting it toward San Francisco International Airport shortly after 11 a.m.

"It was kind of frightening, in a way, in that this is supposed to be a free country," said Pam Wimberly, the M-A athletic director.

The mood at the Atherton high school was "kind of grim," Wimberly said. "The kids were scared."

New York City and Washington, D.C. were thousands of miles away, dealing directly with the devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the Midpeninsula, residents grappled with the emotional ripples of fear, sadness and unease.

Law enforcement and government officials swung into emergency mode. Schools strived to make children feel safe, and people came together for conversation, commiseration, and even prayer.

An eerie pall hung in the air where people gathered in public places, from grocery stores to restaurants. Conversations were held in low tones, with little laughter.

At Mac's Smoke Shop in Palo Alto, a special "extra" edition of the San Jose Mercury News screamed "ATTACK!"

Stores posted "closed" signs, concerts and plays were cancelled, as well as high school and some college sporting events.

Parking places were easily had in even the busiest sections of downtown Palo Alto Tuesday afternoon.

Stanford Shopping Center gave stores the option of closing for the day. The only businesses that remained open were Bloomingdale's and McDonald's.

"It (was) just really out of respect for the tragic event that took place (Tuesday), said Robyn Urvinitka, marketing director at the center. The closure was unprecedented for the shopping center, which normally closes only on Christmas Day and Easter.

Threat to Stanford libraries

At about 9:35 a.m., Stanford police received an anonymous call from a man telling them "Hoover library will be gone in an hour." Sgt. Laura Wilson said police evacuated and cordoned off Meyer and Green libraries. After the telephone call was reviewed, police realized the man was specifically referring to Hoover, which then was also evacuated until about 12:40 p.m.

The rest of the campus remained open at the discretion of each department.

Stanford President John Hennessy released a statement saying he wanted to reassure the campus community that "the university's senior leadership has been considering the best ways to ensure the safety and security of students, faculty and staff in the wake of these events." He said the university's senior staff would continue to assess the situation over the coming days.

City of Palo Alto in emergency mode

Parked police motorcycles lined Ramona Street in Palo Alto after the police department emptied its basement garage area as a precaution. Other emergency equipment, including fire apparatus and ambulances, was parked around City Hall.

Inside, the mayor and city officials reassured the public of their safety in the city.

A heightened police presence was apparent at numerous city facilities, and the city set up a public information hotline to keep residents informed.

In front of Congresswoman Anna Eshoo's Forest Avenue office, a California Highway Patrol car guarded the area, as they are doing for all members of Congress.

Eshoo posted a letter to her constituents on her Web site. "We are stronger than the atrocity of this attack. We will move through this united and emerge even stronger. To every family who is suffering immediate loss or injury, our collective prayers are with you. Every American today is asking God to humbly bless America."

City Manager Frank Benest declined to comment on where police were posted, however, Palo Alto utilities director John Ulrich said security around the city-owned utilities was stepped up.

"There is heightened security at utility sites around town," Ulrich said Tuesday. "Our emergency plans have this already in place."

Mayor Sandy Eakins was joined by council members Bern Beecham, Nancy Lytle, Dena Mossar, Judy Kleinberg, Jim Burch and Vic Ojakian.

Councilman Gary Fazzino was stranded in Washington, D.C. He was scheduled to fly home Sunday from Newark -- by morbid coincidence on Untied Airlines Flight 93, the same flight that was hijacked Tuesday and later crashed in Pennsylvania.

Eakins said the city took precautions because it is "not playing the odds."

"We are letting people know we are utilizing the emergency plans we developed over the years," she said.

Benest, however, said nothing had happened to spark the city's emergency response operations plan.

"We've not received any specific threats, but we are taking a number of precautions," Benest said. "We've put additional fire personnel on standby."

The city also beefed up security at City Hall, posting a police officer at the main entrance, and only employees have access to elevators, Benest said.

"We've coordinated emergency response with the Palo Alto Unified School District," he said. "And we've coordinated with the Independent System Operators (ISO) who operate the statewide electric grid."

Palo Alto Police Chief Pat Dwyer said the department will increase staffing for the next few days.

"We want to convey (to the public) they are safe and secure in their home and business," he said.

Besides setting up a information hotline, the city is posting information on its Web site as well as providing information to KZSU radio and cable channel 26. The city is also e-mailing information to all the neighborhood associations so it can be dispersed on list servers.

"We want everybody to remain calm," Benest said.

"We need to pull together and be tolerant of each other," he said.

Schools provide "stability"

Palo Alto schools stayed open Tuesday, "as we feel that the community looks to us for a sense of security and a sense of stability," said Assistant Superintendent Irv Rollins.

He said district officials were in close contact with city and police officials. The school board meeting scheduled Tuesday night was cancelled, as were scheduled "Back to School" nights at district schools.

Rollins said school psychologists and counselors at every school were available to meet with children who were anxious or sad.

