In the dark moments of Tuesday morning, Washington's emergency broadcast system, the one so publicly and repeatedly tested on local radio, was never activated, leaving the public unsure what was false, true, open, shut. Many District government cell and desk phones died from overload, and the backups for top leaders -- 10 satellite phones -- were of no help because nobody had them. They were stored in an office, leaving scattered officials unable to give or get orders swiftly.
At 10:16 a.m., the mayor's chief of staff dispatched an e-mail telling hundreds of workers in the government's Judiciary Square headquarters to "EVACUATE BUILDING NOW," only to be countermanded less than four minutes later. Perhaps most critically, city police did not set in motion a well-crafted, well-practiced plan to cope with an imminent terror assault -- because they had none.
"We had to create one," said D.C. Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.
That Washington would be at the cross hairs of any terrorist's bombsight has been a given within law enforcement for years, the subject of seminars and task forces and drills, but the attacks Tuesday on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a real-world test that exposed a vulnerable city.
"Clearly, from what we've seen from this unprecedented attack, we need a higher level of preparedness," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). "It's a top priority . . . that we need to be practicing across the government for all of this."
For police, especially, Tuesday underscored just how unprepared they were. The department could not tell its 3,800 officers to go to Stage 3 or Level 5 of response, Gainer said, because it had no stages or levels. There was no list of streets to close to thwart threats, or to make one-way to ease evacuation. Nor were there guidelines spelling out which officers should go where, which buildings must be shut or which emergency vehicles ought to be marshaled. The department had considered having such a plan, Gainer said, "but it was never in the center of my desk, and it was never finalized."
Likewise, the D.C. Department of Health discovered Tuesday that it had no radios to participate in the network used by hospitals to swap information on bed availability and other resources, an essential capability if there are mass casualties. "It was not the ideal situation from our standpoint," said Larry Siegel, the department's deputy director.
When the federal Office of Personnel Management decided about 10:30 a.m. that 260,000 federal workers -- 180,000 of them in the city -- were free to go and thus would begin choking streets, federal officials told some city officials, but not police. "We had to learn that from the media," Gainer said. That was also how they learned that bridges over the Potomac River had been closed to inbound traffic, apparently by federal officials, he said.
On Capitol Hill, fire alarms that might have announced a need to evacuate the House and Senate were not used, a long-standing evacuation plan never went into effect, and escape-route maps were outdated. In the frightening moments after American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, people on the Hill often did not know what to do or where to go. One aide said that when colleagues called the U.S. Capitol Police seeking guidance about leaving, the response was: It's up to you.
"There clearly was no plan that was known to members, Capitol Police or leadership that was implemented," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee that oversees the Capitol Police.
Lt. Dan Nichols, a spokesman for the Capitol Police, said that although everyone got out, "it is incumbent on us to do a comprehensive review and make improvements."
What happened downtown -- clogged traffic as workers reacted to live television reports and headed home -- was predicted as recently as July, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local officials concocted a scenario in which terrorists release poison gas at hot dog stands, one at 17th and D streets NW and one on the Mall near the Museum of American History.
That imagined chaos led FEMA and the director of the city's Emergency Management Agency to conclude that, when terror strikes, the public must be given information within an hour to knock down rumors, explain the fastest routes out of town and pinpoint areas to avoid. Use the Washington Area Warning System, the radio network whose tests are familiar to all, they urged. Or call an immediate news conference.
On Tuesday, the city had a news conference, but it took place at 1 p.m., more than three hours after the American Airlines flight struck. By then, countless area residents had heard media reports -- all found to be bogus -- that a bomb had exploded at the State Department, a fire had broken out on the Mall, and the Capitol itself had been hit. In retrospect, the city should have used the radio network, because this was not a test but, "guess what, a real emergency," said D.C. Emergency Management Agency Director Peter G. LaPorte, who was at an emergency management conference in Montana at the time.
After July's simulation, LaPorte and FEMA had also urged the creation of a plan that would lay out how the region would respond to a terrorism incident, and such an effort got underway. But its completion date -- at least before Tuesday -- was spring 2002.
"It's clear these [emergency response] things didn't happen Tuesday because we didn't have a plan," said Bruce Baughman, a top FEMA official. "If this doesn't get people committed to it, I don't know what will."
The District and other jurisdictions have had guidelines for confronting emergencies generally, especially hurricanes and snowstorms. And the city has also crafted specific playbooks for other large, potentially disruptive events that it knows are coming, such as the possible computer breakdowns associated with the millennium, and protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. But, Baughman said, "we need to be thinking whether we're putting enough into preparing for the event that's not scheduled."
