It was a scene of unspeakable horror — a surreal sequence of events that unfolded before the eyes of thousands in downtown New York this morning.
A hijacked passenger jet hit One World Trade Center, the northern tower of the landmark 110-story World Trade Center, at about 8:50 a.m. ET. A second commercial jet hit the tower's twin building about 10 minutes later.
Within an hour, the southern tower collapsed in a deafening roar, enveloping lower Manhattan in a 20-story-high wall of cloud of dust, ash and debris that billowed up Broadway and overtook thousands of people fleeing the melee. The northern tower collapsed several minutes later, engulfing the southern tip of the island of Manhattan in smoke, ash and rubble.
Police, firefighters and FBI agents ran alongside thousands of panicked workers, screaming for them to get as far as possible from the area. Police had feared the main sections of the destroyed buildings might fall north, crushing people; there was also concern about additional terrorist attacks in other parts of the financial district, TriBeCa, Soho and the South Street Seaport.
"I was looking at the smoke and saw a plane heading low over lower Manhattan," said 33-year-old Jennifer Tammi, a doctoral student who was taking an elevated subway to classes at Columbia University in upper Manhattan. "It banked and headed straight for the middle of the other tower. It looked like it flew right through the building."
Calm, Then Chaos
As people began flowing out of the stricken buildings, the scene became increasingly chaotic, according to Katherine Fegan, who works at Salomon Smith Barney. "Many people were crushed people were going crazy, crying, and everyone was running," she said. "Five minutes later and I would have been in that building."
Injured people were spread in a wide area, including burn victims and survivors who lay on the sidewalks after collapsing from shock and exhaustion. Dust covered the shoes and clothing of thousands of dazed people stumbling north. Many people held their hands to their hearts and heads, mouths open.
"Why would someone do this to us?" sobbed Sonya Fernandez, a receptionist with a law firm who was a block away from One WTC, the northern building, when the first jet hit. "I heard this horrible explosion and when I looked up there was a fireball coming out of the building. I dropped my bag and just started running."
When the first plane hit the northernmost building, some inside thought it was an earthquake. Others suspected a bomb.
"I thought it was a bomb," said one witness. "The ceiling started to collapse and then we evacuated." The man was on the 81st floor when the plane hit, and he and his co-workers ran down all 81 flights of stairs to escape the disaster. They were soaked with sweat and water from the sprinklers when they emerged from the building.
An Explosive Shock
For more than an hour, evacuation efforts remained relatively calm as thousands of people poured out of the two buildings and other offices surrounding the dense business district. But after the first tower collapsed, it was complete pandemonium, according to eyewitnesses.
"At first it was calm and orderly; people were going down the stairs and helping each other," said Tom Grassi, an executive who was in the North Tower. "Later people seemed to realize how bad it really was and it became complete bedlam. There was a lot of shoving and trampling just to get out and get away from there."
As Grassi was making his way out, he witnessed "hundreds" of rescue workers rushing in. Some witnesses said they saw people jumping from windows in the World Trade Center. Others had run to the roof, hoping to be airlifted to safety. So far, about 200 firefighters are unaccounted for, according to media reports.
Outside, shocked survivors and witnesses gathered in the streets, standing in an inch and a half of ash and dust and a torrent of falling debris and papers. Cell phones and many pay telephones were inoperable in the wake of the disaster.
After the two buildings collapsed, the scene became eerily quiet. Most were in a state of shock, wandering up and down the streets. Many were crying, with many others trying to comfort those that had just witnessed first-hand one of the most horrific and devastating disasters in American history.
"We pray that your sister will be OK," one group told a grief-stricken woman sitting on the sidewalk. "She will be OK. God will make sure she is OK."
New York's intricate subway system was shut down shortly after the second attack, leaving thousands of people with nothing but their two feet to make their way out of the downtown core area. Virtually all businesses closed in the downtown core and most businesses throughout all of New York sent their workers home. Few were lucky enough to hail a cab.
Along New York's main thoroughfares, people outnumbered cars and taxis, walking up the middle of the street in a mass exodus from the lower part of Manhattan. Some shops set up tables with free water and juice; others set up radio speakers, attracting throngs of people listening to the latest developments. Buses packed with passengers inched past bus stops where hundreds lined up waiting for transportation.
A large group of people gathered at the southern tip of Central Park to listen to the unspeakable events unfolding on radio broadcasts.
Speaking in a slow, stunned tone, Tani Hironaka, who had been on the 80th floor of One WTC, said: "I thought it was an earthquake at first." The buildings are no longer there.