Some parents called the schools with questions, and a few chose to keep their children home from school. But most students went to class. All sent a letter home to parents explaining how events were handled and offering tips on talking with children about the tragedy.

Ruth Malen, principal at Duveneck Elementary school, said her school's goal was to "maintain normal routines and structures at school and to encourage parents to do the same at home."

She said teachers were given discretion to talk with children in their classes about the events if it seemed appropriate. Generally speaking, older children wanted to spend more time discussing the events, while younger children needed only brief explanations, Malen said.

The community responds

The Stanford Blood Center was overwhelmed with nearly 1,000 potential donors Tuesday to the point where staff asked many of them to come back next week when more blood may be needed.

The Stanford Blood Center sites in both Palo Alto and Mountain View faced standing-room only crowds all day Tuesday as residents responded to the crises. The two centers obtained a total of 250 donations.

Leslie White, a housewife and mother of two, was one of the more than 150 donors who went to the Stanford Blood Center in Palo Alto Tuesday. White said she felt "helpless" seeing the television images of such large acts of terrorism hitting so close to home.

Going to the center to donate blood "seemed like one small thing I could do," White said.

Tuesday afternoon, blood collected from the Stanford center was being sent to Sacramento Medical Foundation Blood Center. Five hundred units of blood from Sacramento were being sent cross country in a fire truck, to aid hospitals in New York facing critical blood needs.

Area donations are thereby "helping by proxy," according to Michele Gassaway, the center's community and media relations coordinator.

Gassaway said the Stanford center was asking people to call for appointments "to make sure we have an adequate supply if it is needed."

"Donations made a day from now or a week from now are just as important as ones made today," Gassaway said Tuesday.

Nine local Red Cross volunteers trained in mental health aid for disasters were on standby on Tuesday, ready to be called to any of the scenes of destruction. According to Red Cross Public Relations Manager Deepa Arora, many others called, telling her, "this is what I'm trained for -- how can I help?"

"The local response has been tremendous," Arora said.

She told one story of a man walking in to hand the Red Cross his $600 tax refund check.

Residents respond spiritually

An impromptu candlelight vigil was set up inside Stanford's Memorial Church. The painted images of the angels of Love, Faith, Hope, and Charity sat atop the church and looked down on the worried and huddled believers as they flocked inside.

Churches throughout the area opened their doors to the public to allow them to pray and reflect, and many scheduled prayer services this week.

A peace vigil at Stanford's White Plaza drew nearly 100 people.

Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr, an Stanford undergraduate who organized the vigil, led those in attendance in expressing sorrow over the massive loss of life and calling for the U.S. government to avoid shedding more blood in retaliation.

She warned against jumping to conclusions about the identity or ethnicity of the terrorists. "Will people change the way they feel about justice because of terror?" she asked.

Many in the group shared their thoughts on the day's events and the possibilities that the coming days hold.

Some in the group criticized American policy in Israel and other parts of the world, saying it fostered conditions of oppression -- though they stopped short of saying those conditions acted directly as fuel for Tuesday's attacks.

One of the final speakers echoed the sentiments of many in attendance. "My hope is that Americans will walk away at least learning something."

Students find positive way to respond

Even students responded to the violence in the East Coast.

More than 120 Menlo-Atherton High School students gathered in front of their school Wednesday afternoon to light candles and offer a moment of silence for those who died or are suffering in the wake of Tuesday's tragedy.

In front of the school in a corner cordoned off by the Menlo Park Fire Department, students arranged small, tea-light candles to spell "peace" and laid a yellow rose beneath the letters.

Most students, wearing white ribbons pinned to their shirts, huddled quietly around the candles. Others stood back to watch or shared a hug with a friend. Through loudspeakers a Bob Marley song, "One Love" was playing, with the lyrics, "Let's get together and feel all right."

Along a row of large cement blocks -- usually used as benches -- students had written in chalk a dedication: "For all the loved ones lost in this tragedy."

Student leaders said the idea came about spontaneously as they were talking in their leadership class. The candle-lighting was first and foremost a tribute to those who died. But senior Emilia Cerrillo and sophomore Ian Thatcher hoped to send a message of peace.

Both said they were concerned by President George W. Bush's recent address calling for retaliation against terrorists and those who harbored them.

"We were talking about how, if we could just forgive, how much of a difference that would make," Cerrillo said. "For the U.S., the only superpower now, to say that, would be a great step toward peace and ending the violence."

Senior Blake Cooper, co-student body president, stood before the students and read a quotation from Gandhi: "Through darkness light shines, through death life shines."

"We will make light shine here, we will make life shine here," Cooper said.

Co-president, senior Stephanie Schwab, told her peers that although the events in New York and Washington, D.C. might seem far removed from their lives at school, there were lessons to be learned. She says fights on their own highly diverse campus, though small by comparison, share the same motivations: hatred and intolerance for those who are different.

"Look what 'I don't like you because you don't look like me' can turn into," she said. "We need to represent what we want our country to be like."

