April 27, 2009, 10:36 am
White House Apologizes for Air Force FlyoverBy A. G. Sulzberger AND Matthew L. Wald
Updated, 5:52 p.m. | An Air Force One lookalike, the backup plane for the one regularly used by the president, flew low over parts of New York and New Jersey on Monday morning, accompanied by two F-16 fighters, so Air Force photographers could take pictures high above the New York harbor.
But the exercise - conducted without any notification to the public - caused momentary panic in some quarters and led to the evacuation of several buildings in Lower Manhattan and Jersey City. By the afternoon, the situation had turned into a political fuse box, with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg saying that he was "furious" that he had not been told in advance about the flyover.
At 4:39 p.m. Monday, the White House issued an apology for the flyover. Louis E. Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, who served in the Clinton administration as secretary of the Army, said in a statement:
Last week, I approved a mission over New York. I take responsibility for that decision. While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption. I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused.
The mission on Monday, officials said, was set up to create an iconic shot of Air Force One, similar to one that was taken in recent years over the Grand Canyon.
When President Obama learned of the episode on Monday afternoon, aides said, he, too, was furious. Senior administration officials conveyed the president's anger in a meeting with Mr. Caldera on Monday afternoon.
A senior administration official said that an F.A.A. official notified Mayor Bloomberg's office last week about the flyover. She said that Marc Mugnos, the director of operations in the office of citywide event coordination and management, was the official notified about the Air Force operation.
The flyover, which began around 10 a.m., resulted in widespread confusion and a flood of calls to emergency hot lines. Perplexed officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and other authorities were inundated with calls from anxious ferry passengers, office workers and residents.
The mayor said the Police Department and someone in his administration - he did not say who - received an e-mail from the Federal Aviation Administration late on Thursday, informing them that there would be "a fly-by for a photo-op, as they described it."
However, Mr. Bloomberg said he was not apprised of the flyover until his BlackBerry started buzzing this morning with messages from people asking if he knew what was going on. He characterized it as a breakdown in communication that "will never happen again."
"First thing is, I'm annoyed - furious is a better word - that I wasn't told," he said at a City Hall news conference held to discuss the swine flu cluster in Queens.
In unusually harsh language, the mayor criticized the Defense Department for conducting the exercise and the Federal Aviation Administration for being secretive about it.
Jim Peters, an F.A.A. spokesman, said "the photo op was approved and coordinated with everyone." Notification was made in advance to the mayor's office, "including its 911 and 311 operation centers," the New York City Police Department, the New Jersey State Police, the United States Park Police and other agencies, he said.
The Police Department confirmed that it had been notified about the event but said it had been barred from alerting the public. "The flight of a VC-25 aircraft and F-16 fighters this morning was authorized by the F.A.A. for the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty with directives to local authorities not to disclose information about it but to direct any inquiries to the F.A.A. Air Traffic Security Coordinator," the Police Department said in a statement.
The mayor criticized the secrecy around the flyover. The e-mail notification "did have the normal language of saying this is sensitive information, should be distributed on a need-to-know basis, that they did not plan to have any publicity about it, which I think is ridiculous and just poor judgment," Mr. Bloomberg said.
Why the Defense Department wanted to do a photo-op right around the site of the World Trade Center catastrophe defies imagination. Poor judgment would be a nice ways to phrase it, but they did. I also think that once they had told us, we should have done a better job. Had I known about it, I would have called them right away and asked them not to. It is the federal government and they can do in the end what they please, but I would have tried to stop it. I don't know there's a lot else to say other than they shouldn't have done it.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Monday afternoon that he was unaware of the flyover. At his daily press briefing, Mr. Gibbs initially referred questions to the F.A.A. and the Air Force. When told that those government offices were referring questions to the White House, Mr. Gibbs said: "I have no information on this other than what I saw."
Mr. Gibbs, pressed by reporters, said he had seen news reports of the flyover, but declared: "I was working on other things. You might be surprised to know that I don't know every movement of Air Force One." Later, he added that he would look into the matter.
The flyover was scheduled for 10 to 10:30 a.m. The plane is designated by the Defense Department as a VC-25 but is recognizable to the public as a Boeing 747.
Unaware of the planned exercise, scores of office workers flooded out of buildings, worried about the prospect of terrorism.
