Worst terror attack since Pearl Harbor - Thousands flee as World Trade Center collapses

Two hijacked planes crashed into the upper floors of both World Trade Center Towers minutes apart shortly before and after 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Chicago time. Here is the original coverage from that day,

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Fire and smoke billows from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001

Fire and smoke billows from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and brought down the twin towers. This was not the original image that accompanied this story.

David Karp, AP Photos

This story was originally published by the Chicago Sun-Times on Sept. 11, 2001.

In the worst attack on the nation since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center and the twin 110-story towers collapsed this morning. Explosions also rocked the Pentagon and the State Department and spread fear across the nation.

Two hijacked planes crashed into the upper floors of both World Trade Center Towers, where some 50,000 people work, minutes apart shortly before and after 8 a.m. Chicago time, the greatest direct attack on the United States since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Thousands of workers were evacuated, but thousands more were trapped.

Within the hour of the New York attacks, an aircraft crashed on a helicopter landing pad near the Pentagon, sending ominous clouds of smoke across the region, and the West Wing of the White House was evacuated amid threats of terrorism. A car bomb reportedly later blasted outside the Capitol Building. Following that crash, the White House was evacuated and all federal buildings within the Washington D.C. area were closed.

In western Pennsylvania, in what officials say could have been yet another terrorist attack, a large plane crashed just north of the Somerset County Airport at about 9 a.m. Chicago time. The plane, believed to be a Boing 747, crashed about 8 miles east of Jennerstown, which is about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

“This is perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack that’s ever taken place in the world,” said Chris Yates, an aviation expert at Jane’s Transport in London. “It takes a logistics operation from the terror group involved that is second to none. Only a very small handful of terror groups is on that list. . . . I would name at the top of the list Osama Bin Laden.”

O’Hare International Airport was evacuated, and all planes were grounded across the country by the Federal Aviation Administration. All bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed, and major office and government buildings were closed in Chicago and other cities. In Chicago, the city shut down the Dirksen and Kucinski Federal Buildings, the Hancock Center, Thompson Center, the Daley Center, all major museums, and the Sears Tower was evacuated voluntarily. The state Capitol in Springfield also was shut down. Trading was suspended at the markets in Chicago and in New York. Widespread confusion was reported at airports around the world

“They evacuated the United States Capitol,” said Sen. Richard Durban of Illinois. “I never thought I would see that day.”

As Americans stared in helpless shock and anger at TV screens across the country, black smoke billowed from fiery, gaping holes in the 110-story buildings, one of New York City’s most famous landmarks. Debris rained down upon the street, and bodies dropped from windows while people watching from below screamed. When the second plane hit, a fireball of flame and smoke erupted, leaving a huge hole in the glass and steel tower.

People ran down the stairs in panic and fled the building. Thousands of pieces of what appeared to be office paper came drifting over Brooklyn, about three miles away.

Then, before the eyes of the nation at 9 a.m. Chicago time, the south tower collapsed completely in a bomb-like explosion of smoke and dust. The north tower collapsed a half hour later, a sight so stunning that Americans everywhere—including TV news commentators—simply gasped and watched in silence. It covered lower Manhattan in heaps of grey rubble and broken glass. Firefighters trapped in the rubble radioed for help. People on the sidewalk sobbed. “I don’t know my mother is,” one woman cried.

“Everyone was screaming, crying, running, cops, people, firefighters, everyone,” said Mike Smith, a fire marshall from Queens. “A couple of marshalls just picked me up and dragged me down the street. It’s like a war zone.”

“I just saw the building I work in come down,” said businessman Gabriel Ioan, shaking in shock outside City Hall a cloud of smoke and ash from the World Trade Center behind him. “I just saw the top of Trade Two come down.”

Nearby a crowd mobbed a man on a pay-phone, screaming at him to get off the phone so that they could call relatives. Dust and dirt flew everywhere. Ash was 2 to 3 inches deep in places. People wandered dazed and terrified.

“It sounded like a jet or rocket,” said Eddie Gonzalez, a postal worker at a post office on West Broadway. “I looked up and saw a huge explosion. I didn’t see the impact. I just saw the explosion.”

Morning commuters heading into Manhattan were stranded as the Lincoln Tunnel was shut down to incoming traffic. Many left their cars and stood on the ramp leading to the tunnel, staring in disbelief at the thick cloud of smoke pouring from the top of the two buildings. On the streets of Manhattan, people stood in groups talking quietly or watching on television at ground-level network studios.

Joan Goldstein, communications project leader for The Associated Press, was on a bus from New Jersey at about 8:50 a.m. when she saw “smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center building. We said, ‘Oh, my God! The World Trade Center’s on fire!”

Perhaps 10 minutes later, “All of a sudden, there was an orange plume, a huge explosion. It shot out the back of the building. Everybody on the bus was just moaning and gasping,” said Goldstein, who wept and trembled as she spoke.

The plume was from the second plane, but she didn’t see the plane because of the thick smoke.

She tried to call friends who work there, but couldn’t get through.

“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Goldstein.

“People were jumping out of windows,” said an unidentified crying woman. “I guess people were trying to save themselves. Oh my God!”

“I was in the World Financial Center looking out the window,” said one woman. “I saw the first plane and then 15 minutes later saw the other plane just slam into the World Trade Center.”

Newsman Dunstan Prial, an eyewitness, said, “people walked around like ghosts, covered in dirt, weeping, wandering and dazed.”

One hijacked jet, an American Airlines 767 scheduled to fly to Los Angeles from Boston, reportedly had 92 passengers and crew on board. The second, an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles from Dulles Airport outside Washington, had 60 passsengers and crew members.

“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” said President Bush, who immediately rushed to Washington from Sarasota, Fla. Bush pledged to use the “full resources of the federal government to help the victims and their families” and “to hunt down and find those folks that permitted these acts.”

As the news spread around the world, world leaders reacted with horror. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life. We, the democracies of this world, are going to have to come together and fight it together.”

In Germany, virtually all channels switched to live coverage. “This is pure mass murder,” one commentator said.

Ira Furber, former National Transportation Safety Board spokesman, discounted the likelihood of accident.

“I don’t think this is an accident,” he said on CNN. “You’ve got incredibly good visibility. No pilot is going to be relying on navigational equipment.”

“It’s just not possible in the daytime,” he added. “A second occurrence is just beyond belief.”

John Axisa, who was getting off a commuter train near the World Trade Center, said he saw “bodies falling out” of the buildings. He ran outside and watched people jump out of the first building. Then there was a second explosion, he said, and he felt heat on the back of his neck. People on the street screamed everytime another person leaped from the building.

“I was watching TV and heard a sonic boom,” Jeanne Yurman told CNN. “The side of the World Trade Center exploded. Debris is falling like leaflets. I hear ambulances. The northern tower seems to be on fire.”

In 1945, an Army Air Corps B-25, a twin-engine bomber, crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in dense fog.

In Florida, Bush was reading to children in a classroom at 9:05 a.m. when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered into his ear. The president briefly turned somber before he resumed reading. He addressed the tragedy about a half-hour later.

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