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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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New day of infamy

The World Trade Center in New York City crumbles to the ground along with America's belief that an attack of this level could not be carried out on US soil. (AP Photo)

Thousands dead in raids; nation shaken

By Mitchell Zuckoff and Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 9/12/2001

Terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and turned them into guided missiles yesterday, striking at US government and financial capitals, in choreographed attacks that left thousands feared dead and that shredded the nation's sense of security.

With chilling precision in less than two hours, two suicide jet crashes destroyed the landmark twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. A third crumpled a section of the Pentagon, and a fourth plowed into a grassy field in Pennsylvania. A congressman said the apparent target of the fourth jet was Camp David, the presidential retreat, 85 miles away.

A somber President Bush vowed in a prime-time address that the United States would use all its resources to ''find those responsible and bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.''

While Bush spoke, federal aviation, intelligence, and law enforcement authorities struggled to understand how they had been caught so completely by surprise. A worldwide investigation began even before the chaos had eased in New York and Washington, before the plumes of ash had settled, before the victims had been counted and cared for, and before the enormity of events could have been absorbed by stunned and grieving Americans.

No groups or individuals claimed responsibility, and federal authorities cautioned against leaping to conclusions, even as they focused on the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, a declared enemy of the United States who has been linked to the the coordinated bombings of two US embassies, in Kenya and Tanzania, in 1998. A bin Laden associate is scheduled to be sentenced today in New York for his role in the Tanzania blast.

Three authoritative sources told The Boston Globe that a flight attendant aboard one of the two planes that struck the World Trade Center had called a supervisor from the plane to report that ''a Middle Eastern-looking man'' in Business Class had stabbed several passengers and flight attendants.

''We are being hijacked,'' she said, according to a source. Authorities would not comment on the call, but Attorney General John Ashcroft confirmed at a news conference that the hijackers had indeed used knives.

Just before they lost contact, the sources said, the flight attendant told her supervisor that the aircraft was losing altitude. Her last words: ''Oh my God, we're going down.'' The sources did not disclose her identity.

The attendant was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 that had originated in Boston an hour earlier and that was bound for Los Angeles. Sources said that investigators had seized two pieces of luggage that had missed the flight because of a late connection from a US Airways flight from Portland, Maine.

One of the bags, a black suitcase bearing a tag with an Arabic name, contained instructional videotapes on techniques for flying large aircraft, a knife, some type of flight plan or log, a wheel-shaped calculation device used by pilots, and a copy of the Koran, the sources said.

The devastating series of events began at 8:45 a.m., when American Flight 11 plowed with a thunderous roar into the north tower of the World Trade Center, the soaring glass and steel symbol of financial might that overlooked the Statue of Liberty.

The 110-story tower shuddered and caught fire, raining debris on the streets below and sending thousands of workers racing for the exits. Some people trapped on the upper floors jumped from the 1,250-foot building to their deaths, including one man and woman who leaped, holding hands. By late in the day, at least 200 New York firefighters were feared dead, and 78 New York police officers were reported missing.

Any thought that the crash was the result of a lost pilot or a damaged craft was erased 18 minutes later, when a second plane smashed into the tower's southern twin. Authorities identified that plane as United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, bound from Boston to Los Angeles.

Together, the two planes carried 147 people, and thousands more were believed to be in the twin towers at the time of the crashes. Some 50,000 work at the Trade Center, and tens of thousands more visit each day.

Body parts rained onto the ground below, pelting terrified New Yorkers. Thousands of emergency workers streamed into the area, as thousands of bystanders ran away, jamming streets, subways, and sidewalks. Fights broke out over pay phones, as bloodied and crying New Yorkers sought to locate and reassure loved ones.

Within 90 minutes of the first crash, both skyscrapers collapsed - the south falling first at 9:50 a.m. and its twin 40 minutes later. Billowing clouds of ash poured through the streets, covering everyone and everything with ghostly gray-white soot.

''When I reached the plaza of the World Trade Center, it was like a war zone,'' said Steven McNally, 28, who escaped from the 72d floor of the north tower. ''FBI agents were rushing past me, firefighters were pushing me aside. I thought it was all over. I thought my life was about to end.''

Rick Puerto, 25, worked on the 81st floor of the south tower for Bank of America. ''The whole building shook, and people were hysterically screaming. I grabbed my cell phone, called my fiancee, and I just started running for the stairs. I knew we were in danger when even the FBI agents were running for the door.''

Outside, smoke enveloping him, he looked back. ''I saw our building and saw it crashing down. What a weird moment that was,'' he said.

As the first building crumbled, people fell to the ground and cried. Cabbies stopped driving and got out to watch it crumble. People screamed into cell phones: ''Mom! Mom! Are you there? I'm all right.''

