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United States of America Attacked:  Two Hijacked Planes Destroy World Trade Center, Third Plane Strikes Pentagon

by Alan Elsner and Andrew Quinn, Reuters.

Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 at 09:04 PM CT


NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Three planes commandeered by unknown hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and New York's landmark World Trade Center on Tuesday, sending towering symbols of America's financial and military might crumbling into rubble and burying thousands of people alive.

President Bush speaking after a day that saw America reeling under its worst attack since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, vowed to stand firm against terrorism and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The twin 110-story World Trade Center towers, which drew as many as 40,000 workers a day, lay toppled and in ruins. The Pentagon, the nerve-center of the nation's military, was severely damaged with flames still burning late into Tuesday night.

Bush, in the first official confirmation of what could be a staggering death toll, urged vigilance as U.S. forces worldwide went on highest alert.

``Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror,'' Bush said in a televised nationwide address.

``Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings ... they cannot touch the foundation of America,''

Bush said. ``These acts shattered steel but they cannot shatter the steel of American resolve.''

Bush said the search was underway for those responsible, adding ``We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them.''

With the nation in shock and disbelief, major U.S. financial markets were ordered closed for a second day on Wednesday.

SUSPICION CENTERS ON BIN LADEN

While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, suspicions centered on an implacable U.S. foe -- exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden, who is being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban government.

Explosions lit up the night sky in the Afghan capital of Kabul and reports said there were missiles flying across the city. But a Pentagon official denied U.S. involvement and said the attack appeared to come from an Afghan opposition group.

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch told ABC News that he had been told by top intelligence officials that all signs point in the direction of bin Laden. ``We know that people on (one of the aircraft) appear associated with bin Laden,'' he told ABC.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the death toll could ultimately be ``horrific''. Hundreds of firefighters and police are missing and feared dead after trying to rescue others.

``There was a very substantial loss of life among firefighters at the scene,'' said Kathleen Zichy of NYU Downtown Hospital.

Officials feared the death toll could climb into the tens of thousands because as many as 40,000 people worked in the steel and glass Trade Center towers. A nearby 47-story building, World Trade Center No. 7, collapsed seven hours later after a raging fire. A hotel in the complex was also reported to have collapsed.

It was a day of horror, in which people jumped out windows high above the ground to avoid being burned alive or buried in tons of steel.

A person who answered the phone on the trading floor of broker Cantor Fitzgerald near the top of the World Trade Center said, ``We are fucking dying!'' when asked what was happening. The entire nation was brought to a halt by scenes of terrified people fleeing the mayhem flashing across TV screens. The mighty twin towers, anchoring the southern tip of Manhattan imploded one at a time, sending a massive plume of dust and smoke billowing over the city.

President Bush, in Florida at the time of the attacks, rushed back to Washington after crisscrossing the country.

AN ACT CONDEMNED

World leaders condemned the attack. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called the strikes a ``declaration of war against the civilized world.'' A shaken Palestinian President Yasser Arafat called them ``a terrible act,'' though Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories and Lebanon celebrated.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq, long a U.S. foe, said the United States deserved the attacks for what it called ``its crimes against humanity.''

The attacks, which involved the hijacking of four commercial planes -- two from Boston, one each from Newark and Dulles, outside Washington -- brought normal life across the country to a standstill, turning major cities into eerie ghost towns. Attorney General John Ashcroft said least one of the planes was commandeered by hijackers armed with knives.

Financial markets were closed and millions of workers sent home early. All commercial flights were canceled and all airports shut in an unprecedented move. For the first time since D-Day, major league baseball games were canceled.

The crisis began shortly before 9 a.m. EDT when the first plane slammed into the north tower in New York's financial district, opening a huge hole near the top.

A second plane followed 15 minutes later, scoring a direct hit on the south tower. Minutes later came the report of a third kamikaze attack on the Pentagon, in Northern Virginia across the Potomac river from Washington.

A section of the five-story, five-sided complex, the world's biggest office building which was never attacked during decades of the Cold War, collapsed and burned, sending gray smoke billowing over Washington.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the casualty total was unclear, but added: ``It will not be few.''

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams declared a state of emergency in the city and all the hospitals in the region were put on ``maximum alert.'' As White House staffers were evacuated and key personnel taken to safe locations, most of the federal government shut down for the day.

DEADLIEST BLOW OF ALL

While the nation struggled to come to grips with this horror, the deadliest blow of all followed as first one and then the second of the twin towers collapsed with a roar in a burst of smoke, fire and metal.

The towers -- which opened for business amid great fanfare in 1975 -- became one of New York's best-known landmarks, rivaling the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

Not knowing if more attacks were on the way, authorities evacuated landmarks like the White House, the Pentagon, the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Walt Disney theme parks.

It was the worst attack on American soil since Japanese war planes bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941, killing 2,280 soldiers and 68 civilians and forcing the United States into World War Two.

266 ABOARD FOUR HIJACKED PLANES

Authorities said at least 266 people were on board four hijacked planes -- two that crashed into the twin towers, one that slammed into the Pentagon and a fourth that crashed in a wooded area near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

``I looked outside and saw a big chunk of the World Trade Center missing,'' said Verizon employee Ellen Leon. ``Fifteen minutes later I saw people jumping out of the building. Bodies were flying out. I don't know if they were already dead or if they were just going to die.''

The attacks triggered panic, disbelief and heroism in the largest U.S. city, where police and firefighters risked their lives to save people from the twin towers before its 200,000 tons of steel frame and 43,000 windows came smashing down.

``Hundreds of people are burned from head to toe,'' said Dr. Steven Stern at St. Vincent's Hospital in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of lower Manhattan.

Foreign financial markets fell sharply on news of the attacks, which economists said could help shove the shuddering global economy into recession. The London FTSE index plummeted 5.7 percent and Latin American markets tumbled. Oil prices spiked up. Asian markets opened on Wednesday in chaos, with Tokyo stocks sliding to 17-year lows and other regional markets also showing sharp losses.

Bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire and Islamic militant, was blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in which 224 people died. An Arab journalist with access to bin Laden told Reuters in London he had warned three weeks ago of an ``unprecedented attack'' on U.S. interests.



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