by Pia K. Hansen
Spokane woke up to witness a horrific terrorist attack unfolding in New York City and around the Pentagon early Tuesday morning. As people got out of their morning showers and turned on their TVs and radios, they couldn't help but wonder if what they saw was true. The World Trade Center had been hit by two hijacked commercial airplanes and came crumbling down in a cloud of dust and debris before the eyes of the world. At the Pentagon, yet another hijacked plane plowed its way through one of the five sides of the enormous building, which then collapsed. Within hours, all commercial air traffic was grounded in the entire nation, as authorities were scrambling to understand what had happened.
"All I can do is ask people to pray for our country and for the victims of these attacks," said Mayor John Powers, at the day's first press gathering held under a clear but contrail-less sky in the courtyard outside of the Emergency Operating Center on West Gardner. "I also want to thank the police and the emergency crews for their quick response today." Powers was flanked by County Commissioners John Roskelley, Kate McCaslin and Phil Harris, as well as representatives from the Spokane Police Department, the Washington State Patrol and the Sheriff's Department.
Powers went on to say that there was no indication any specific building in Spokane or in the immediate regional area would become a target for further terrorist attacks.
No one wanted to guess why the attack had taken place.
"I don't know why. People ask, 'How can this happen to us?' I don't know, I just don't know," said Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk. "We are all concerned, we all know people, I mean, my sister lives in New York."
Sterk said he had been meeting with the FBI earlier that day and that he felt well informed and prepared to deal with whatever was coming Spokane's way.
"The most important point to make is that we are prepared, and we are reaching out to potential targets in the area," said Sterk. "The Department of Emergency Management has a plan, and we've practiced it over and over again. That plan is a response to any emergency, to something like this but also to earthquakes and ice storms and things like that."
Plan or no plan, Spokane and the Inland Northwest went on to deal with the news in its own way. Red-eyed employees showed up for work, people kept radios and televisions blaring from cars and windows as they tried to cope with their own day's work. Impromptu prayer meetings shot up here and there, and around noon about 300 people gathered at the Clock Tower Meadow in Riverfront Park to comfort one another and pray. Pastors from many congregations spoke there, as did the mayor.
"The thoughts and prayers of the people of Spokane go out to the victims and their families," said Powers. "We enjoy many blessings with our freedom and our democracy, and those are the very concepts that are under attack by the people who stand behind these actions." But Powers also said people should remember not to assign blame for the destruction prematurely.
"Our country is a welcoming and diverse place," he said. "I pray that people do not respond to this with their own terrorism."
Ron Green from the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries then presented an invitation from the Muslim community in Spokane to join the group in a prayer meeting on Friday, Sept. 14, from noon-1 pm at the mosque located at 505 E. Wedgewood.
"Even though we do not have an official affiliation with the Islamic community here in Spokane, we have worked together with them many times, and they are certain to face some difficulty in the aftermath of this, just as what happened after the Oklahoma City bombing," said Green. "I'm concerned we'll take out our feelings of anger and frustration against these people. Please, let's not stereotype an entire religion because of what has happened. We don't know who did this yet. We jumped to conclusions in the case of Oklahoma City, and we were wrong. Let's not do that again."
As people headed back to work and lunch after the prayer vigil, many hung around in groups talking.
"I was just shocked this morning," said LaDonna Remy, a Spokane therapist. "My first concern was that this is war, and it's in our own country. I'm fearful that this may be the beginning of something bigger."
She added that, aside from the shock everyone is obviously in, she found it hard to predict what impact the attack will have on life in Spokane in the future.
"The fact that someone could do this is fearful on its own. Personally, I would definitely give some more thought to flying anywhere right now," said Remy.
Her colleague Jane Roberts agreed. "My first thought this morning was that a lot of people must have died. Then I thought, is that really here?" said Roberts. "Today people are in shock. If this incident spurs a war, that's what we should really be concerned about."
One of the major questions of the day was whether U.S. intelligence and security personnel at the airports had done what they could to protect the nation.
"I don't know, I think we have done a lot," said Brit Decker, who works downtown. "Nobody expected the U.S. to be attacked like this. And right now, nobody knows who did it. I don't think we should just run out and retaliate wildly."
Others were concerned that the U.S. has been underestimating the power of the terrorist groups in the Middle East.
"I think the U.S. is kind of isolated," said Steve Latenser, a retired Hanford nuclear engineer. "I spent some time in Europe once, and it's like Europe is more aware of these things. Over here, it's like everyone is living in dreamland. Americans don't always understand that there is a whole other world out there."
He added that he's concerned terrorist groups will someday gain possession of nuclear weapons. "I think we have underestimated the power of the technology and of some of the weapons we have developed," said Latenser. "All the 'fun' guns and all that is going to be aimed at us now. I sometimes worry that working at Hanford I helped develop some of the plutonium that's going to blow up the world one of these days."