Another woman was heard saying, ''I can't get through to my husband. What if he's dead?! What if he's gone?! This is it. This is the end of the world. What has happened?''

Maral Gibbs, a volunteer firefighter from Vineland, N.J., spent more than 10 hours in the collapsed buildings and was part of several rescues, one involving a man who was trapped in the collapsed subway beneath the building.

''There are still a lot of people alive in the rubble, but because of the risk of collapse and the heat, we can't get in there and get them,'' Gibbs said. ''You can hear them yelling, `Help me.' You hear people crying, and it's so frustrating because of the risk that it's going to collapse again.''

As night approached, a 47-story building at 7 World Trade Center also collapsed, apparently from the structural stress of the imploding towers. The building had been evacuated hours earlier.

Eight years ago, the World Trade Center was the target of a terrorist attack, involving an explosives-laden truck, that killed six people and wounded about 1,000.

At 9:40 a.m., the terror moved south to the nation's capital, when American Airlines Flight 77 nosedived into the Pentagon. The Boeing 757, en route from Dulles Airport near Washington to Los Angeles, was carrying 64 when it crashed.

At the Pentagon, ambulances sped into and out of the parking lots as firefighters poured water onto the smouldering wound in the massive building. Federal officials set up a command center in a Citgo gas station with a frontal view of the damage.

Afework Hagos, a consultantwho was commuting to his job, saw the plane bank around and fly into the Pentagon, its wings see-sawing before it disappeared. ''It created a huge smoke,'' Hagos said, before a man in an FBI windbreaker whisked him off to get his eyewitness account.

Across the Potomac River in Washington, Nick Krafft, who works on Middle East issues at the World Bank, felt fortunate to have his bicycle at the office. When officials closed the bank, just a few blocks from the White House, he had no transportation home. His wife, Judy Edstrom, could not get the car out of the bank's garage and had to hitchhike.

''It was surrealistic,'' Krafft said. ''It was a glorious day as I cycled back, but you could see the smoke pouring off the Pentagon.''

Outside 1717 K St., Bob Sherman waited for security personnel to unlock the doors and let employees back into their offices. A false alarm that came moments after the Pentagon crash had sent people scurrying onto the sidewalk.

''Why are we wasting all this money on a missile defense when we have a real terrorism threat?'' asked Sherman, who works for the Federation of American Scientists. ''Missile defense won't do diddly for this.''

''It's frightening to realize how vulnerable we are as a nation,'' added D. Kellie Foster, who works in the same building for the National Crime Prevention Council. ''It humbles you to think something like this could happen.''

Washington office workers jammed streets and subways as they made their way home in a midday rush hour. Many public schools closed earlier, and local colleges and universities canceled classes. By early afternoon, the city was nearly deserted, but security remained on high alert. Police with machine guns patrolled around the White House, closing off even pedestrian access, and intersections near key federal buildings were blocked by parked cars.

One congressman, Representative Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, estimated that there had been at least 100 casualties at the Pentagon. As evening fell on Washington, dozens of members of the House and Senate set aside politics and parties and gathered outside the Capitol to sing ''God Bless America.''

The fourth attack occurred at 10 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 93, en route to San Francisco from Newark, crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh with 45 people aboard.

That crash was preceded by a cell phone call to an emergency dispatcher, from a man who said he was a passenger locked in a bathroom, according to dispatch supervisor Glenn Cramer in neighboring Westmoreland County.

''We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked!'' the man said, according to Cramer. The distraught man insisted that his call was not a hoax, and he told dispatchers the plane ''was going down.'' Cramer said the man then said he heard an explosion and saw white smoke coming from the plane. At that point, ''we lost contact with him,'' Cramer said.

''There's a crater gorged in the earth, the plane is pretty much disintegrated. There's nothing left but scorched trees,'' said Mark Stahl of Somerset, Penn., who went to the scene.

A Virginia congressman, Representative James Moran, said the presumed target of that plane was Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. He made his comment after an official briefing.

''Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you freedom will be defended,'' Bush said early in the day. ''Make no mistake,'' he added. ''The United States will hunt down and pursue those responsible for these cowardly actions.''

Nearly 10 hours after the start of the US attacks, explosions were seen north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, where the ruling Taliban has granted asylum to bin Laden. But US officials said the United States was not responsible. ''It isn't us. I don't know who's doing it,'' a Pentagon spokesman, Craig Quigley, told reporters.

Authorities would not estimate the total number of casualties, but there were reports of prominent victims among the dead. Aboard American Flight 77 was Barbara Olson, 45, wife of US Solicitor General Theodore Olson. She was aboard American Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport when it crashed into the Pentagon. She twice called her husband as the plane was being hijacked and described some details, including that the attackers were using knife-like instruments.

