The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The day after 9/11: Burning buildings, bodies, bomb scares

In New York City, fear mounted on Sept. 12, 2001, as people searched for hundreds missing in the World Trade Center attack

Workers stand at Ground Zero in New York on Sept. 12, 2001. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)
Placeholder while article actions load

This story was originally published in The Washington Post on Sept. 13, 2001. It captures the shock, grief and fear after the World Trade Center attack.

NEW YORK — Three more skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan groaned and teetered, near collapse at Liberty Plaza. A morgue at Brooks Brothers took in bodies a limb at a time, until health workers fled to safety.

Panicked families by the thousands besieged hospitals with names and photos of loved ones held aloft. And still, jagged walls of flames billowed up from molten craters where 110-story towers once soared.

Such was Manhattan on the day after.

The downtown streets called to mind Pompeii. A cloak of chalky ash covered abandoned bicycles, doughnut carts and thousands of firefighters and police officers who worked ceaselessly, dusty ghosts moving through a moonscape.

The photo of the doomed 9/11 ‘Dust Lady’ still haunts us after all these years

But danger lurked always. By evening, the Empire State Building and Penn Station were evacuated because of bomb scares. Gas leaks had workers scurrying to shut off pipes in downtown Manhattan. Burning buildings stood cheek by jowl with rescue trains, and Verizon’s already wounded telephone banks threatened to disintegrate.

State and city officials acknowledged that for most families the wait now was for thousands of bodies encased in the densest rubble. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) told reporters the best estimate of fatalities was “a few thousand” in each collapsed World Trade Center twin tower.

At 9:02 a.m., controllers see United 175 hit the World Trade Center. Rutgers Law Review released new audio from September 11, 2001. (Video: The Washington Post)

The city has asked the Federal government to provide 6,000 body bags, and refrigerated trucks were taken to Lower Manhattan.

Hospitals treated more than 1,500 patients and released the majority. A handful of survivors were plucked from the wreckage, including a Port Authority police officer in critical condition, and a trader.

Law firms and state agencies with offices in the twin towers reported hundreds upon hundreds of missing employees. A spokesman at St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital broke into tears as she spoke of 200 doctors on hand but no victims. It was as though the city was in a state of suspended grief.

The most iconic photos from Sept. 11 and its aftermath

Giuliani, who draws praise as a wartime mayor, spoke of his hope that surgeons might find a heavy load of work yet. “It’s very possible the hospitals will be busy today,” he said. “We’re praying they’re busy today.”

The deconstruction and clearing task ahead is, by every measure, mammoth and dangerous. Working in murky metal canyons, on shifting piles of rubble with jet fuel and leaking gas, holds no promise of safety. Many of the buildings on the land to the immediate west and south of the Trade Centers were erected on landfill, and some officials warned last night that stability could become a problem.

Anything could give way, and the towering nine-story high cranes were as often of little use, suitable only for picking up and stacking stray steel beams, like so much cord wood.

Even the hundreds of backhoes and steam shovels often stood idle, as hundreds of firefighters, construction workers and rescue teams had at the wreckage with pick axes and sledgehammers. As they dislodged pieces, they picked up each one and carefully carried it over for inspection by law enforcement and building inspectors.

“Nothing is sturdy in there,” said Pat Cornell, a Jersey City fireman. “The buildings want to come down.”

The FBI has carted some of the of the rubble on boats to a Staten Island garbage dump, where it's examined for evidence.

Doctors and nurses treated more than 300 rescue workers for eye and respiratory injuries. Nurses hung bags of saline solution from a broomstick and used it to rinse workers' eyes. Doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital predicted lasting respiratory problems for some of the rescuers who have worked, eaten and slept in the murk these past 48 hours.

Nor was it clear where one takes the vast piles of rubble. Trucks lined West Street on the Hudson River, stretching miles and miles to the north. Giuliani said that 120 dump trucks had already rumbled out, some carrying piles of crumpled and broken police cars and firetrucks, looking like so many broken toys.

Federal emergency officials predicted it could take 30 to 60 days to clear the land, depending on the ability of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to locate a place to put the debris.

In fact, the very sturdiness of the buildings poses a problem, say building inspectors. Unlike flimsier structures in Turkey or India, where rescue workers could quickly dig for the buried, Manhattan's buildings are tough and tightly wound, and not easily disassembled.

The air itself is a menace, the dust filled with the chrysotile asbestos that once lined the guts of the World Trade Center. Now the stuff is airborne and the Environmental Protection Agency today took measurements at Ground Zero and found four times the acceptable level.

“We slept on a pile of asbestos,” said fireman Frank Turner.

Currently, “the city is removing it to existing landfills and disposal sites,” said Bruce Baughman, operations director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The existing landfill space will be eaten up very quickly.”

