- The Guardian,
- Wednesday September 12 2001
The first attack came within 45 minutes of flight 11 being seized. At the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan, staff were already at their desks and the working day was in full flow. On the densely packed streets of the financial district around the base of the 110-storey twin towers, other New Yorkers were strolling to work in the pristine early autumn sunshine when disaster struck.
The initial reports were patchy and confused, but according to eyewitnesses, what appeared to be a passenger plane had crashed into the north tower. As emergency services rushed to the scene they were joined by dozens of news crews and onlookers who stared in horror at the upper storeys, most of which had been destroyed in impact. The devastation was horrific: vast palls of smoke billowing from twisted window frames and sheets of flame shooting up the side of the building. In desperation, some of those who were trapped began leaping from the windows of the building.
One employee at London firm Garban Intercapital was on the phone to a colleague in the north tower when the first plane hit. The last words he heard were: "Help, we are all dying. Get us out."
Around the world, television images of the north tower, smoke billowing from its upper floors, were being broadcast live. The news anchors were already speculating that terrorists were responsible when the unthinkable happened.
Watched by millions of shocked viewers, a second airliner headed straight for the south tower, dipped its port wing slightly and accelerated into the building somewhere around the 60th storey. The explosion caused by the impact sent a huge, debris-laden fireball cascading down the building on to the streets below.
"The first tower was smoking hard," said Joe Trachtenberg, who was watching from the top of his building. "Then there was another plane, and before we knew, it just kamikaze went straight into the other tower. There was a mass explosion and windows flying. It was horrible."
On the ground, there was chaos. "People were running in all directions jumping over barriers, desperately trying to get away from the area. I guess they were just desperate to escape," said one eyewitness.
There was worse to come. A little before 9.30am, reports emerged that another plane had been hijacked. Within 10 minutes, a medium-sized passenger plane flew in low over Arlington and the Navy Annexe in Washington DC and plunged into the Pentagon's south-west face, throwing up a huge fireball.
Omar Campo, a Salvadorean, was cutting the grass on the other side of the road when the plane flew over his head.
"It was a passenger plane. I think an American Airways plane," Mr Campo said. "I was cutting the grass and it came in screaming over my head. I felt the impact. The whole ground shook and the whole area was full of fire. I could never imagine I would see anything like that here."
Afework Hagos, a computer programmer, was on his way to work but stuck in a traffic jam near the Pentagon when the plane flew over. "There was a huge screaming noise and I got out of the car as the plane came over. Everybody was running away in different directions. It was tilting its wings up and down like it was trying to balance. It hit some lampposts on the way in."
A pilot who saw the impact, Tim Timmerman, said it had been an American Airways 757. "It added power on its way in," he said. "The nose hit, and the wings came forward and it went up in a fireball."
Smoke and flames poured out of a large hole punched into the side of the Pentagon. Emergency crews rushed fire engines to the scene and ambulancemen ran towards the flames holding wooden pallets to carry bodies out. A few of the lightly injured, bleeding and covered in dust, were recovering on the lawn outside, some in civilian clothes, some in uniform. A piece of twisted aircraft fuselage lay nearby. No one knew how many people had been killed, but rescue workers were finding it nearly impossible to get to people trapped inside, beaten back by the flames and falling debris.
In New York, police and fire officials were carrying out the first wave of evacuations when the first of the World Trade Centre towers collapsed. Some eyewitnesses reported hearing another explosion just before the structure crumbled. Police said that it looked almost like a "planned implosion" designed to catch bystanders watching from the street.
As the tower crumbled in on itself, throwing a vast mushroom cloud of choking grey ash, smoke and debris across the densely packed streets of south Manhattan, the air was filled by a terrifying sucking sound akin to the roar of a rocket engine, caused by the sheer volume of air displaced by the collapse.
The dust cloud roared through block after block, blanketing the entire area in a thick layer of grey ash and soot, at least three inches thick in some places.
"Everyone was screaming, crying, running, cops, people, firefighters, everyone," said Mike Smith, a fire marshal. "It's like a war zone."
"Windows shattered, people were screaming and diving for cover," one eyewitness said. "People walked around like ghosts, covered in dirt, weeping and wandering dazed."
At 10.15am in Washington, another alert was sounded. "Get them out of here. We've got another threat coming," a policemen yelled, pushing survivors back from the building. Another officer said a report had come in saying another plane was on its way into Washington.
