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How it happened: The day the Trade Center came down

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 11, 2001


NEW YORK -- Shortly before 8 a.m. today, American Airlines Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles. It and three other California-bound morning flights from the East Coast never reached their destinations.

All apparently were hijacked by terrorists. Nothing was immediately known about how the planes were commandeered, but radar records show that Flight 11 headed west to Albany, N.Y., then veered south.

Clyde Ebanks, vice president of an insurance company, was at a meeting on the 103rd floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center when his boss said, "Look at that!"

He turned and saw a plane go by and hit the other tower.

It was 8:45 a.m.

For Peter Dicerbo and 44 co-workers at First Union National Bank, it was the start of their workday -- a beautiful day, with sunlight glinting off the Hudson River and streaming though the windows on the 47th floor of the Trade Center's north tower.

And then, "I just heard the building rock. It knocked me on the floor. It sounded like a big roar, then the building started swaying, that's what really scared me."

Harriet Grimm, inside the Borders bookstore on the Trade Center's first floor, heard a large boom, "and then we saw all this debris just falling."

About 18 minutes later, Luigi Ribaudo -- who works nearby in the Tribeca neighborhood -- heard what he thought was a plane making a strange noise. He looked up; he saw a plane that was too low.

"It was going to hit something and it hit and exploded inside," he said.

Two towers, two direct hits.

The chaos was immediate.

Dicerbo led his 44 colleagues down 47 flights of stairs, He staggered away from the building, his clothes torn; the workers were stunned, dazed and coughing.

"The minute I got out of the building, the second building blew up," said Jennifer Brickhouse, 34, from Union, N.J., who was going up the escalator into the Trade Center when she "heard this big boom."

"All this stuff started falling and all this smoke was coming through. People were screaming, falling, and jumping out of the windows," from high in the sky.

Emergency vehicles flooded into lower Manhattan. No one knew what happened; the towers, target of a terrorist bombing in 1993, seemed to be ground zero once again. Witnesses reported seeing people jumping from upper floors of the buildings.

Three miles away, across the East River in Brooklyn, sheets of office paper fluttered out of the sky.

President Bush, visiting schoolchildren in Sarasota, Fla., heard of the attack at 9:05 a.m. Less than 30 minutes later he appeared on television to reassure a country that hoped this day would never come.

"Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country," the president said. "I've ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and their families and to conduct a full-scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act."

After his appearance, Bush flew to Barkdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, which had been secured for his safety. Later he flew to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb.

Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush, who were in Washington during the attacks, were also taken to safe locations.

About 9:40 a.m., an airplane crashed into the Pentagon. The nerve center of the nation's military burst into flames and a portion of one side of the five-sided structure collapsed, sending billows of smoke over the capital.

The White House's West Wing was evacuated about 15 minutes later, when Secret Service agents learned that it too, might be a target of the terrorist attacks. Soon tens of thousands of government employees were pouring out of offices all over the nation's capital.

By then the Federal Aviation Administration had grounded air traffic nationwide, for the first time in history.

At 9:50 a.m. -- an hour after the first crash -- One World Trade Center collapsed.

There were reports of an explosion soon before the tower fell, then a strange sucking sound, and then the sound of floors collapsing. Then an incredible surge of air, followed by a vast cloud of dirt, smoke, dust, paper and debris. Windows shattered. People screamed and dived for cover.

"I heard the largest, loudest collective scream I've ever heard," said Melissa Easton, who was watching from the roof of her Chinatown apartment building about 20 blocks away.

In midtown, several miles away, office workers could look down the Avenue of the Americas and see the gray shroud that enveloped the remaining World Trade Center tower. What they could not see was the carnage, as people stumbled away from the devastation caked in dust, pieces of cloth clutched to their faces. Ash blanketed the streets and sidewalks like snowfall.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said firefighters were caught in the collapse and that some may have been killed.

It was like the aftermath of an unimaginable natural disaster. Only this catastrophe was manmade, and it wasn't over yet.

At 9:58 a.m. one of those still airborne planes, a United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco with 45 aboard, was heard from. A 911 operator in Pennsylvania answered a call from a man who said he had holed up in an airplane's rest room -- and the plane was going down.

"We are being hijacked!" the caller said.

The man said he had heard an explosion and saw white smoke coming from the plane. Then his signal broke up, and he was gone. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Then, at 10:30 a.m., the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

The top of the building exploded with smoke and dust. There were no flames, just an explosion of debris and dust and smoke, and then more vast clouds swept down to the streets. People were knocked to the ground onto their faces as they were running from the building toward cover. And then the same huge clouds of smoke, dust and debris and came through the buildings and blocked out the sun.

"I just saw the building I work in come down," said businessman Gabriel Ioan.

By then, the gravity of the morning's events was resonating across the country. Military units in the Washington, D.C., area were ordered to "Threat Level Delta," the highest alert level. Governors in several states activated National Guard units. In Alaska, heightened security was ordered around the 800-mile oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.

Possible terrorist targets were shut down. International borders were sealed. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were closed. Major corporations, including Coca-Cola in Atlanta and the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich., shut their doors for the day.

Visitors to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., were turned away. Major League Baseball called off Tuesday night's games. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences indefinitely postponed television's Emmy awards.

At New York hospitals, hundreds of people lined up to donate blood.

The rest of New York took on the eerie hush of a city under siege. With public transportation shut down and major bridges and tunnels closed to traffic, walking became the only way to get anywhere. Thousands clogged Manhattan bridges, leaving the city on foot. Throughout the metropolitan area, people stunned by the day's events walked about as if in a daze.

"To have such devastation is horrifying," said Easton. "You think small-scale first -- my sister-in-law works there. Then it expands to thousands who work there, who were on those planes. Then you get the notion that it might not be over. And then you just can't take it anymore."

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