Still, and through it all, few of the firefighters would forgo hope for rescues. Officials estimated that as many as 300 firefighters died in the collapse of the twin towers, and in a department where seemingly every man and woman has a cousin or brother in another firehouse, the loss is grievous.

So early this morning, a few dozen firefighters strapped on oxygen masks and at great risk crawled across the pyre that was one of the towers, marking bodies with each step.

“There were intestines and bodies everywhere,” said Parrish Kelley, a Massachusetts firefighter who drove down the first day. “The wreckage is so dense and concentrated, it’s going to be a miracle …”

He left the rest unsaid.

The atmosphere today was most peculiar. The day dawned, again, with the spectacular dry radiance of September. And the view from subways rolling across bridges in Brooklyn no longer was of two steel towers shrouded in ugly black smoke (satellite photos would show a stream miles and miles long, rising high over the ocean south of Long Island).

The light was soft now, illuminating white clouds that rose from the gaping skyline hole where the Trade Center towers once stood. The rush hour streets were near empty, as schools and many thousands of businesses closed. Schools will open Thursday. Giuliani has asked New Yorkers to return again to normalcy.

“Let’s not give in to the cowards who committed this despicable act,” he said.

Still, the day was pregnant with waiting — to see which other parts of the skyline might disappear, and, more to the point, how many must be buried.

Downtown Manhattan was simply a war zone. National Guard troops tramped in formation, hundreds of trucks of every kind lined the streets. Exhausted firefighters and police officers curled in building vestibules and in seats at McDonald's, trying to get an hour or two of sleep.

The effort during the past 40 hours has often turned hellish. Electricity went out early this morning and trucks lost power as they ran their generators. Gasoline trucks trooped in and the lights were fired up once again. The sense was of a grand improvisation in the face of circumstances more terrible than could be imagined.

And everywhere in the city there was a pervasive sense of loss.

Giuliani dodged death himself that first day as he walked the street in the shadow of the towers as the first tower started to collapse. He saw many close aides die, among them the city’s fire chief. He has since talked to dozens of families, never quite sure what to articulate. “You don’t know what to say, to give them hope or not,” Giuliani said. “You know there will be survivors, you just don’t know who or how many.”

At Firefighter Company No. 1 on Manhattan's West Side, George Diaz manned the station house, hoping for good news. Half the company had rushed to the fire site that first morning; so far, none returned. Neighbors brought flowers and poetry and food by the firehouse all morning.

“As the guys went into the Trade Center yesterday morning, we heard them communicating on our radios,” Diaz said. “They were trying to stay together. Now, now they’re buried under 20 stories of debris.”

At Bellevue Hospital, Steve Irgeny and Kristen Ladner showed up. She's petite and the fiancee of Steve's brother, who was now missing. She carried a black plastic bag from which she pulled some photos. In one they're smiling; in another they're deep in an embrace.

“He was, is, a beautiful person,” Ladner said. “He called at 10 minutes to 9 a.m. yesterday and said he was okay.”

That was the last anyone heard from him. Which floor did he work on? The 104th, Ladner said, and began to weep.

Through it all, the city somehow remained a remarkably civil place, as though the magnitude of this tragedy has everyone on best behavior. Nerves were on edge, certainly. The United Nations got a bomb threat, closed and reopened. People still craned their necks nervously at the sky when the roar of jets was heard overhead.

But strangers loaned strangers cellphones and money; bread and water trucks showed up, unasked, at the Canal Street barricades, bringing help to weary searchers. Corporate chieftains from General Electric and Cisco donated $14 million for the families of fallen cops and firefighters. Hundreds of people lined Canal Street and Christopher Street near Lower Manhattan this afternoon, applauding and cheering every emergency vehicle that went by.

Some local restaurants stopped passersby to tell them they were serving free food, pass the word.

At Chambers and Greenwich Street stands Lloyd Frazier’s McDonald’s franchise. He was there when the centers got hit. He watched the people jumping from the high floors as “though they were floating in the air.”

He turned his place into a free rest house for weary rescuers. Tuesday night, he ordered 20,000 bottles of water shipped in. He was chief cook and dishwasher, and all he wanted to talk about were the firefighters who crawled in there after the towers collapsed, entombing so many of their colleagues.

“They were caked in ash and I washed their faces and they were crying. They crawled in crying.”

Read more Retropolis:

‘Take it out’: On 9/11, Cheney’s harrowing orders to shoot down U.S. airliners

On 9/11, as the Pentagon burned, the White House couldn’t find Donald Rumsfeld

The photo of the doomed 9/11 ‘Dust Lady’ still haunts us after all these years

The most iconic photos from Sept. 11 and its aftermath