WASHINGTON – Three months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Steve Martinez looked out the window in his office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and got the shock of his life.
“I was at my desk on the 13th floor. It has a window adjacent looking out over the National Cemetery, which is a nice green space and the Pacific Palisades.”
He looked out of his window: “I heard a loud, loud engine noise and looked out my window and saw the belly of an airplane.”
Martinez, an assistant special agent-in-charge with the FBI in Los Angeles, said the psychological wounds from the Sept. 11 attacks were still raw. As a result, “in the whole office on that side of the building, people were diving under desks and taking cover.”
After the smoke from the World War II-era plane cleared, an immediate investigation ensued.
“Apparently, there was a burial organized for a former naval aviator and someone had approved having a flyover in his honor,” Martinez said.
But he still scratches his head about that.
“It was incredible for me that someone would’ve approved something like that at a time when everyone was so hyper-sensitized. It was a nice gesture, but it was really scary to be in this multi-story building and see an aircraft coming at us and not know what it was all about.”
Now, as head of the L.A. Bureau FBI, Martinez reflected back on how the Sept. 11 attacks left a lasting effect on Los Angeles.
“I had just rolled out to get my coffee on my way to the office. I heard about the first plane hitting on the way in. By the time I came out, it was starting to become evident that this was not an accident.”
In the meantime, Agent Steve Gomez was coming to the same conclusion at about the same time.
“There was no more wasting time — get in the car and start driving into the office right away,” Gomez said.
Gomez said the whole thing was “a shock … there was a lot of shock. Lot of disbelief. There was a period of time — we knew it was a terrorist attack, we just didn’t quite know what it was.”
The FBI field office in Los Angeles is 7 1/2 miles downrange from LAX. During the attacks, there was a very real concern that the airport was next.
“This had been an airborne attack, so we immediately transitioned to our off-site crisis management location,” Martinez said.
Los Angeles was not in the plan for al-Qaida that day, but today, 10 years later, Martinez said, “I don’t think there’s any sense of breathing easier.”
In Part 2: Los Angeles is still in the cross hairs