LA Daily News: On 9/11, Alex Padilla awoke as LA’s acting mayor. Here’s what he remembers

By Ryan Carter

Just 28 with a promising political career ahead of him but still much to learn, City Councilman Alex Padilla hadn’t given much thought to serving as acting mayor of Los Angeles.

Little did he know when he woke up in his northeast L.A home, a series of unspeakable attacks would strand Mayor James K. Hahn in Washington D.C. and leave newly minted politician Padilla in charge. The Pacoima native was at the helm of the nation’s second-largest city.

The date: Sept. 11, 2001.

As the moments of that fateful morning unfolded, so did a mammoth leadership challenge: Trying to maintain calm and clarity in his city in thewake of the sorrow, the questions and the anger spurred by the deadliest-ever day on U.S. soil.

“It took all of about a half a second to realize,” said Padilla, “that Jim Hahn, mayor, was out of town, out of state, and that … wait a second … he’s actually in Washington.”

Like most Americans, Padilla watched the horror unravel on live TV — the towers, the Pentagon, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles city charter was kicking in — making the City Council president the acting mayor.

Flash forward 20 years and Padilla is now California’s junior U.S. senator. But on Friday, Sept, 10, the day before the 20th anniversary of the9/11 terror attacks, the memory of the moment when he realized this was no ordinary emergency is just as crisp as ever.

Padilla recalls an ominous scroll across the bottom of a TV screen: “Four planes unaccounted for headed for Los Angeles.”

“Is that real? Is it not real? You can’t assume it’s not. That sort of unleashed the adrenaline,” he said.

“The chatter among the news folks was if our nation’s under attack and we don’t know by whom, it’s only natural, Washington D.C., New York, who’s the next target, right? New York is the financial capital of the country, Washington is the government capital of the country, but Los Angeles is the second-largest city in the nation,” said Padilla.

This was a morning like no other for Padilla.

Phones! Get Police Chief Bernard Parks on the line. Start making calls. Lots of them. Shower.  Get to City Hall. “Ditch” the car in front of the Cathedral. Sprint to the office.

After consulting by phone with Hahn, Padilla formally activated the city’s Emergency Operations Board, connecting regional first-responders and major city department chiefs.

The city’s residents would soon get an around-the-clock view of their acting mayor. Padilla urged residents to give blood. He showed them how to get traffic information at the city’s website. He’d helm constant press conferences, in English and Spanish.

In his mind’s eye, he can still see Fire Chief Bill Bamattre and an urban search and rescue crew — among the most elite in the nation — requesting to get to New York. And fast.

“I looked into the eyes of the firefighters — women and men — and clearly saw not just a willingness to go, but a desire to go,” Padilla said.

Padilla had to act fast — as mayor, do you keep them in L.A. or do you send them to the center of the attack? After learning there was “no credible threat” in L.A., he approved the trip.

Their flight was the last flight to go before the FAA grounded all air travel, Padilla said he later learned. Within 24 hours, they were on the ground at Ground Zero.

“There were a lot of theories as to who was behind it before we really knew,” he said. “Any Arab-looking individual was all of a sudden viewed with suspicion to many people. But Los Angeles is not that way… Let’s not jump to conclusions. Let’s not stereotype. Let’s not scapegoat.”

It wouldn’t be long before he found himself at the Islamic Center in the mid-Wilshire district with fellow councilman Dennis Zine, imploring Angelenos not to embrace hateful stereotypes in the wake of the attacks.

His three-day L.A. mayorship was non-stop activity and instant decisions, he said. He recalls the constant influx of information, the faces of his Angelo peers, the vigil at City Hall.

Nonetheless, Padilla squeezed in a trip to Tommy’s,  the city’s iconic hamburger spot. The goal: Project a sense that things were OK in L.A.

Padilla paused to remember when, days later, when the L.A. firefighters who went to Ground Zero came home.

“That was an emotional moment,” he said.

Political newcomer Padilla had a rocky start as council president. According to reports from the time, he’d irked advocates of San Fernando Valley secession by removing valley cityhood supporter Hal Berson from a study panel. And some council members were not thrilled about some of his committee appointments.

Suddenly, though, buzz emerged that the three days may have boosted Padilla’s political trajectory.

Padilla shrugged off such talk. Padilla said was just honoring the L.A. charter. Just trying to help his fellow Angelenos during three tough days.

“I was in that position at that time, when this happened,” he said. “You’re either stepping up to the job or I’m not.”

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