"People came pouring out of the buildings, the American Express Building, all the buildings in the financial district by the water," said Edward Acker, a photographer who was at the building, 3 World Financial Center. "And even the construction guys over by 100 North End Avenue area, they all got out of their buildings. Nobody knew about it. Finally some guy showed up with a little megaphone to tell everyone it was a test, but the people were not happy. The people who were here 9/11 were not happy."
Mr. Acker added: "New York City police were standing right there and they had no knowledge of it. The evacuations were spontaneous. Guys from the floor came out, and one guy I talked to was just shaking."
Even the markets dipped shortly after 10 a.m., though it was unclear if the alarm over the planes was a factor. Starting at 10:02 a.m., three main market indexes started dropping precipitously. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 40 points in 10 minutes, starting 10:15 a.m., before it rebounded more than 50 points.
In Jersey City, construction workers were evacuated from a condominium tower under construction at 77 Hudson Street.
The workers, who were on the 32nd floor of the construction site, said the plane circled three times past the Goldman Sachs tower, the tallest building in New Jersey. On the second pass, they said, the jet appeared to be only a few dozen feet from the building - close enough to clip the side of the skyscraper. A fighter followed right behind, mirroring its moves.
The construction site as were other buildings in downtown Jersey City, including offices in the Exchange Place financial complex.
Carlina Rivera, 25, who works at an educational services company on the 22nd floor of 1 Liberty Plaza, said her co-workers were spooked in part because their offices are so close to the site of the 9/11 attack. "As soon as someone saw how close it got to the buildings, people literally ran out," she said. "Probably about 80 percent of my office left within two minutes of seeing how close it got to our building."
Ms. Rivera, who was a high school student in the East Village when the 9/11 attack occurred, added, "I did feel a little bit foolish for staying in the office while everyone left."
Ms. Rivera said eventually there was a message made over the public announcement system that the plane was an advertisement for a movie - which she said that did not coincide with what they were reading online about the plane taking pictures of the Statue of Liberty. "It was a little confusing. What was the truth?" she said.
Ms. Rivera continued: "Of course, everyone had to take out their cellphones and say, ‘You can come back, it's O.K.' Eventually they returned with some sort of comfort food. We feel like we should have at least been warned."
At 1 Liberty Plaza, according to another person who works in Lower Manhattan, a loudspeaker announcement said at 10:55 a.m., "Planes were observed flying low over Lower Manhattan, but were part of an approved federal action."
Johnny Villafane, 42, of the Upper West Side, said, "The plane did a 360. There was a vibration. The glass in the skyscrapers was shivering." He added, "It sounded like the building were cracking, everything started shaking. I thought the plane was coming down."
Sidney Bordley, a floor director in an office building at 1 Battery Park Place, said, "People were running out of the office, claiming they saw a commercial flight being pursued by F-16's." He added, "There was some confusion and a little excitement."
A group of financial services workers, who were gathered outside the same building but declined to give their names, described their reactions. "I saw the landing gear and I was out of here," one said. Another said: "There were people in my elevator, sweating and shaking. There were women
crying. It was not an experience to be taken lightly."
Andrew Burke, 49, a T-shirt vendor from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said: "People panicked and ran into the streets thinking the worst." He added, "It's a real shame they couldn't tell the city what they were going to do."
Notify NYC, a pilot electronic service intended to quickly provide emergency alerts to New Yorkers who sign up for them, did not prove particularly effective.
Text messages and e-mail messages explaining the flyover were sent out at 10:38 a.m., after the exercise was already scheduled to end. "The community was startled, and would have preferred advance warning," said Catherine McVay Hughes, vice chairwoman of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan.
Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority, which runs the region's three major airports, said the low-flying planes prompted confusion. "This has nothing to do with any of our airports," he added.
The Staten Island Advance reported that the Federal Aviation Administration had authorized the flights and that the flights were "pre-planned."
President Obama was not aboard the plane, nor was he in the New York area. He gave a speech at 9 a.m. at the National Academy of Sciences in downtown Washington.
It was not the first time that flyovers had left anxiety in Lower Manhattan.
In February 2002, two Air Force F-16 fighters flew low over Manhattan as they made their way back to Atlantic City after a regular patrol. Officials later acknowledged that "the timing and location" of the flyover were "poorly coordinated."
And in May 2003, a Continental Airlines flight carrying American troops returning from Iraq received permission to fly low around the city, a decision that also rattled nerves.
Jessica Bagdorf, Sewell Chan, Jennifer 8. Lee, Colin Moynihan, Fernanda Santos, Daniel E. Slotnik and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting