By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
NEW YORK, Sept. 11 -- The symbol of the nation's financial might was a smoldering wreck tonight as a third tower collapsed at the World Trade Center and the realization came that thousands likely lay dead in the rubble of two of the world's tallest buildings.
Fires raged into the evening, 20- and 30-story-high facades kept shearing away, and pools of highly flammable jet fuel hindered rescue efforts. The city's nearly 200 hospitals were awash with victims, and administrators appealed for help of any kind, from blood and water to plastic surgeons and burn specialists.
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said 265 firefighters and 78 police officers were missing and feared dead. Entire fire companies apparently perished as the World Trade Center's 110-floor twin towers imploded, one after the other, after being hit by hijacked airliners.
"I have a sense it's a horrendous number of lives lost," Giuliani said. "The number of deaths will be more than we can bear. Our hearts go out to all the families that will suffer. They don't deserve this."
Life in the city turned upside down. The roller-blade paradise of Liberty Park in Lower Manhattan was transformed into a triage center, and Chelsea Piers, an upscale body-toning center on the Hudson River, became a makeshift morgue, black body bags stacked in the brilliant September sun.
Dozens of New Yorkers gathered by police barricades in Lower Manhattan, tugging at officers, seeking news of missing relatives. Thousands more flocked to the city's churches. "They're extremely quiet," said the Rev. Jeff Hammer, the hospital chaplain, "like the kid who got punished."
By evening, St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village had admitted more than 260 victims, 18 of them in critical condition, and three had died.
City rescue squads have "informed us they will be digging out bodies for many more hours," said Mark Ackerman, a hospital spokesman.
President Bush declared the city a major disaster area, and Gov. George Pataki said state National Guard troops were fanning out across Lower Manhattan. Fighter jets crisscrossed high above the city, and two aircraft carriers took up residence in New York Harbor.
At the insurance brokerage firm of Marsh & McLennan, only 500 of 1,700 workers in the World Trade Center were accounted for, a spokeswoman said. The World Trade towers ordinarily hold nearly 50,000 workers -- the largest tenants are Morgan Stanley, with 3,000 employees, and the New York Port Authority, AON Risk Services and Empire Blue Cross -- although the relatively early hour of the attack might have tamped down the toll. Neither the observation deck on the World Trade Center nor the popular Windows on the World Restaurant were open at the time.
Red-hot debris rained from the twin towers onto other buildings, setting them on fire. The World Trade Center's Building No. 7, a 47-story tower that housed offices of the U.S. Secret Service and the Shearson brokerage house, was the third structure to collapse.
Building No. 6, the U.S. Customs House, which contains federal Treasury Department offices, remained standing, but was a smoking husk.
In mid-afternoon, Giuliani said 2,100 people were injured -- 1,500 "walking wounded" and 750 others who were taken to hospitals, 150 of them in critical condition. At St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, as in so many others across the city, the scene on the sidewalk and in the hospital's operating rooms resembled a wartime MASH unit.
"I'm sure I'll never see anything like this again in my life," said Susan Fenton, a hospital official at Roosevelt. "It's really the end of the sort of naiveté that Americans have allowed themselves to experience. It's like, 'Welcome to the rest of the world.' "
The terror started at 8:45 a.m., when an American Airlines jetliner sliced low across the city and hit the North Tower. Then, a few minutes after 9 a.m., a United Airlines jetliner hurtled into the South Tower, exploding into a fireball seen across the city.
Flames leapfrogged floors, and within minutes vast plumes of thick black smoke enveloped the gleaming steel-and-glass towers. Through smoke and debris, panicked workers could be spotted hugging and jumping from as high as the 80th floor.
Some held hands. Some were on fire.
"Bodies splattered the pavement; you couldn't even get out of the building -- blood everywhere," said George Dwarika, a janitor who crawled out of the basement. "I saw a man waving a red flag for a minute, and then the guy just jumped into space."
As fire engines and rescue vehicles raced to the scene, hundreds of firefighters, police officers and emergency personnel strapped on oxygen masks and began climbing up stairwells into the crippled buildings, only to have the South Tower collapse in a thunderous roar about 9:50 a.m.
Gray chalk clouds, 30 stories high, rolled down the avenues and up the side streets of Lower Manhattan.
The North Tower collapsed about 40 minutes later, sending up another cloud of ash and smoke. Only the outer wall of one tower remained, and only up to the 30th floor or so, where the steel frame bent outward like baling wire.
The building fires and collapses likely trapped thousands of rescuers and workers, apparently including Fire Department Chief Peter J. Ganci and First Deputy Fire Commissioner William M. Feeh, who were missing.
"I remember coming down the steps, in the smoke, with water pouring in the dark," said Peter Genova, who worked at One World Trade Center, the North Tower. "And all I saw was dozens and dozens of firemen and cops going up those steps to try and help people. Twenty minutes later, the building was gone."
Pataki declared a state of emergency, saying: "The magnitude is something that has us all horrified."
The mayoral primary election was postponed, and officials closed schools and the region's three airports as well as the Brooklyn, Verrazano and George Washington bridges. Trading on Wall Street was suspended. Broadway shows were canceled. Electric power was lost to portions of the city, and the destruction of more than 100 antennas atop the World Trade Center severely disrupted communications. Phone systems were overwhelmed with the volume of callers, many desperately checking on family and friends.
It could take weeks to dig through the debris for victims. One man caught under the rubble used his cell phone to reach family in Pennsylvania with a plea for help, the Associated Press reported. Late in the evening, Giuliani said there were still people alive in the World Trade Center.
The mayor was trapped inside the city's emergency command center for 10 minutes as the North Tower collapsed into the street and rained tons of debris on the city's Barclay Street bunker.
The search was complicated by raging fires. Firefighters made periodic runs at the smoking walls, only to retreat each time. A senior fire official said water could not be sprayed directly on the smoking tower remnants because water can make jet fuel spike into flames. City firefighters did not immediately have the retardant for jet fuel.
At 3 p.m., radios crackled and firefighters, who had crowded around St. Paul's Church in Lower Manhattan, were told to suspend all searches for fear of further building collapses. More than two hours later, Building No. 7 collapsed.
"This is like Beirut," said an FBI agent as he surveyed a tableau of broken metal, glass shards, stone fragments and upended cars and buses. "They got us good."
Two blocks away, parts of the American Stock Exchange's headquarters were damaged by flying debris, and officials took refuge in the basement.
"Our rescue efforts are really hindered," Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said. "We want to rescue the people who are alive and still in there. But buildings keep collapsing. As soon as we can, we'll get in there."
This is the second time that terrorist bombers have struck the World Trade Center. They attacked in February 1993, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000 others.
Security was tightened considerably after the 1993 bombing, but William F. Clair Jr., member of a law firm with offices on the 52nd floor of the North Tower, said he never felt safe. "I always told my friends that all it would take was a small rental plane from New Jersey, loaded with fertilizer," he said. "I never dreamed it would be a commercial airliner."
The towers were not only a symbol of America's financial might but also something of an engineering miracle. They housed financial and government offices, as well as a web of subway and commuter trains below.
Giuliani asked New Yorkers not to judge each other harshly. Spokespeople from a rainbow of ethnic and racial groups, including Jews and Arabs, condemned the attack.
"Hatred, prejudice and anger is what caused this," the mayor said this evening. "We should act bravely and in a tolerant way."
"New York is still here," Giuliani added. "We've suffered terrible losses and we will grieve for them, but we will be here, tomorrow and forever."