Cleveland looks back at what it was like on September 11

Published: Sep. 11, 2021 at 8:13 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Here in Northeast Ohio on September 11th, 19 News crews witnessed the chaos and the flood of emotions in a city, stunned by the shocking terror attacks.

We’re taking a look back at some of the most powerful and haunting moments from that day.

As the news spread like wildfire, downtown workers rushed into Playhouse Square.

They watched the big screen in disbelief as the terrible events played out on live television.

“It’s very upsetting,” said one downtown worker who was watching the news feeds in Playhouse Square 20 years ago today. “I just can’t say anything. It’s very emotional.”

Cleveland and other major cities were quickly evacuated.

The sounds of the sirens sparked feelings of dread.

“They evacuated from the building, lights went out, they said get out!” said a Pittsburgh man in town for a conference.

Cleveland City Hall emptied out in just minutes, and parents raced to pick up their children from daycare in the Federal Building.

“Now I’m looking at every airplane, every helicopter, anything I hear in the sky and I’m like ok, we just have to go far away from downtown,” said one mother.

There was absolute gridlock as morning rush hour headed in the opposite direction.

Bus after bus filled up with commuters, and guards took up position around the Federal Courthouse.

Many experienced further tense moments, as Hopkins Airport was evacuated.

“They told us to get out of the concourse immediately,” said one passenger.

Delta Airlines ordered Flight 1989 to land in Cleveland after the FBI learned it was on a similar flight path as two of the hijacked planes.

But it landed safely and there was no threat.

U.S. airspace was by them shut down, and the FAA ordered all planes to land at the nearest airport.

An anxious crowd milled around outside the Hopkins Airport’s arrival gate.

“My God, all I can think of is the people, the poor people,” said one passenger.

“It’s a tragic, tragic day for America,” said a pilot.

Many passengers desperately tried to get in touch with loved ones to let them know they were OK.

“I’m fine, I’m in Cleveland and I’m landed safe, they’ve got us evacuated out of the airport but we’re all in one piece,” said one passenger.

Some even started walking out of the terminal, heading toward Route 237, dragging their suitcases behind them.

The lobby of the airport Sheraton hotel was full of people and uncertainty.

“I don’t know what to think, I’m stressed out,” said one stranded woman.

But most air travelers stuck here were just glad to be alive, to have the opportunity to board a plane again.

“To me, it’s so minor compared to so much heartache and suffering,” said a woman from Albany, waiting for a family member to pick her up and drive her home.

As night fell, streets downtown were nearly empty except for police cars, giving it an almost paramilitary feel.

Guards stood watch at City Hall and the Federal Office Building as a Cleveland police chopper patroled overhead.

“It’s... surreal, to see this few people on the street,” said another Pittsburgh man, in town for a conference.

Some shoppers headed to the stores to stock up.

Fear and rumors even started a run on gasoline.

Thousands of people around Northeast Ohio dropped to their knees in prayer for those who started the day just like the rest of us but didn’t make it to the end.

At the Islamic Center of Cleveland, elders said they saw the crisis as a time for unity between faiths.

“This is my country, and I love it and I protect it,” said Haider Alawan of the Islamic Center.

In Garfield Heights, it looked more like Sunday mass than an impromptu Tuesday night gathering.

For many, church was the only place to be this night.

“Family ends up being what’s most important, and going to church, it’s... a relief,” said one parishioner.

There would be many difficult days still ahead, but Clevelanders already were choosing not to be overcome by the tragedy but by hope.

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