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Pasadena Leaders Remember the City’s Reaction to 9/11 Attacks

Published on Friday, September 10, 2021 | 6:13 am
From top left, clockwise: Bernard Melekian, former Pasadena Police Chief; at top right, Pasadena residents and producers of the TV show “Frasier” David and Lynn Angell, who died in one of the jetliners which crashed into the Twin Towers; Cynthia Kurtz, former Pasadena City Manager; Paul Little, former City Councilmember; lower left, Chris Holden, former City Councilmember; and John Perez, who was appointed head of the Pasadena Police Dept.’s counterterrorism unit in the wake of 9-11.

When terrorists launched attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. 20 years ago, chaos erupted in cities around the world, including Pasadena, where the attacks would have reverberating effects that continue to this day.

At 8:46 a.m. terrorists flew a hijacked American Airlines plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Nearly 20 minutes later, a  United Airlines airplane struck the south tower.

Former Pasadena Chief of Police Bernard Melekian, who is currently the Chief of Police of Santa Barbara

At 9:37 a.m. American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon in Virginia.

The attacks left 2,996 people dead. Among those killed in the three plane crashes were Pasadena residents and producers of the TV show “Frasier” David and Lynn Angell.

Then Police Chief Bernard Melekian received a call from his soon-to-be wife Nancy who told him to turn on his television.

Like the rest of the nation, Melekian was shocked by what he assumed was a horrific accident, but came to realize when the second tower was struck that the nation was under attack.

“My first order of business was to go to the Police Department and get started to get people into what was going on,” Melekian told Pasadena Now. “We were getting a lot of reports over the first few hours about additional planes inbound for Los Angeles to attack LA.”

The attacks happened on a Tuesday morning, a day when many city officials came to work late after attending City Council meetings that stretched deep into the night.

The night before the City Council approved the inclusionary housing schedule an in-lieu fee in a meeting that lasted just over three and a half hours, contributing to a more than a 12-hour day for then-City Manager Cynthia Kurtz.

“It was a Tuesday morning, so we’d had council the night before,” Kurtz recalled. “I didn’t usually go in early on Tuesdays after a council meeting. I was sitting here and I was just numb. I mean, I was totally numb and I got a call that said, ‘people are starting to come into City Hall. Are we open?’ I had to wake myself up and go, yes, I will be there soon.”

Into action

Kurtz contacted Melekian and asked if there were any threats to Pasadena. The rumor mill had already started about airplanes heading toward Los Angeles, and that one was targeting Pasadena.

“There were all kinds of rumors,” Melekian said. “There were at least three I can count. Barely serious threat reports of inbound aircraft that were targeting Los Angeles and one targeting Pasadena. And nobody wavered. We got through all that.”

Melekian also visited the New Horizon School, which touted itself as a progressive Muslim school on Orange Grove Boulevard, to make sure the students and staff were safe as an anti-Muslim backlash began sweeping the nation after it was announced that the terrorist group al-Qaeda was behind the attacks.

“I was a little concerned about whether or not there’d be any backlash about that,” Melekian said. “And there really wasn’t. It was actually pretty amazing. The school staff told me that they’d been bombarded with phone calls, but it was from people that lived in the community that wanted to see if they could help, and did they need people to come and be with them. There were never any incidents reported there.”

But employees and students at the school weren’t the only ones receiving support.

Kurtz rallied the department heads at City Hall and soon employees with family members and connections in New York were receiving needed support.

Kurtz praised the city employees that worked under her at the time and said their commitment made it easier to manage the day.

“We were pretty quiet, but everyone supported each other and people interacted with each other where they saw there was any kind of a special concern,” she said.

“I don’t know to this day because I wouldn’t know, and there’s no reason the city manager should know how many employees may have taken advantage of some special one-on-one counseling. But we certainly let everyone know that it was available if they were having individual problems.”

But while city officials were holding things together in Pasadena, one City Councilmember was desperately trying to get back to the Crown City.

Chris Holden, who now serves in the state Assembly, served as president of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority in 2001. Coincidentally, Holden was in Montreal for the American Association of Airport Executives to meet on safety, planning and operations in U.S. airports.

“While preparing for the morning sessions, I had the “Today Show” on, as part of my morning routine, when Melanie called out that breaking news was happening in New York. I joined her in watching in real time as the reporter described an apparent attack on the World Trade Center. Spellbound, we processed, like everyone else. The reporters attempted to gather information to explain what had just happened when we witnessed the second plane appear in the sky above her, then disappear into the second tower.”

Two days later, after many failed desperate attempts to leave Canada to get home to concerned family members, Holden and his wife were able to navigate their way out of the country where it was revealed that terrorists had traveled to Boston to carry out their plan.

“To say the least, the tension and chaos of what had taken place and uncertainty of what was next, shocked the senses of us all,” Holden said. “Terrorists using airplanes for their brazen attacks was beyond the pale and stirred a patriotic fire like no other event before or after.”

Within months of his return home,  the federal government established new security protocols and a national security baggage screening system which, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport became the first airport in the country to implement. That system is now common at every airport in the world.

“After 9/11, our lives and the world have never been the same,” Holden told Pasadena Now.

The aftermath

According to former City Councilmember Paul Little, local threats quickly became a major concern.

A neighbor told Little while he was walking his dog that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Little rushed home in time to see the second one hit.

Little was having work done on his house and spent the morning with the demolition contractor in his den watching in disbelief.

“Everyone was concerned about local threats, especially since we have America’s Stadium here — the Rose Bowl,” Little said. “I recall Pasadena did assure residents that we were in contact with appropriate federal authorities and that no imminent threats to Pasadena had been identified.”

The concern over the Rose Bowl moved quickly to New Year’s when hundreds of thousands of people would be in town for the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl Game.

“We pretty quickly shifted thinking toward New Year’s and the events here and how we would need to retool security to make sure the events were safe and secure. That happened pretty quickly, as I recall,” he said.

Within a week, current police Chief John Perez, then a commander, was sent to New York as the department began developing a new approach to planning security and safety for the annual parade and bowl game.

“My life was changed instantly as the reports being aired in the morning brought me incredible sadness before the frustration overcame me,” Perez recalled. “I knew the world would never be the same in my lifetime.”

Perez said he met many people who lost family members, firefighters who lost their entire team, and it was beyond devastating.

“I also learned the incredible resilience of the New York people and their love of life and the mindset to push forward. It stays with me in everything I do today. I will never forget walking the site of the Twin Towers and the pain inside of me,” he said.

The training paid off several months later when there was a credible report of a plane heading toward Pasadena on New Year’s Eve.

The federal government had already declared the space over Pasadena a no-fly zone during the holiday festivities, a practice that continues to this day.

The incident led to a renewed unity in the country, less than a year after the polarizing presidential election between former Vice President Al Gore and former Texas Gov. George W. Bush led to a recount in Florida.

“There was a period there of almost unparalleled national unity, and that national unity played itself out in Pasadena,” Melekian said. “There was nobody that talked about ‘what about me?’ It was all about ‘what can I do for the city?’ ‘What can I do for the nation?’ It was pretty impressive.”

That unity is hard to imagine today as social media is typically used to promote controversy and division.

After the incident, Congress quickly passed the PATRIOT Act, co-authored by U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), which allows authorities to enter the homes of suspected terrorists without a warrant and detain suspected terrorists indefinitely. The act also provided the government with broad surveillance powers.

Before long, the nation was embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq. The War on Terror, which saw a key chapter unfold just weeks ago in Kabul, had begun.

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