The phone lines in the office of Sheriff Bruce Bryant, of York County, S.C., started burning up around 8 p.m. on the night of Saturday, Sept. 15. Helicopters had been seen heading up the Catawba River toward a nuclear power station. Soon two F-16 fighter jets arrived on the scene, and Bryant heard a "tremendous, thunderous noise." A little later, choppers were spotted near the Oconee nuclear plant near Clemson, 90 miles away. Then, shortly after midnight, several more were reported flying over the Savannah River Site, a Department of Energy facility that occupies more than 360 sq. mi. along the border of South Carolina and Georgia. Nuclear waste is disposed of there, and weapons are restocked with tritium. Authorities closed down a highway that runs through the base, until the FBI gave the all clear. But Bryant and his frightened neighbors still don't know what happened that night. Utility-industry analysts say Catawba was subject to a security test, but the feds won't confirm anything. "It's like it never happened," says John Paolucci, of the South Carolina emergency preparedness service. "But it did."
If people in York County are nervous, they've got a huge support group. America has become a jittery nation since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and with good reason. Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and declared that "terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today." Information available to the FBI, Ashcroft continued, "indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents." He didn't bother to add what everyone knew: the next incidents could be even more ghastly than those of Sept. 11. A terrorist group prepared to murder more than 6,000 civilians would feel no compunction about killing 60,000--or 600,000--if it could deploy the necessary weapons of mass destruction. And so the fear of such an attack--and the government's hasty efforts to contain the threat--became the nation's No. 1 item of business.
From coast to coast, Americans experienced things for which they were quite unprepared. State troopers patrolled airports. "It was like traveling through a combat zone," said Marcia Brier, from Needham, Mass., of a trip from Boston's Logan Airport. At Reagan National Airport in Washington, the gleaming, airy terminal that opened in 1997 remained closed. A tanker carrying 33 million gallons of liquefied natural gas was diverted from highly populated Boston Harbor to Louisiana, just as a precaution. In Idaho and Maryland, there were panicky rumors of missing crop dusters. The Los Angeles subway was shut down for the first time in its history, as passengers complained of dizziness and itchy eyes. No chemical agents were found.