Unscripted events of the scope and ingenuity of those last week are, perhaps, unimaginable. Counterterrorism experts and government officials have largely envisioned small bombs and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as the most likely threats to the nation's capital, not multiple planes that have been turned into precision-guided bombs. Even if his department had had a terrorism plan, Gainer said, it is unlikely that its contingencies would have included what to do when a commercial jet packed with fuel and flown by a suicide crew appears overhead.
As it was, some city officials said, things went reasonably well Tuesday despite glitches, noting that traffic snarls downtown were largely gone in three hours. City officials opened major thoroughfares to one-way outbound traffic, consulted with Metro to keep trains running and looked at a Y2K emergency plan to identify 120 key intersections for police to man. "To dump all those people on the street and get them out is an amazing accomplishment," said John A. Koskinen, the deputy mayor for operations and city administrator. "That's not something you can practice."
Within minutes of the first World Trade Center attack, the Metro system smoothly went to a higher level of security, said its police chief, Barry McDevitt. It remained open throughout the day, although many commuters apparently did not know that. Similarly, hospitals, acting on their own, quickly alerted staff and trauma units in a response "the likes of which I have never seen in all the years I have lived here, and that's been off and on since 1956," said Siegel, of the health department.
And Arlington County, site of the Pentagon attack, activated its long-standing emergency response plan within 10 minutes, having drilled for the possibility of an attack on the Pentagon "because of the nature of what goes on there," said Fire Chief Edward P. Plaugher.
Of course, the day was not a full test of the District's abilities because, in the end, nothing happened to it. No airplane struck. No one was killed or injured. Michael Pietrzak, of Washington Hospital Center, the area's largest trauma and burn center, said it would have been overwhelmed if an airplane had actually struck downtown. Improving its emergency room capabilities is a matter of "national security," he said.
"We were lucky this time," LaPorte said. "But look across the river. Terrorism is here."
The city's mayor, who had been feeling ill and was late for a meeting, was still at home next to the Watergate apartment complex, watching the live reports from New York, when his building shuddered. He looked out the window -- and saw the Pentagon in flames. "I'll never forget that," Williams said, "for the rest of my life."
His security detail suggested that he leave the city immediately, but Williams wanted to go to the emergency management center at the Reeves Municipal Center, at 14th and U Streets NW. There, with phone systems swamped, he found officials struggling to reach city administrator Koskinen at Judiciary Square. Unable to reach Koskinen and after consulting with his boss, Chief of Staff Kelvin J. Robinson sent the e-mail telling workers to evacuate. Robinson said he did so because "we had continuous reports of incoming planes." But Koskinen quickly reversed that order with his own e-mail, saying, "We need to keep the government functioning."
Downtown, in the minutes before the Pentagon was hit, Gainer and Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey were in the police command center, watching events in New York unfold on six giant television screens. Secret Service and FBI agents arrived with the troubling, and wrong, news that three airplanes were believed to be headed directly for the District and its national symbols.
Ramsey and Gainer began improvising, grabbing elements of plans developed for earlier events. They mobilized the civil disturbance unit, as they had for IMF/World Bank protests; called in off-duty officers, as they do for presidential inaugurations; and implemented the traffic plan drawn up for the millennium.
"We just did the things that made sense," Gainer said.
Even if no terrorism plan could have foreseen last week's method of attack, having laid out a baseline response would have helped, Gainer said. "It would be better if I could have said, 'Let's go to Level One-Code Two,' and that would mean everybody would do the following 10 things."
In the days since, the police have scrambled to tack together such basics, and Ramsey has met with Metro's McDevitt and with the Secret Service so that each agency knows the others' intentions. When a plan is set, Gainer said, "all the commanders and personnel will know what that means, vis-a-vis them." LaPorte held an emergency drill Thursday night.
Beyond that, FEMA's Baughman suggested that the city cannot develop and execute an overall plan when its Emergency Management Agency has a staff of 33 and a budget of $2.2 million. The District does have plans for a bunkerlike command center from which all of its agencies could be operated, but that might not be ready for two years.
Smaller improvements, however, have already been made.
The city's health department now has the ability to monitor the hospital's radio network.
Congressional leaders said Friday that new evacuation plans for the Capitol complex have been developed and that each member will receive a laminated card with routes and emergency phone numbers.
And top city officials now have a more certain way of staying in touch, because the 10 satellite phones have been delivered to their offices.
Staff writers Jo Becker, Patricia Davis, Avram Goldstein and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.