Afterward, Schwab said if there was a bright side to be found in the recent tragedies, it was watching how students at her school are pulling together. "This was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing," she said. "Just seeing how students do care shows to me there is hope our generation is going to be OK."

Younger children responded as well.

Students at Juana Briones Elementary School in Palo Alto gave up their precious recess time Wednesday to create cards for New York firefighters and police officers. The first- through fifth-graders used colored pens and pencils, scissors, paste and paper to make cards with such messages as "God Bless You," "Thank You" and "Help America."

Fifth-grade teacher Halimah van Tuyl encouraged the children to find an outlet for their feelings about Tuesday's disaster, and the card-creating idea was born. Ten minutes before recess, van Tuyl's students brought signs to the other classrooms encouraging other children to take part.

"We talked about things we could do to help bring comfort to ourselves and to everyone effected by the tragedy. It's an example of their big hearts. Something positive they can do in the face of all of this destruction," van Tuyl said.

Principal Gary Dalton acknowledged the influence of the media on children and strongly supported van Tuyl's idea.

"This gives them some sense of control in a situation that really defies control," Dalton said.

Second-grader Elizabeth Reynolds drew a picture of a fairy, which she called the "Help America fairy," and fifth-grader Julia Moser's card portrayed a red-white-and-blue heart and the words "God Bless You."

"They've done a wonderful thing for the country and we want to thank them for risking their lives to help save those people," Moser said.

Once completed, van Tuyl and the students will mail the cards to fire and police stations in New York City.

Technology also played a role. Teens throughout Palo Alto used the America Online Instant Messenger, a real time Internet "chat" system, to talk to each other about their connections to the terrorist attacks.

Black mark on the day

Anti-Palestinian graffiti was found at Gunn High School Tuesday morning, written in felt pen on a long cardboard box.

The vandal had written a message, using profanity, telling Palestinians to "go home," said Gunn High School Principal Scott Laurence. The box had been set upright along the east wall of Spangenberg Auditorium, early Tuesday morning. At 9 a.m., custodians spotted the box and brought it inside.

"It was a misdirected backlash against a group of people," said Laurence. "It's wrong."

The school district has not determined who is responsible for the graffiti.

Laurence said he warned teachers to "watch closely" for students who might respond to the tragedy with angry outbursts.

But staff also saw an opportunity to turn the negative incident into something more positive. "It was a wonderful time for us, as a learning institution, to teach about Pearl Harbor and the reaction against the Japanese, and the best way to handle angry emotions when you're in a really unsettling set of circumstances."

Tuesday was, of course, difficult for students and staff, as they tried to process the events of the day. Laurence said he visited 40 to 50 classrooms in the first hour of school and saw people "experiencing a wide range of emotions."

In most classrooms, students and teachers were watching TV, listening to the radio or holding discussions. As the day went on, classrooms almost systematically fell back into their usual routines, he said.

Even as the high school returns to "business as usual," teachers are being asked to carefully monitor their students, who may be struggling to cope with the tragedy.

Stanford physicist says building core melted

The two planes that hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center hit with the force of an atomic bomb, according to Stanford physicist Steven Block.

The World Trade Center towers were designed to withstand being hit by an airplane, but not as large as those that hit, said Block, who is a professor of applied physics and biological sciences and an expert on national security and terrorism.

According to Block's calculations, the energy generated by a fuel-laden Boeing 757 or 767 colliding into a World Trade Center tower is roughly equivalent to one-20th of the energy of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945.

"It's a staggering amount of energy," Block said. "Any aircraft is essentially a flying bomb."

According to Block, the World Trade Center twin towers were designed to withstand "enormous impacts," including being hit by a hurricane or an airplane.

Block said he doubted there were any structural flaws in the design of the twin towers. The plane could have inflicted major structural damage to the periphery of the towers, including passing through an entire floor or knocking out the steel girders on the outside, and still the buildings would have remained standing.

What most likely caused the buildings to collapse was damage to their steel cores, said Block, who acknowledged his expertise does not extend to mechanical engineering.

Block said the explosion appeared to have "heated the core of the building to such a degree that it began to melt." When the melting steel core could no longer support the hundred or more floors above, the buildings collapsed.

Ignited fuel generated 90 percent of the energy in the explosion, Block said. A Boeing 767's fuel capacity is roughly 23,980 gallons, and a Boeing 757 carries roughly 11,466 gallons of fuel.

Block said it was a likely possibility that terrorists had intentionally taken over planes scheduled to travel across the country because they'd be carrying more fuel and would therefore cause more devastating explosions upon impact. <@ENDBULLET>

The following Weekly staff members contributed to this story: Jennifer Deitz Berry, Carol Blitzer, Geoff Fein, Tyler Hanley, Robyn Israel, Don Kazak, Adam Levermore-Rich, Elizabeth Lorenz, Keith Peters, Daryl Savage and Pam Sturner. Mountain View Voice reporter Bill D'Agostino also contributed.