NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters)–In the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor–three hijacked planes slammed into the Pentagon and New York’s landmark World Trade Center on Tuesday–demolishing the two 110-story towers that symbolize US financial might.
Horrific scenes of terrified people fleeing the mayhem flashed across TV screens as the mighty twin towers located near the tip of Manhattan imploded one at a time–sending a massive plume of dust and smoke billowing over the city.
No death toll was immediately available but officials feared the number could climb into the thousands–as 40,000 people alone worked in the steel and glass Trade Center.
New York officials said hundreds of firefighters and police may have perished trying to save others.
The attacks presented President George W. Bush with the sternest test of his eight-month presidency. He cut short a trip to Florida and flew to a Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska–after stopping briefly in Louisiana where he vowed to bring those responsible to justice.
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 United States to a standstill–turning the major cities of the nation into eerie ghost towns.
All financial markets were closed–millions of workers sent home early–all flights around the nation were canceled and all airports shut in an unprecedented move. Markets were to remain closed on Wednesday.
It began shortly before 9 a.m. when the first plane slammed into the north tower in the heart of New York’s financial district–opening a massive hole near the top. With TV stations showing the scene live–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 department in North Virginia–across the Potomac River from Washington. That building–too–burst into flames.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in the building and tried to assist the victims before being evacuated.
Then came the deadliest blow. Authorities evacuated key landmarks like the White House–the fire-damaged Pentagon–the Sears Tower in Chicago–the CIA building and the Walt Disney theme parks. All baseball games were canceled.
It was the worst attack on American soil since Japanese war planes bombed the US fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7–1941–killing 2,280 soldiers and 68 civilians and forcing the United States into World War Two.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told CNN–"This is comparable to Pearl Harbor and we must have the same response and the people who did it must have the same end as the people who attacked Pearl Harbor."
Lawmakers called it an act of war which the United States must avenge. No group took immediate responsibility for the attack but suspicions centered on an implacable US enemy–exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden–whose followers were held responsible for murderous attacks on US embassies in Africa.
There were a total of 266 people on board the day’s 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.
But it could be days or weeks before the total death toll becomes clear.
"I wouldn’t want to say what the death toll could be. It will be a horrible number. I saw people dropping out of windows," a shaken New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told ABC News–adding that 200 firefighters were missing.
"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."
Tuesday’s attacks triggered scenes of panic–disbelief and heroism in the largest US city–where police and firefighters risked their lives to save people from the 110-story twin towers before its 200,000 tons of steel frame came smashing down–covering lower Manhattan in a shower of soot.
"It’s nuts–there is debris and dust everywhere–and it looks as though a volcano erupted down there," said Michael DeVita–who was working on the 84th floor of World Trade Center Building No. 2 when the first plane hit Building No. 1.
Hospitals in New York were overwhelmed as a black cloud billowed into the blue skies over Manhattan where the city skyline had been dramatically and permanently altered.
"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. