A Look Back… September 11, 2001—Infamy: Assault, Collapse at Twin Towers; City Girds

On September 11, 2001, The Observer bumped Michael Jackon’s birthday party from the cover to grapple with a painful new era for the city.

Spared the bombs and sieges that scarred nearly every other world capital in the 20th century, New York on Sept. 11, 2001, suffered the most catastrophic attack on American territory since the Japanese attacked Pearl  Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Thousands of civilian men, women and children were killed and thousands more injured when two hijacked jetliners crashed into the World  Trade Center at the beginning of what was to be just another day in pre-recessionary New   York. The famed twin towers, dominant features of the downtown skyline since 1970, collapsed in a sickening heap about an hour after the crashes.

Combined with a similar attack on the Pentagon, the casualties for Sept. 11, 2001, very likely will exceed the number of Allied casualties on D-Day, when 2,500 soldiers died and 10,000 were wounded.

“The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear,” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said during an afternoon news conference. “There was a large number of firefighters and police officers in harm’s way. We don’t know how many we’ve lost.”

As night fell, thousands of families throughout the New   York area prayed for loved ones they had not heard from, fearing the terrible news that might come with a phone call, or a visit from a clergyman. Downtown Manhattan, symbol of the resurgent New York which gleefully laid claim to the title of “Capital of the World,” had in an instant been rendered an appalling slaughterhouse.

President George W. Bush, who was told of the atrocities while he was reading to schoolchildren in Florida, promised to seek out the groups or people responsible. The President was flown to Nebraska, home of the Strategic Air Command, and then returned to Washington in late afternoon.

By midday, F-16 fighter jets were patrolling Manhattan’s skies, and all other air traffic throughout the nation was grounded. Sirens — suddenly reminiscent of air-raid warnings in London during the Blitz — replaced the honking horns and chaotic sounds of midtown as streets were shut down to allow access to emergency vehicles, some of them summoned from towns in Westchester County and New Jersey.

Doctors in St. Vincent’s Hospital were, by late afternoon, awaiting casualties that were slow in coming. Dr. George Neuman, head of anesthesiology, said there was great concern about the number of injured people trapped under the massive rubble.

The scene downtown was terrifying. People trapped in the towers could be seen leaping from windows, as witnesses on the ground screamed in horror. One eyewitness said one of the jumpers landed on a firefighter, killing both of them.

Crowds gathered in City Hall Plaza, several blocks to the northeast, to watch the tragedy unfold. At 10  a.m., they heard a terrible roar as the first tower, No. 1 World Trade Center, collapsed. Acrid white smoke quickly enveloped City Hall, and people began running north. Police officers shouted, “Move, move, move!” Some people sought refuge inside a subway entrance. Within minutes, the plaza was deserted. An ambulance was parked on a nearby street, seemingly abandoned. Soon, emerging from the thick smoke, refugees began streaming north towards City Hall. “I need a mask! I need a mask!” shouted an Emergency Medical Services worker. Somebody else shouted, “It’s coming!”

Zdizislaw Zulinski, a Port Authority employee who worked on the 74th floor of the 1 World Trade Center, said he escaped shortly after he felt the building start shaking. It took him half an hour to walk down the building’s fire stairs. “I saw windows falling from the west side of the building,” he said. “I jumped into the fire stairs, and just was walking and walking. There will be thousands of people dead.”

Keith Kooper, an employee of Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood in 1 World Trade Center, said he felt the tower begin to shake while he was on the 56th floor. When he emerged in the plaza below, he said, he saw several badly burned bodies. A colleague at Sidley Austin, Quinlan Kato, said it took him about an hour to get out of the building. “There were corpses everywhere,” he said. “They were mangled.”

