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Chaotic scene of devastation unfolds on national television

©Associated Press

NEW YORK - Television became a national gathering place on a terror-filled today, replaying unimaginable scenes of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center and its skyscrapers collapsing. Newspapers rushed out special editions. Many headlines said simply: "TERROR."

When the first plane hit the Manhattan landmark shortly before 9 a.m., it set in motion an extraordinary effort by the media to tell the story.

Catastrophes unfolded as fast as television could detail them: a plane plunging into the Pentagon, a crash in Pennsylvania, buildings evacuated across the country.

Commentators tried to keep calm. "This is the most serious attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor," said NBC's Tom Brokaw.

Newspapers across the country put out extras. Eight newspapers in North Carolina alone prepared special editions -- for The Morning Star of Wilmington, it was the first since the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Internet traffic slowed as people sought information online. The Internet search engine Google directed news seekers to get off the computer and turn on radio or television.

"Many online news services are not available, because of extremely high demand," said a statement on Google's home page.

With television cameras trained on a smoking tower of the World Trade Center after the first attack, viewers were able to see the chilling sight of the second plane crashing into the building and exploding in a fireball. Television also carried, live, the collapse of both towers into a pile of rubble.

As the morning progressed, networks showed footage of New Yorkers running from the scene, some bloodied or covered with ash. Streets looked white with ash and soot, a scene Brokaw likened to "a nuclear winter."

CNN showed a flight-path simulator that detailed how a plane headed west from Boston took a sudden, sharp turn south near Albany and headed down the Hudson Valley toward New York City.

Don Dahler, an ABC News correspondent, was in his apartment four blocks from the World Trade Center when he heard the first plane hit. He called "Good Morning America" and was immediately put on the air.

"It sounded a lot like a military missile," Dahler said. "There was a high, shrieking sound followed by a roar then a huge explosion. I knew immediately something terrible had happened."

The major television networks suspended competition, agreeing to share all footage gathered during the terrorist attacks and their aftermath, on suggestion of "60 Minutes" creator Don Hewitt.

A shaken Ashleigh Banfield on MSNBC described debris showering around her. CNBC correspondent Ron Insana, his suit smeared with gray ash, told how he ran for cover and hid in a parked car when a tower collapsed.

"I've never seen anything like this," a breathless and sobbing Banfield said. "This whole place looks like a war zone. When the cloud came out I could feel the force of it."

The question of how many people were killed and wounded in the attack hung horrifyingly in the air. "It seems the hardest thing at the moment is to make an appraisal," said ABC's Peter Jennings.

With so many events happening at once, Fox News Channel ran a continous crawl of news bulletins summarizing the series of events.

C-SPAN took phone calls from shaken citizens. One caller from California said: "This is a sign to America: We think we are the strongest country and they hit us; they knew where to hit us."

Other networks suspended normal programming. The ESPN sports networks showed ABC News reports, VH1 showed CBS News programming, TNT and TBS showed CNN coverage. News networks dispensed with commercials for continuous coverage.

The shopping networks QVC and ShopNBC network went dark, saying the tragedy had forced them to suspend programming.

"We share with our customers and employees, our sadness as well as our thoughts and prayers," ShopNBC said in a message.

CNN lost its main transmitters, stationed atop the World Trade Center. The network lost access to backup transmitters when the Empire State Building was evacuated, and worked with satellite trucks at Penn Station. Aaron Brown anchored the network coverage, his back to where the World Trade Center had been.

MSNBC's Brian Williams took note of the city's tragically altered skyline: "As it was more than 30 years ago, the Empire State Buildlng is once again the city's tallest structure."

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