A US air force fighter jet flew around the Pentagon banking steeply, as the air around the defence department began to buzz with military and police helicopters.
Stanley St Clair was stumbling along the road away from the vast building, covered in dust. He had been working on renovations on the first floor of the section which was struck by the plane.
"It shook the whole building and hurt our ears. Papers and furniture and debris just went flying through the hallway and I thought it was a bomb or something. Then someone started shouting get out, get out."
Renovation work on the upper floors had just been completed and they had been handed back to the defence department.
According to Navy Commander Tom O'Loughlin, the third and fourth floors of the outer ring which took the brunt of the impact housed senior navy officers, including vice-admirals. There were also offices used by secretaries of the different armed services and the assistant secretaries. A Pentagon spokeswoman said the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was unharmed.
A mobile secret service command centre raced west on H Street, with sirens blaring, shortly after 11am as police drew a growing cordon around the White House. Metal gates and yellow tape blocked access to streets and alleys. People scrambled to find working pay phones or reach friends or family on mobile phones.
Just before 10.30am, the north tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed. Authorities had been trying to evacuate the glass-and-steel skyscraper when it came down in a thunderous roar.
At 11.30 in Washington, police cars again screamed up and down the roads around the Pentagon ordering passers-by off the street. One officer said there had been another report of an incoming plane heading down the Potomac river at high speed.
The wide and normally crowded bridges across the Potomac were deserted and the scene resembled a city at war: deserted streets, billowing smoke and warplanes circling above. An elderly man, Tom O'Riordan, standing in the shade of a tree near the Jefferson Memorial, said he had not seen anything like it since Pearl Harbour.
Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant, said he witnessed an explosion near the Pentagon. "It was a huge fireball, a huge, orange fireball," he said in an interview on his mobile phone.
He said another witness told him a helicopter exploded. AP reporter Dave Winslow also saw the crash. He said, "I saw the tail of a large airliner ... It ploughed right into the Pentagon."
General Richard Myers, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that before the crash into the Pentagon, military officials had been notified that another hijacked plane had been heading from the New York area to Washington.
"We heard what sounded like a missile, then we heard a loud boom," said Tom Seibert, 33, a network engineer at the Pentagon. "We were sitting there and watching this thing from New York, and I said, you know, the next best target would be us. And five minutes later, boom."
Within an hour of the New York explosions, the federal government took the additional step of shutting down national landmarks across the country, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty and the St Louis Gateway Arch, among other locations, according to the National Park Service.
The plane crashed on the helicopter landing pad adjacent to the Pentagon. There were reports of injuries, but no details. The Pentagon building was partially blackened on the outside and at least a portion of the structure had collapsed, witnesses said.
Earlier reports of other explosions in the Washington region, at the State Department and the Capitol, were not accurate, law enforcement officials said.
The crash at the Pentagon, which occurred less than an hour after the New York attacks, triggered immediate security steps in the Washington area, including evacuation of the State Department, the Capitol building and the West Wing of the White House. The nine top leaders of the house and senate were taken into federal protection, according to the US Capitol police. The federal aviation administration shut down airports nationwide.
The federal government closed all of its facilities around Washington at 10.30am and told the region's 340,000 federal employees they could leave.
Across the United States, passengers queuing for flights and relatives waiting to meet arriving planes stood in airport lobbies staring at the arrival and departure monitors and listening with a growing sense of bewilderment and dismay to the announcements over the loudspeakers. Every major airport has had its rehearsals for disaster but not since Pearl Harbour had the country experienced such a widespread series of attacks.
Los Angeles International airport, the destination for three of the four hijacked flights, announced a suspension of operations as soon as it became clear what had happened. Worried callers were diverted to the lines of American Airlines and United, which were trying to supply information of who had been on the flights.
The airport itself was closed to the public and its operations suspended with only key staff allowed to remain. California governor Gray Davis made the National Guard available to assist.
Grief counsellors were called in by American Airlines and United to be ready to meet the friends and relatives of those on the flights. Switchboards were jammed as people tried to get information from the airport.
Lieutenant Howard Whitehead of the Los Angeles police said: "We are working with all the other agencies and a total evacuation of the airport has been ordered for precautionary reasons. Right now everything is fluid." Mr Whitehead said that the airport had never previously had to deal with such a serious situation.