Just after the first tower collapsed, grim-faced emergency workers and frantic family members tried to make their way south, while distraught survivors wandered uptown along the West Side Highway and other streets. Some of them were covered in dust and soot as they approached Warren and Greenwich Streets, when they heard a huge explosion behind them. The second tower had fallen. Their view obscured by smoke, some survivors screamed, “It’s another plane!” Most people scattered east, west and north — everywhere but south. But Jose Machado, a 56-year-old father of two, was trying to fight his way toward the smoke. “My son’s there!” he said. “He’s in school. They won’t let me through.”

Earlier in the morning, Mr. Machado had dropped off his 8-year-old son, Joseph, at Intermediate School 89 near the World  Trade Center. He saw both buildings struck. “I looked at the first building, and I saw people jumping out of windows from about 75 stories,” he said. “I saw those poor people jumping, and I was praying to God. When the first building collapsed, it blew up like a bomb.” He retrieved Joseph but was worried about his other son, Matthew.

Along Second Avenue on the East Side, people gathered around shop windows to watch televisions or listen to radios, an image associated with another era of strife. Scores of ambulances — many from the outer boroughs and beyond — raced down the avenue, which was almost devoid of normal traffic.

With the subways shut down, people wandered the sidewalks, eager for news. Many were talking on cell phones, although placing a call was extremely difficult.

Manhattan residents by the hundreds shook off their shock and went to nearby hospitals to donate blood. Governor George Pataki visited Cabrini  Medical Center near Gramercy Park in late afternoon, thanking people who had lined up to give blood.

The Governor was in his car when he first heard news of the bombing. “At first, you don’t believe it,” he said. “I immediately got on the phone with the President. And then when the second one happened, you knew it was terrorism.”

Frightened people passed along rumors of further atrocities. Laurie Abraham was walking along West 42nd Street near Seventh Avenue, en route to the Manhattan Bridge and home to her family in Brooklyn, when about 15 people came running towards here. “I heard one of them say, ‘There’s a bomb on 42nd Street!’ So I headed back in the direction I came from, and I saw a woman looking very flustered,” said Ms. Abraham, executive editor of Elle magazine. ‘She said, ‘I hear someone has a machine gun back there.’ I kept going, and someone else said, ‘Stay away from the Met Life building. There’s a bomb in there!'”

Police were summoned to a suspicious-looking car on East   64th Street between Park and Madison avenues. The Police Department Bomb Squad took the car apart, but it contained only some paint cans and car batteries. A police official said he expects nervous New Yorkers to report many other such unfounded complaints in coming weeks.

Thousands of people left Manhattan by foot over the Brooklyn Bridge, turning the historic span into an escape route for shell-shocked refugees. Many were covered in ash and could summon neither the energy nor the interest to brush it off. One woman sobbed, “I saw the building just drop in front of me.”

Brooklyn’s Atlantic   Avenue was wreathed in smoke, and some of the neighborhood’s many Arab-owned shops closed their doors. An anti-Israeli, pro-intifada sign adorned the shop of Ahmed Ali, a Palestinian who owns Wafa Translation Services and a 40-year American resident. “It’s our country, too,” he said, of the United States, “and we feel like any other American citizen living in this country. We have a lot of friends in those buildings. We’re human beings, and human life is valued more than anything else.”

Residents gathered along the promenade in Brooklyn  Heights, even as breezes blew smoke across the East River. Two photographers carried a three-foot poster of the Twin Towers taken from the promenade vantage point. Several passers-by asked the photographers to take their picture with smoke-filled downtown in the background. One of them was a 60-ish resident named Dominick Rizzi. Mr. Rizzi’s 30-year-old son was working on the 36th floor in one of the towers when the planes hit. “He got out,” Mr. Rizzi said, as his eyes filled with tears. “But he said there was no way that anyone above where the planes hit could have survived.” Mr. Rizzi posed for his picture. “Please send me one,” he told one of the photographers. “Today is a day that life changed.”

“You cannot underestimate the damage this will do to all our psyches,” said Mark Ackermann, senior vice president of St. Vincent’s Medical Center.



A Look Back… September 11, 2001—Infamy: Assault, Collapse at Twin Towers; City Girds