U.S. attacked

World Trade Center towers destroyed by crashing planes. Pentagon also hit. Thousands feared dead. U.S. says those responsible may have ties to bin Laden, but denies involvement in explosions in Afghanistan.


Salon Staff
September 11, 2001 6:43PM (UTC)

The United States was devastated Tuesday morning by the most deadly terrorist attacks in world history. Thousands are feared dead, and the World Trade Center's landmark twin towers in lower Manhattan were destroyed.

Two hijacked airliners crashed into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, another hijacked jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., just outside the nation's capital, and yet another hijacked aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania.

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CNN reported U.S. officials saying in the late afternoon that they had "new and specific information" that people with links to millionaire Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden may have been responsible for the attacks, though the officials weren't ruling out other possibilities.

In a solemn televised address to the nation at 8:30 EDT, President Bush said that the attacks had failed to shake America's spirit and filled the country with "a quiet, unyielding anger" at the perpetrators. He called for Americans to pray for the victims and their families. Bush vowed to find and punish those responsible, saying that the United States would make no distinction between those who carried about the attacks and those who harbored them. The latter statement opened the door to military action directed not just against terrorist organizations, but governments.

Earlier, in a press conference held at the Pentagon Tuesday afternoon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to speculate about who was responsible for the attack.

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At about 5:30 p.m. EDT, Kabul, Afghanistan, came under heavy attack. Loud explosions and fires were visible and anti-aircraft fire and ground-to-air rockets filled the air. The attack took place at 2:30 a.m., Kabul time. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer denied that the attacks were launched by the United States, as did secretary Rumsfeld.

Authorities had been trying to evacuate those who work in the World Trade Center towers when the glass-and-steel skyscrapers came down in a thunderous roar within about 90 minutes after the two crashes, which took place 18 minutes apart just before and after 9 a.m. About 50,000 people work at the Trade Center and tens of thousands of others visit each day. Many people were trapped inside.

The collapse of the towers sent vast billowing clouds of smoke over lower Manhattan. Debris from the World Trade Center explosion apparently hit a neighboring building, causing another explosion there.

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About 265 firefighters who were fighting the World Trade Center fire were crushed when the building collapsed. The fire chief and deputy fire chief were among those killed. Seventy-eight policemen were reported missing.

At about 5:20 p.m. EDT, another World Trade Center building, No. 7, which had been struck by debris and set on fire, collapsed. The building was 47 stories tall.

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At New York hospitals, hundreds of doctors were treating the injured, many of them suffering from severe burns. A critical shortage of blood was reported in New York. At St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, people were turned away attempting to give blood and told to come back Wednesday because the hospital had run out of blood bags. According to a nurse, 400 people had been admitted to the hospital. But by late afternoon many medical personnel were reportedly waiting for ambulances that didn't arrive -- leading to speculation that the majority of the victims had been killed.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani, at a mid-afternoon press conference, said that about 1,500 "walking wounded" had been taken to a park, 600 were in local hospitals and at least 150 were in critical condition. Giuliani wouldn't speculate about how many people were killed or injured. He said that people were still alive in the rubble.

Eyewitnesses, including a visibly shaken Giuliani, reported seeing people leaping or falling, sometimes in flames, to certain death from the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers before the buildings collapsed. One couple held hands as they jumped. Dazed office workers covered in dirt wandered around like ghosts, weeping, trying to make sense of what happened.

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The first plane to hit the World Trade Center was American Airlines flight 11, a Boeing 767 en route from Boston to Los Angeles with 81 passengers and 11 crew members on board, which hit the north tower. The plane that slammed into the south tower 18 minutes later was United flight 175, a Boeing 767 en route from Boston to Los Angeles with 56 passengers and nine crew members.

The destruction of the World Trade Center was only part of a series of coordinated attacks: A hijacked airplane crashed into the Pentagon, collapsing part of the roof of the nation's defense headquarters. The jetliner was American flight 77, a Boeing 757 bound from Dulles airport near Washington to Los Angeles with 58 passengers and a crew of six.

