"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.