Aboard American Flight 11 was David Angell, 54, was executive producer of the NBC television show ''Frasier,'' and his wife, Lynn. The Angells were returning from their summer home in Chatham, Mass. On the same flight was Daniel C. Lewin, 31, co-founder of Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., along with his wife and two sons. There were also reports that two scouts for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team were on the flight.

While attempts continued to identify victims and their families, aviation authorites marveled at the sophistication and audacity of the coordinated attacks.

Michael Barr, director of aviation safety programs at the University of Southern California, described the attacks at breathtaking. ''They knew the takeoff times, they had maps, they coordinated their position. ... Having been a fighter pilot all my life and having coordinated attacks on bridges and things like that, that takes time.''

There was a general consensus in the aviation and intelligence communities that the planes had been comandeered by the terrorists, and were not under the control of their crews.

''They had to get rid of the crew because they would not fly it into a building,'' Barr said. ''The pilot is dead anyways. He is dead if it hits the World Trade Center or doesn't. He is going to fly it into the ocean to minimize the death.''

Aviation authorities said it also was significant that all the planes were transcontinental flights, heavy with fuel and able to inflict maximum damage by melting steel supports.

''The impact won't bring down the World Trade Center, but the burning fuel can compromise the steel structure,'' said an official with the National Transportation Safety Board, who said accident teams had been dispatched to all the accident sites. ''Once the floors start to collapse, it is like dominos except vertically.''

If they can be found, the so-called black boxes - the cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders - will provide information on who was flying the planes and how they were flying, one pilot said. ''Oh my goodness, just think about finding them,'' he said. ''We live in a changed world from this morning on. I don't know what to do, aside from giving blood.''

The attacks triggered a national state of anxiety, with closures and evacuations of the White House, the Capitol, other federal buildings, and scores of public gathering places. Emergency calls for blood went out in Washington and New York. Security was heightened at border crossings, bridges, tunnels, and other locations considered vulnerable to assault.

The military was on high alert, and Bush, who was in Florida when the attacks occurred, was taken briefly to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, headquarters for the Strategic Air Command, the nation's nuclear strike force. He returned to Washington late in the day to address the nation from the reoccupied White House.

All commercial air traffic was halted at least until noon today. Financial markets were closed, as was the United Nations building in New York, the Hoover Dam, Mount Rushmore, and corporate headquarters including Coca-Cola in Atlanta and Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich. Phone lines were jammed for hours up and down the East Coast; some schools closed early; and shutdowns included Florida's Disney World, Seattle's Space Needle, and the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. All major league baseball games were postponed, the first such schedule-clearing since Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945.

Teams of doctors, nurses, paramedics and emergency medical technicians totaling 140 people were flying last night from Boston to New York to help treat the injured, said Richard Serino, Boston's chief of Emergency Medical Services. Task forces of ambulances were being organized to move the injured out of Manhattan, he said.

In Boston, authorities polled hospitals throughout the metropolitan area for the number of patients from New York they could handle. The process follows a plan never used before, which employs wholesale cancellation of elective surgeries, Serino said.

Americans' horror at the attacks was echoed around the world, as leaders and ordinary people alike expressed outrage, stepped up security, and pledged solidarity with the United States in punishing those reponsible and fighting terrorism.

In the West Bank and in Jerusalem, however, Palestinian youths danced and handed out candies on the streets in celebration, and even more sober Palestinians who mourned the loss of civilian life said the US government had gotten what it deserved.

In offices, homes, and bars around the world, crowds of people gathered around television sets - some crying, others shouting, and some stunned into silence - glued to the images of disaster.

Chris Patten, the European Union's foreign affairs commissioner, called the attacks the worst assault on the United States since Pearl Harbor, ''an act of war by madmen.''

''This is one of those few days in life that one can actually say will change everything,'' Patten said. ''The fight against international terrorism is going to dominate the international agenda until it's won.''

Religious leaders, from Pope John Paul II to Boston clergy, immediately denounced the attacks. Many churches were open for vigils last night and scheduled memorial services over the next few days. Although the violence was celebrated by some Palestinians in the Middle East, American Muslim organizations denounced the terrorism.

''American Muslims utterly condemn what are apparently vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians,'' said an alliance of Muslim organizations called the American Muslim Political Coordination Council. ''We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. No political cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts.''

Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish groups all issued statements denouncing the violence. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, in Washington for a meeting with other bishops, said ''I am numb with shock and sorrow.''

Conbtributing to this report were: Stephen Kurkjian, Ralph Ranalli, Brian McGrory, Raja Mishra, John Ellement, Michael Paulson, Anne Barnard, Brian Mooney, Shelley Murphy, Sandy Coleman, Mary Leonard, Robert Schlesinger, and Bud Collins of the Globe Staff. Wire material was also used.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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