United Airlines flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, crashed in Pennsylvania near the town of Somerset, about 80 miles from Pittsburgh. The plane was carrying 38 passengers and a crew of seven. The Associated Press reported that about 20 minutes before impact a passenger with a cellphone called authorities from a bathroom and yelled, "We're being hijacked! We're being hijacked!" Authorities stayed on the phone with the passenger until he heard a loud noise and the call went dead.

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Altogether, the four crashed planes had 266 people aboard.

"This is the second Pearl Harbor. I don't think that I overstate it," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

"There has been an act of war of the worst kind, namely against civilians," said former Secretary of State George Schulz. "We know that this was carried out by an organization big enough to do something rather complex and complicated, so we have to know who those people are and we have to go after them."

All federal buildings in Washington, including the White House, were evacuated, and the city was declared to be in a state of emergency. CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., was also evacuated, as was the United Nations building in New York. Federal buildings across the country were closed. Military bases across the country stood on "Delta" alert, the war level. Fighter planes were in the air over Washington.

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The Federal Aviation Administration ordered all airports closed and all planes in the air diverted to the nearest airport. By about 1 p.m. EDT, all commercial air traffic had been grounded, and there were no civilian planes in the air. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta ordered that all air traffic be suspended until at least noon EDT Wednesday. He also issued orders limiting ship traffic in U.S. navigable waters.

President Bush was in Sarasota, Fla., speaking to schoolchildren when news of the attacks reached him. He was flown in Air Force One to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where he appeared at a hastily arranged news conference. "Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," he said. Calling the attacks, "a national tragedy" and "an apparent act of terrorism against our country," he said, "Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

Before heading to a National Security Council meeting in Omaha, Neb., Bush said, "I want to reassure the American people that the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks." Late in the day the president returned to Washington, from where he made his brief televised address to the nation.

White House spokeswoman Karen Hughes said that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remained at the Pentagon, and other Cabinet officials were in secure locations and in contact with each other. Rumsfeld reportedly ran from his Pentagon office to help the injured in the wake of the crash there before being hustled to a secure location.

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The nation reacted with shock and horror. Flags were lowered to half-staff in many states. Nationwide, crowds gathered around television sets in airports, bars, hotel lounges, houses and apartments. The space station commander could see the smoke rising above New York. In Los Angeles, TV and movie studios shut down, as did Disneyland and all other major attractions. "It's eerie," said one resident Tuesday afternoon. "It's like Sunday morning at 8 a.m. here."

Monuments such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia were closed, as were the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Space Needle in Seattle and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Virtually all federal government offices closed, as did many state and local government offices, businesses and schools. Major League Baseball postponed its entire schedule of games for Tuesday. New York's mayoral primary was postponed, as were elections in Syracuse and Buffalo. Voting in Massachusetts went ahead as scheduled, but the Southern Governors' Association canceled its annual fall meeting. All U.S. financial markets closed, including the New York and American stock exchanges, NASDAQ and the Chicago Board of Trade, and were reportedly planning to stay closed through Wednesday.

Oklahoma police created a one-block perimeter around the jail where Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols is being held.

"I don't think there's any place in America right now that's not at risk," said Andrew Hudson, a city spokesman in Denver, where emergency preparedness officials gathered in the basement of City Hall.

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The Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, called on Muslims nationwide to offer assistance to victims of the attacks, and urged people to report incidents of anti-Muslim harassment or attacks. Anti-Muslim attacks were reported in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, after rumors flew that Muslims were behind the tragedy.

PLO chairman Yasser Arafat strongly condemned the attacks, which came on the eighth anniversary of the Washington meeting between President Bill Clinton, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But in the West Bank city of Nablus, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets to celebrate, chanting, "God is Great" and distributing candy to passers-by. People in other places in the Arab world, enraged at the United States for its support of Israel, were also reported to have cheered the attack.

