Nightmare Shatters Manhattan Morning
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 2:11 p.m.
NEW YORK, Sept. 11 -- Jet-fuel fireballs billowed orange when two jetliners powered into the tallest buildings on the New York City skyline. The air fast turned black and acrid, and some workers jumped from shattered windows of the World Trade Center's twin towers as debris and shredded office supplies showered the streets of lower Manhattan.
Refugees from the burning buildings raced and staggered outside into what had been, a few minutes earlier, a crystalline day. Some screamed, others cried out, others sat on curbsides in mute shock, their faces and their business suits streaked with soot. The unhurt supported the wounded, with one man helping a stranger who had lost much of his skin.
Terrorists had exploded their bombs before, including one at this very same place, but no one had ever experienced anything as stunning as today's attack on the World Trade Center. Witnesses described watching one of the towers collapse, saying it looked as though one of the best-known landmarks in the country had simply melted.
Fireman Carlos Muniz, draped in soot, lined up victims beside the smoldering buildings.
"Some were alive, some were dead, some were really badly burned," Muniz said. "It just rained and rained soot, and it was dark. When you see cops running, you know you've got no chance."
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said the attack caused a "horrendous number of lives lost" at the twin towers, where about 50,000 people worked. The first plane hit shortly before 9 a.m., and the second about 25 minutes later. No accurate estimate of the number of casualties was available this afternoon.
Giuliani ordered an evacuation of the lower part of Manhattan and said the primary election for the city had been canceled. Subway service stopped. Airports were closed. With cellular telephone systems out of service, Manhattanites lined up at phone booths.
Clusters of people gathered around hot dog stands to listen to radios. Parents pulled their children from schools. New York Gov. George Pataki announced he was sending National Guard units.
Valerie Johnson stood in Foley Square, which became a staging area for fire and rescue teams that arrived from miles away. They tended the wounded as a long lick of flame crawled toward the top of one of the two towers. She screamed, "My niece works in 7 World Trade Center. I'm trying to get in touch with someone. Oh God, oh God."
Black and gray clouds enveloped the buildings. An enormous rumble, described by one witness as sounding like thunder, only lasting longer, shook the ground. One of the buildings began to collapse. A few moments later, witnesses said, the top of the tower simply was not there.
Viewed from several miles away on the Long Island Expressway, where traffic came to a stop, the blackened towers looked to one witness like smokestacks, or burning cigarettes.
On the ground, well-heeled and casually dressed workers alike streamed north, away from the towers and the financial district. Many gasped and cried. Eyes burning, nostrils sometimes burning and sinuses filled with phlegm, some plunged their heads into city fountains.
Dave Kansas, at home in his Broadway apartment, heard the first jetliner crash into one of the towers and ran to see. He arrived just in time to watch the second plane hit, and a fireball of igniting jet fuel billow out the building's side. Debris poured everywhere.
"It was gruesome. People were falling out of the building from very high up. People started crying," Kansas said. He described watching people's hands tremble as they tried hurriedly to work their cellphones.
Rick Nessel is a management consultant whose 20th-floor office is a block away from the World Trade Center.
"I was sitting at my desk and heard the explosion and at first thought it was maybe the air conditioning ducts imploding or something. Then I heard people who were sitting by the window scream," Nessel said. "We saw things falling and thought it was debris but it wasn't. They were bodies."
Nessel hurried to his wife's office as one of the towers collapsed.
"It was surreal."
Brooklyn resident Alex Battles was at home, getting ready for work, when he heard the explosion. He assumed somebody was using dynamite on a construction site. Someone on the street told him what had happened. Then he saw papers fluttering across the East River and into Brooklyn. He made it into Manhattan and watched from his office at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue.
"The south tower seemed to lean toward the east as it went down," he said. "The second one went straight down."
Streets became covered with ashes -- ankle-deep in places -- and vast quantities of office paper littered the ground, along with stray shoes, pocketbooks and broken bits of computer equipment. Soon, police cordoned off the area, to allow rescue crews to work.
"I see something that's unimaginable," said former New York police commissioner Howard Safir. "Nobody would ever contemplate that we would lose the World Trade Center. You have to treat it like a war zone. I know that every ambulance and every fire truck in the city has been called in and dispatched there."
Much that was ordinary came to a stop. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq never opened. Marriott announced that that all its New York hotels were being evacuated. Hockey star Eric Lindross, set to begin a triumphal arrival tour, saw his appearance on the morning Regis and Kelly talk show canceled. For one day, at least, he was invisible.
With traffic knotted and the subways shuttered, workers streamed across Manhattan's bridges in the late morning, headed home. Many taxis were headed uptown, their off-duty lights on, accepting no passengers. Strangers all over town talked with one another, trading news and commiseration.
At the NYU Downtown Hospital, medical volunteers hurried to help. Lightly injured victims sat in waiting rooms, some crying, some covered with white dust. A police man walked through the room, asking for details, looking for people still unaccounted for.
Verrette Abel, who worked on the 44th Floor of World Trade Center One, spoke of her horrific morning. It was nearly 9 a.m., and a group of workers were standing around, talking. The building started to shake and sway. She looked out a window and saw a dead body on the ground. Above, black smoke.
Abel and her colleagues walked down 44 flights and out into the street.
"On the plaza, you could see all these bodies lying all over the place," Abel said. "The cops were like, 'Move it! Move it!' There's another explosion. I look back and I can see all this black smoke. I try to get into a police car, but I can't. I run into this building. I hear another boom. I can't believe it."
Staff writers Rachel Nichols Alexander, Richard Cohen, Christine Haughney, Serge Kovaleski and Sally Jenkins contributed to this report.