Over the next few hours of Sept. 11, 2001, we watched and listened, horrified, as hijacked planes nearly 3,000 miles away crashed in New York City, then Washington, D.C., and then Pennsylvania. When the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed at 10:28 a.m. EDT in a violent free fall of concrete, steel and fire, our collective innocence came crashing down with it.
Terrorism had struck U.S. soil.
Amid confusion and grief, people along the Midpeninsula responded as best they knew how.
Palo Alto police stepped up security at utilities facilities, City Hall and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo's office, even as then-City Manager Frank Benest urged residents to stay calm.
To provide stability for the city's youth, schools remained open, attempting to keep students on their normal routines.
Flags were lowered to half staff. Most of Stanford Shopping Center closed. The normally bustling Palo Alto Airport ground to a standstill.
Shocked residents congregated, impromptu, to mourn victims, express their fears over missing loved ones and try to console one another.
The strangeness of the day unfolded. In the late morning, Menlo-Atherton High School students heard a roar and looked up to see an Air France plane being escorted by two fighter planes.
"It was kind of frightening, in a way, in that this is supposed to be a free country," Pam Wimberly, the M-A athletic director, said at the time.
People, motivated to help, quickly rallied. Nearly 1,000 showed up at the Stanford Blood Center offices in Palo Alto and Mountain View, overwhelming the staff. Going to donate blood "seemed like one small thing I could do," Leslie White, a mother of two, told the Weekly.
Religious institutions opened their doors to hold vigils for the lost, and the living. The next day, school children wrote thank-you letters to New York firefighters and police officers, decorated with red, white and blue hearts and American flags.
Though 10 years have passed, the ripples of Sept. 11 can still be felt.
The region's youth, who were just children in 2001, saw their views of the world shaped by Sept. 11, and today they speak of the lessons they learned about the fragility of life and security.
Menlo Park members of California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3, who aided in the World Trade Center recovery effort, are forever haunted by their experience — but also proud of their participation.
A group of Palo Alto residents channeled their outrage into a determination to make sure their neighbors are prepared to survive a catastrophe. Those efforts have grown and continue today.
Likewise, law-enforcement staff sought new ways in the intervening years to work more effectively with other agencies and jurisdictions.
To honor the 3,000 victims who lost their lives, and to remember the many more survivors who bear the scars of that day, the Weekly invites readers to pause to reflect on what happened 10 years ago and how the tragedy, and our response to it, has changed our lives.
Palo Alto after 9/11
A decade later, residents and city staff focus on being prepared
by Gennady Sheyner
A week after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, then-Palo Alto Mayor Sandy Eakins publicly asked residents to "face the future unafraid."
"We are only beginning to fathom the staggering effect this will have on our country and the world," Eakins said at the City Council meeting.
Ten years later, these effects are easier to pinpoint. Sept. 11, 2001, continues to shape the city in subtle but palpable ways.
Police officers have greatly bolstered their capacity to share information with other law-enforcement agencies — changes enabled by both cultural changes and Department of Homeland Security grants, which helped fund the technology that made this collaboration possible.
Palo Alto's tech-savvy businesses are now assisting the American war effort.
And "emergency preparedness" has become the leading buzzword among local neighborhood groups.
For Palo Alto Police and Interim Fire Chief Dennis Burns and the city's emergency responders, the event was a wake-up call — a reminder that once unfathomable events are now part of the new reality. Burns said the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon forced Palo Alto to ask tough questions about its own capability to withstand terrorism.
"9/11 burned an image into our minds that these things can happen everywhere," Burns said.
The department had already been thinking about emergency response, thanks in large part to local disasters such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1998 San Francisquito Creek flood, he said. But the attack stirred the community and created a greater sense of urgency in the department.
"I think 9/11 pushed us more, the council pushed us more and the community pushed us more," Burns said. "Internally, we tried to push ourselves and tried to be proactive. It's something we continue to do."
Burns said the department, like others across the nation, took advantage of the federal grants that proliferated after 9/11 to boost its information-sharing capabilities. The new tools include the COPLINK software, which allows Palo Alto police to instantly share information with other enforcement agencies. Before the software became available, Burns said, officers had to call other agencies to get certain information.
There's also the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a multi-jurisdiction agency in San Francisco that was set up shortly after 9/11. The center issues warnings about terrorist threats and allows federal, state, county and local agencies to easily share data.
City leaders have also invested $300,000 in a police mobile-command unit, a vehicle that will be a crucial communications hub in a disaster and is one of the most sophisticated in the Bay Area, according to the department. It has its own dispatch capabilities for emergencies, separate from those housed in the basement of City Hall.
Because of these initiatives and the increased emergency-response training that became the new normal after 9/11, the Palo Alto Police Department is much further along than it was 10 years ago in monitoring potential terrorist threats, Burns said.
"Everyone realizes that we're all in this together," Burns said. "The community and individuals, municipalities and state, local and federal officials — we're all in this together."
While the Police Department focused on security and strengthened its cooperation with federal law-enforcement authorities, the Library Department found itself caught up in the impact of the Patriot Act, which the Congress passed in October 2001. The Patriot Act expanded the law-enforcement agencies' powers to search individuals' records, gather intelligence in the United States, detain immigrants and more.