"This is perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack that's ever taken place in the world," said Chris Yates, an aviation expert at Jane's Transport in London. "It takes a logistics operation from the terror group involved that is second to none. Only a very small handful of terror groups is on that list ... I would name at the top of the list Osama bin Laden."

But Afghanistan's hardline Taliban rulers condemned the attacks and rejected suggestions that bin Laden, who lives in the country, could be behind them.

"We have tried our best in the past and we are willing in the future to assure the United States in any kind of way we can that Osama is not involved in these kinds of activities," Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told reporters.

Muttawakil said Tuesday's attacks were "from a humanitarian point of view surely a loss and a very terrifying incident." Asked whether the Taliban condemned the attacks on the United States, he said: "We have criticized and we are now again criticizing terrorism in all its forms."

The Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said through a spokesman that bin Laden does not have the facilities to orchestrate such a major assault within the United States.

Bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire indicted in the United States on charges of masterminding the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, has lived in Afghanistan since 1996 under the protection of the Taliban. Washington accuses him of running an international terrorist network.

No groups took immediate responsibility for the attack. But bin Laden said three weeks ago that he and his followers would launch an unprecedented attack on the U.S. for its support of Israel, according to an Arab journalist with access to him.

Key indexes sank on world stock markets and some European airlines canceled flights to the United States and recalled planes already in the air.

Canada tightened security in major cities and along the U.S. border. The United States' borders with Mexico and Canada remained open, but security was tight.

Many countries beefed up security at American embassies. U.S. armed forces in Europe and Asia were put on high alert.

In Brussels, NATO called an emergency meeting and European Union institutions took special security measures, including partial evacuations. Israel closed its airspace to foreign flights and evacuated staff from diplomatic missions and Jewish institutions around the world. In Paris, Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin, police and security were put on high alert.

"It is impossible to fully comprehend the evil that would have conjured up such a cowardly and depraved assault upon thousands of innocent people," said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to the American people, calling the attacks "terrible tragedies."

"This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of human life, and we the democracies of this world are going to have to come together and fight it together."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "There can be no doubt that these attacks are deliberate acts of terrorism, carefully planned and coordinated, and as such I condemn them utterly."

Condolences and expressions of sympathy and outrage poured in from around the world. In Oslo, Norwegians left bouquets of flowers in a park near the U.S. Embassy.

Five battleships left Norfolk, Va., to be deployed along the East Coast, and two aircraft carriers in Norfolk moved out to be deployed to the New York area.

The death toll from the attacks is unknown but is certain to be horrifically high, certainly in the thousands. Authorities speculated that it could take a week or longer before the final grim tally was compiled. At capacity, the World Trade Center holds 50,000 people, and the buildings are in a densely populated area, with commuter trains running directly underneath them. Giuliani said that rescuers are finding survivors in the rubble.

At a 2:30 p.m. EDT press conference, Giuliani, calling the attacks "something we all have nightmares about," and New York Gov. George Pataki called on New Yorkers to remain calm and allow rescue workers to do their work. Giuliani declared the city safe.

"The people of New York are not only the freest and most diverse people in the world, we're also, I believe, the most capable of rising to meet the challenges of this type of attack," Pataki said.

Lower Manhattan was evacuated, and the island was sealed off. The subways were shut down in Manhattan for a time during the morning, but the lettered lines were running by mid-afternoon, Giuliani said. Subway trains were running in the other four boroughs, and there were no reports of lawlessness or looting. Giuliani praised New Yorkers for their calmness and bravery.

Asked how many people might have been in the World Trade Center, Giuliani said he'd heard a guess of 10,000, but couldn't say. His voice cracking, Giuliani said, "There's no question that we lost police officers and firefighters, some that I know personally."

The Pentagon confirmed an unknown number of dead in the fire at the Defense Department.

CNN reported that Barbara Olson, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson, was on one of the planes that crashed. According to a report, Barbara Olson spoke to her husband twice by cellphone during the hijacking and reported the hijackers had knife-like weapons.

The Associated Press contributed to this story


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