Terrorists Hijack 4 Airliners, Destroy World Trade Center, Hit Pentagon; Hundreds Dead

By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Terrorists unleashed an astonishing air assault on America's military and financial power centers yesterday morning, hijacking four commercial jets and then crashing them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.

There were no reliable estimates last night of how many people were killed in the most devastating terrorist operation in American history. The number was certainly in the hundreds and could be in the thousands.

It was the most dramatic attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, and it created indelible scenes of carnage and chaos. The commandeered jets obliterated the World Trade Center's twin 110-story towers from their familiar perch above Manhattan's skyline and ripped a blazing swath through the Defense Department's imposing five-sided fortress, grounding the domestic air traffic system for the first time and plunging the entire nation into an unparalleled state of anxiety.

U.S. military forces at home and abroad were placed on their highest state of alert, and a loose network of Navy warships was deployed along both coasts for air defense.

The terrorists hijacked four California-bound planes from three airports on the Eastern Seaboard; the airliners were loaded with the maximum amount of fuel, suggesting a well-financed, well-coordinated plot. First, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center. Then an American Airlines plane out of Dulles International Airport ripped through the newly renovated walls of the Pentagon, perhaps the world's most secure office building. A fourth jet crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, shortly after it was hijacked and turned in the direction of Washington.

None of the 266 people aboard the four planes survived. There were even more horrific but still untallied casualties in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which together provided office space for more than 70,000 people. At just one of the firms with offices in the World Trade Center, the Marsh & McLennan insurance brokerage, 1,200 of its 1,700 employees were unaccounted for last night.

The spectacular collapse of the Trade Center's historic twin towers and another less recognizable skyscraper during the rescue operations caused even more bloodshed. At least 300 New York firefighters and 85 police officers are presumed dead. The preliminary list of victims included the conservative commentator Barbara K. Olson, "Frasier" executive producer David Angell and two hockey scouts from the Los Angeles Kings.

No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, but federal officials said they suspect the involvement of Islamic extremists with links to fugitive terrorist Osama bin Laden, who has been implicated in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and several other attacks. Law enforcement sources said there is already evidence implicating bin Laden's militant network in the attack, and politicians from both parties predicted a major and immediate escalation in America's worldwide war against terrorism.

In a grim address to the nation last night, President Bush denounced the attacks as a failed attempt to frighten the United States, and promised to hunt down those responsible. "We will make no distinction," he said, "between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

Bush vowed that America would continue to function "without interruption," and federal offices and Congress are scheduled to be open today. But the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq Stock Market will remain closed, along with most businesses in lower Manhattan. And yesterday was a day of extraordinary interruptions -- for the president, for federal Washington and for the country.

Bush was in a classroom in Florida yesterday morning when the attacks began and spent the day on the move for security reasons, flying to military bases in Louisiana and then Nebraska before returning to Washington in the evening. At one point at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, the president rode in a camouflaged, armored Humvee, guarded by machine gun-toting soldiers in fatigues.

Vice President Cheney and first lady Laura Bush were whisked away to undisclosed locations in the morning, and congressional leaders were temporarily moved to a secure facility 75 miles west of Washington. The White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the State Department and the Treasury Department were evacuated, along with federal buildings nationwide and the United Nations in New York.

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