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REGIONAL AIRPORT Opinions differ on handling of crisis



Published: Sun, September 23, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Several officials said they don't know why so many officers came to the airport.

By PEGGY SINKOVICH

and STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

VIENNA -- Township Fire Chief Richard Brannon, the man emergency planners say is supposed to be in charge of disasters at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, went to his fire station Sept. 11 as soon as he heard about events at the World Trade Center.

From the squad room, he saw cars from the Youngstown Bomb Squad racing up state Route 193 toward the airport, sirens wailing. A few minutes later, he saw the Brookfield Fire Department's mass casualty unit traveling the same route.

After a 911 dispatcher called to ask if the Vienna Fire Department could also send a squad to the airport, Brannon said he decided to drive up to see what was going on.

He arrived to find officers from at least 10 police departments, several disaster relief trucks and a caterer who was laying out a spread of food on a folding table.

Passengers: Some of the hundreds of passengers from the six commercial passenger jets forced to land at the airport milled about the parking lot. Others had already been bused to hotels.

"A cell phone was handed to me from the 911 center," Brannon said.

He said the caller asked him: "Are you taking charge for the fire and EMTs at the airport?"

"Everything that could have gone wrong ... there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians."

Some officials say they are pleased with the way security was handled during the situation.

Many other law enforcement and disaster officials say the response to the potential emergency was, itself, a disaster.

"There was mass confusion," said Don Waldron, head of the Trumbull County hazardous-materials response team.

The Trumbull County Emergency Management Agency and local fire and police departments have yet to fully review what happened.

"It is going to look very bad to a lot of agencies," when they do, Waldron said.

Usual procedure: According to the airport's emergency operating procedure, the Vienna police and fire departments should have been alerted first, then the Trumbull County Sheriff's Department.

"They did not follow their own emergency plan," said Ernie Cook, the sheriff's chief of operations. "We heard them dispatching Howland Township on our frequency, so we then figured we should get out there."

Several officials said they don't understand why so many officers came to the airport.

"There was an overabundance of people who had no need to be there," said Linda Beil, director of the Trumbull County Emergency Management Agency.

"It was just total havoc, people everywhere, people just around."

The Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency director, all three Mahoning County commissioners and the Mahoning County prosecutor showed up after seeing television footage of planes landing. All but about 150 passengers had been bused to hotels by the time they arrived.

"There is no jurisdiction when it comes to something of the magnitude of this," said Walter Duzzny, director of the Mahoning County EMA.

"I don't think there was a duplication of services. I think there was an overwhelming need to get the job done."

Contact: Duzzny said he called the airport from the road to say he would be arriving with a catered lunch for the stranded travelers.

The airport is about 15 miles into Trumbull County from Youngstown, where most of Mahoning County's safety agencies are based.

The airport is funded by Trumbull and Mahoning counties and commissioners from both appoint members to the Western Reserve Port Authority Board, which runs the facility.

"Unfortunately, the first impression they [stranded travelers] got of our county is a disaster area," said Ed Reese, a Mahoning County commissioner. "We just wanted to help."

The lunch included tubs of beer, a concern to some Trumbull County law enforcement officials, and several times the amount of food that people at the airport could eat.

The caterer kept stocking supplies in a trailer the Trumbull County Hazardous Materials team brought to the scene for use as a communications center until he was told to stop, said Linda Beil, director of the Trumbull County EMA.

The Salvation Army had previously been asked to provide lunch, said Michael O'Brien, a Trumbull County commissioner, who arrived at the airport later and had trouble getting past a policeman guarding the front gate.

Control of scene: It was not clear to many on the scene who was in charge or where the command center was in the evacuated and cordoned-off airport.

The dispatch of law enforcement officers to the airport was also marked by confusion.

"I was sitting in Mayor Hank Angelo's office when my dispatch told me that they received information that Air Force One was going to land at the airport and they needed our assistance," said John Mandopoulos, Warren's police chief.

"I tried calling the airport for confirmation and couldn't get anyone, so I went up there."

When Mandopoulos and a detective got to the airport, they saw a police officer from Johnston Township and asked where the command center was. They were told that it wasn't set up.

"There usually is a command center at these type of emergency situations," Mandopoulos said. "I then asked who was in charge, and I was told it was the Vienna police chief, so I then asked for him and was told he wasn't there."

Mandopoulos and his detective decided to leave.

"We couldn't find anyone in charge, and no one knew anything, so we went across the street to a small store and got sub sandwiches," Mandopoulos said. "We then went to the Air Force base to find out if they needed any help."

Howland Police Chief Steve Lamantia said he had eight officers at the airport and they also did not know who was in charge.

Vienna Police Chief David Ovesny said he was in charge at the airport, and that everyone should have known that by listening to the inner-city frequency on their radios. If plans for dispatching police agencies were not followed, it was because the emergency at the airport was a new type of crisis.

"I want to sincerely thank all of the agencies which came to the airport Sept. 11," he said.

False threats: During the crisis, authorities at the airport were preoccupied dealing with threats that ultimately turned out to be groundless.

A report by Ovesny, whose department is in charge of security at the airport, says that officers responded to "preliminary information from the airport administration and Continental Airlines employees indicating that a flight may be carrying a bomb."

He later said there was never a bomb threat or any specific information that led him to believe an airplane carried a bomb.

Mark Finamore, a Vienna Township trustee, said he thinks everything was handled well.

"I had captains from the airlines tell me that we treated them better than anyone else," Finamore said.

Tom Nolan, director of aviation at the airport, said "I don't think we could have planned any differently. I think it was as smooth as it could have been."




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