Terrorist Attack Hits NYC, D.C.
By Alan Elsner, Reuters
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Sept. 11) - Three hijacked planes crashed into major U.S. landmarks on Tuesday, destroying both of New York's mighty twin towers and plunging the Pentagon in Washington into flames, in an unprecedented assault on key symbols of U.S. military and financial power.
Loss of life was expected to be catastrophic from the collapse of the giant towers of the World Trade Center where roughly 40,000 people work. The two 110-story towers collapsed one at a time in a huge cloud of smoke and fire two hours after the initial impacts.
Desperate people were seen jumping out of the burning towers before they collapsed.
President George W. Bush, facing the first big test of his eight-month presidency, called the deliberate aerial assaults an "apparent terrorist attack," and vowed to hunt down and punish those responsible.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, called the attacks, "this generation's Pearl Harbor." The European Union's External Relations Commissioner said the attacks constituted "an act of war by madmen."
The attacks, the worst on the U.S. mainland in modern history, plunged the country into chaos and panic, paralyzing communications, forcing the evacuation of key buildings, closing markets, schools and even theme parks. Sirens screamed as terrified people rushed through the streets seeking safety.
BUSH WHISKED TO UNDISCLOSED LOCATION
Even America's pastime could not escape. Major League Baseball canceled all 15 of Tuesday's scheduled games. The Walt Disney Co. temporarily shut its U.S. parks and began assessing global operations.
Bush cut short a trip to Florida and flew at high altitude to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for a brief stop before taking off again for an undisclosed destination. He said he had taken all appropriate security precautions to protect Americans and ensure the functioning of the government.
"Freedom itself was attacked but freedom will be protected," he told reporters. The U.S. military was put on the highest alert at home and abroad.
Early speculation about the source of the attack centered on Saudi-born guerrilla leader Osama Bin-Laden.
Airline officials and other authorities said four planes -- two from American Airlines, two from United Airlines -- had crashed. They said the four were carrying a total of 233 passengers, 25 flight attendants and eight pilots.
"This is total war, I think this is a wake-up call for America. This is a war, a real war," said Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby.
Vice President Dick Cheney and key congressional leaders, were taken to a secure location, apparently not in Washington.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said there had been a "tremendous number of lives lost" in the assault on his city. But five hours after the attack, the full dimensions of the tragedy were still far from clear. One TV station reported that 200 firefighters were missing in the World Trade Center.
Experts said it could be days before the full death toll was established.
As international flights were diverted to Canada, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down all flights in the United States. Part of the land border between the United States and Mexico was closed.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and gunmen at refugee camps in Lebanon fired into the air to celebrate news of the attacks.
Hospitals in New York were overwhelmed with patients as a massive cloud billowed into the blue skies over Manhattan where the city skyline had been dramatically and permanently altered.
"Hundreds of people are burned from head to toe," said Dr. Steven Stern at St. Vincent's Hospital in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
"The whole of lower Manhattan is coated in half an inch of dust," Reuters reporter Daniel Sternoff said.
The attacks forced the evacuation of all government buildings in Washington, including the White House and other tall buildings across the country, cut cell phone communications on the East Coast and grounded all commercial planes in the United States.
World leaders expressed shock and horror and foreign financial markets fell sharply on news of the attacks. The London FTSE index plummeted 5.7 percent, while oil prices spiked up. U.S. markets were closed.
Early reports said all three planes used in the attacks were hijacked, one of them from Boston and one from Washington. It was not immediately known who flew the planes and what happened to them.
The day of horror began just before 9 a.m. in New York when the first plane plowed into the south tower of New York's World Trade Center, as thousands of workers were streaming into the building to begin their day.
HUGE HOLE IN TWIN TOWER
It opened a huge hole near the top of the building. Two hours later, the whole building in which thousands of people work, collapsed on itself in a huge cloud of smoke and fire.
TV stations caught the second plane plowing into the second of the twin towers, exploding in a fire ball a few minutes after the first impact. That building caved in about an hour after the first.
Shortly afterward, a third plane crashed into or near the Pentagon in Washington, throwing people off their feet inside the building and setting off a massive fire.
Amid confusion, news organizations reported another explosion at the State Department, but that was later denied. Other reports spoke of another hijacked plane heading toward the capital.
All government buildings including the White House and the Capitol and the CIA were evacuated. The FAA grounded all planes in the United States, an unprecedented step.
"It's clear that this is terrorist-related, we're not sure who is responsible," one official said of the Pentagon attack.
"We have not seen an attack like this, certainly not since Pearl Harbor," said Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, which was dispatching ships and aircraft for air defense, along with amphibious troops, to Washington and possibly New York.
The attacks took place near the anniversary of the 1978 Camp David accords that led to peace between Israel and Egypt.
Bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire and Islamic militant, believed to be in exile in Afghanistan, was blamed for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people died.
An Arab journalist with access to bin Laden told Reuters in London the renegade Saudi had warned three weeks ago of an "unprecedented attack" on U.S. interests.
Washington has offered a $5-million reward for his capture. George Tenet, director of the CIA, said this week the tall, thin Saudi was the most immediate and serious threat to U.S. security.
Beside the embassy bombings, U.S. officials link bin Laden to last year's bombing of a U.S. Navy ship in Yemen and with foiled plots in the United States and Jordan at the turn of the millennium.
"Since 1998, bin Laden has declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack," he said.
The previous worst act of terrorism in the United States was the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people died. Timothy McVeigh was executed for that attack earlier this year
A previous bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 resulted in six deaths and hundreds of injuries.