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Sept. 12, 2001: Teams mobilize after 'world changing' day

The York County Office of Emergency Management was preparing its 911 center for an open house when the world changed.

Jeanne Moore, a 911 staff member, was in an office inflating balloons for the event when her baby-sitter called to say that a plane had just rammed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City.

"It just snowballed from there," Moore said.

Director of Emergency Manage-ment Cotton Howell quickly gathered his staff and called in representatives of local emergency and government agencies, including the county administration, the York County Sheriff's Office, the Rock Hill Police Department, fire officials, Piedmont Medical Center and the local FBI office.

Around 10:30 a.m, Howell addressed the somber gathering in the emergency operations center in the basement of City Hall.

"We have no reason to think there's a local threat," he said, stressing the importance of focusing on facts, not speculation.

"Communication's going to be critical," Howell said, adding that many cell phone lines might be tied up as residents called friends and family. "Everyone is certainly touched by this."

York County's most likely terrorist target would be Duke Power's Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie, which was put on a heightened level of security Tuesday, Howell said.

Other area businesses were put on alert, but the biggest nearby threat would be to Charlotte's financial center, Howell said.

"The paranoia's going to be our biggest thing, I'm afraid," he added. "Nerves are on end. Something like this can spark anxiety."

A few isolated local incidents reflected Howell's words.

A maintenance worker in City Hall found a religious pamphlet in a stairwell marked with the words: "Where is your destiny?" The worker notified emergency personnel, who assured him that it was nothing to worry about.

A bomb threat was reported at a Subway sandwich shop in Fort Mill but was dismissed as a hoax.

Throughout the day, television screens in two corners of the emergency operations command center flashed surreal images: thick smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center towers, frantic people running for cover, ashes and debris strewn across the streets of Manhattan like the aftermath of a volcanic explosion.

Jerry Harris of Pied-mont Medical Center stared at the TV in disbelief. "This is Pearl Harbor all over again," he said.

Mike Channell, emergency management coordinator, said the emergency team's goal Tuesday was to handle day-to-day emergencies while keeping tabs of the national situation.

Channell said the county's emergency management team trains and prepares for all types of emergencies, from fires to explosions to terrorist attacks. But the team has never practiced for an event of this magnitude, he said.

U.S. Air Force veteran Ralph Merchant, the county's 911 director, said that Tuesday's terrorist attack was the worst he had seen in his 22 years in the military.

The United States has become accustomed to an occasional plane crash or high-rise fire, Merchant said.

"What makes this special, you could have possibly thousands killed, and that just cripples the city, because nobody can plan resources for an emergency like this," he said. "There's so much going on so fast," he said.

After a noon debriefing session, Howell asked Ronny Green, EMS director at Pied-mont Medical Center to say a quick prayer.

"We ask you to lay a special hand on the American people," Green prayed. "Our world has literally changed today."

Howell needed in New York

In the next 24 hours — at the request of federal emergency personnel — Howell will likely be flown to New York by military jet as part of a "portable morgue unit."

After national disasters with staggering death tolls, emergency officials often must set up these temporary morgues in large spaces such as military bases, aircraft hangars or high school gyms.

Howell is one of only six people nationwide trained to manage one of these portable morgues, which are equipped with everything from refrigerated trucks to forensics equipment.

"We just go where we're told," said Howell, who has been sent to other disasters such as the 1999 EgyptAir crash near Nantucket, Mass., that left 217 dead and the 2000 Alaska Airlines crash that killed 88 off the coast of Malibu, Calif. In this case, Howell said, "we're looking at thousands of people dead."

Other area emergency operations centers, law enforcement agencies and businesses did their part in responding to the news of Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

Local agencies on alert

The York County Sheriff's Office went on alert Tuesday morning, but Sheriff Bruce Bryant said he had no reason to believe York County was in any danger.

"We have no indication that we should not feel safe," Bryant said. He said these types of events make the office sit back and assess its preparedness. "We feel like we're as prepared as we can be under the circumstances," he said.

The Chester County Emergen-cy Operations Center posted warnings to county officials, response agencies, emergency staff and others. As a precautionary measure, the center also increased security at local government buildings.

Blakie Shute, director of Lancaster County Emergency Management Preparedness, said emergency officials were in a "watch-and-see" mode — patrolling government buildings and making sure that all local agencies were prepared.

"If anything should happen, we want to be able to respond," Shute said.

Chief Jeff Helms of the Fort Mill Police Department said that officers were trying to keep things "business as usual," but that they were all on standby. They also increased patrol at the schools in the area.

"We were in the office when it happened. At first, we thought it was just a tragic accident until the second plane struck the tower, and then we knew it was state of emergency at that point," Helms said. "The phone has rung non-stop all day with people asking what they should do, particularly those in our elderly community. The officers have done an outstanding job, and we are just trying to deal with each call accordingly."

Precautions at nuclear plants

Duke Power's three nuclear power plants were on heightened-alert status, imposed first by the company and later mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman.

The company took extra precautions and prohibited public access, including to the nature trail at the Catawba Nuclear Station, Wheeless said. The company beefed up security around its three plants on Lake Wylie, at the McGuire plant north of Charlotte and at Oconee in Seneca.

Managers at Duke's Charlotte headquarters, where about 5,000 people are employed, were told Tuesday that they could dismiss nonessential employees. The company anticipates normal operations today, Wheeless said.

Contact Caroline Brustad at 329-4082 or Herald Business Editor Sula Pettibon and Herald writers Tamara Ford and Erica Pippins contributed to this report.