In response, the Palo Alto Library changed its policies to protect its patrons' privacy from the potentially snooping eyes of law enforcement.
In 2003, the library began to issue written warnings to patrons who signed up for library cards warning them that previously private information about books checked out was no longer private. Records of book fines, once stored indefinitely, were to be purged within three weeks after the fine is paid. Patrons' computer-search history was to be swiftly deleted, as were questions directed to the reference desk.
The changes in the local libraries and police departments were symptomatic of the tension between national security and civil liberty that was playing out in communities across America post 9/11. Not everyone agreed with the library's new policies. Then-City Attorney Ariel Calonne called the newly adopted record-purging policy a "knee-jerk response," though he agreed with library staff's characterization of the Patriot Act as a heavy-handed wartime reaction.
The library's policies have evolved further over the past decade. Now that records are automatically purged, the library no longer issues written warnings to patrons about the Patriot Act. Advances in technology have made it easier for libraries to instantly delete information without the need for staff interaction, Library Director Monique le Conge said. These privacy protections have become part of the library culture everywhere, she said. These days, if someone calls or emails an information request, that information is destroyed as soon as the question is answered, le Conge said in an email.
"Most library activities now automatically include some type of privacy protection, and libraries automatically refer any specific law-enforcement requests to the City Attorney," she said.
As City Hall adjusted to the post-9/11 threats to security and civil liberty, a group of residents began thinking more broadly about the next disaster.
Then-Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg began calling people affiliated with local hospitals, neighborhood groups and major businesses. The goal, she said, was to bring together all the agencies and groups that would have to work together during a major emergency. More than 30 people showed up at the first meeting, representing just about every major city sector, she said.
"It was an enormous gathering involving everyone from Stanford Hospital to police and fire, to AT&T, people from the Stanford Research Park and people from the neighborhood groups," Kleinberg recalled. "None of those people had sat in the same room before. It was quite amazing."
The move toward better emergency preparedness proceeded in fits and starts over the following decade. Shortly after Kleinberg assembled the group, then Police Chief Lynne Johnson took over the group's coordination and, in 2003, turned it into an official organization called the Citizens Corps Council. The city-sponsored group, which included officials from American Red Cross and other organizations, held quarterly meetings to update each other — but, according to Kleinberg, it didn't pursue the type of transformative initiatives she and others envisioned, including a database with contact information of every agency that would be involved in disaster response.
"It changed from an action-oriented group that was just trying to get people to be prepared and using various tools and strategies to make everyone aware who responders would be to a very small group sharing information," Kleinberg said. "That wasn't what it was supposed to be originally."
Now, Palo Alto's drive toward emergency preparedness has once again reignited. The City Council has for the past two years designated "emergency preparedness" as one of its five official priorities. This summer, the council put its budget where its mouth is and agreed to hire a new director to oversee the expanding Office of Emergency Services — a high-level official who would serve as the maestro for the various grassroots groups that currently constitute the frontline of the city's emergency-preparedness operation. Activities that were once the purview of neighborhood leaders and concerned citizens are gradually becoming a major focus inside City Hall.
Mayor Sid Espinosa said the terrorist attack 10 years ago spurred many cities, including Palo Alto, to take a closer look at their disaster-preparedness efforts.
"9/11 got a lot of communities to start thinking about whether they are really ready for a natural disaster or an act of terrorism," Espinosa said. "I know our Police Department started looking at the safety of our buildings, and the neighborhood organizations in the city — though they were more focused on natural disasters — realized that any sort of event requiring mobilization in the community needs to be planned so that we can be prepared."
Businesses also began to adjust to the post-9/11 era. While established giants Lockheed Martin and Hewlett-Packard Co. continued to supply the U.S. military, smaller and leaner companies also opened shop to contribute to the military campaigns. Palantir Technology, a downtown startup that sprung into existence in 2004, has been using its data-gathering and sorting tools to map out organizational charts of terrorist suspects in Afghanistan and locations of improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Palantir was one of four Palo Alto companies — along with HP, Attensity Corporation and Stellar Solutions — listed by the Washington Post in its "Top Secret America" database, which tracks companies that assisted the federal government after 9/11.
"These are Palo Alto technology-based companies that saw the shift in business and responded," Espinosa said.
This Sunday, Palo Alto's current city leaders hope to recreate an atmosphere of inclusiveness, reflection and solidarity at a memorial ceremony at the Palo Alto Art Center. The event will feature flags, bagpipes and a moment of silence and reflection at 9:11 a.m.
People will then be able to stroll to Eleanor Pardee Park, where residents planted a grove of olive trees in honor of 9/11 victims shortly after the attacks.
The trees, which have since blossomed to heights exceeding 15 feet, stand in a ring behind a stone bearing a quote from George Washington's farewell address, encouraging Americans to, "Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all."
Espinosa said Sept. 11 was a "transformative event for our country" even though it happened thousands of miles away.
"Part of patriotism is understanding what it means to be an American and coming together as a country," Espinosa said. "That's what happened in 9/11."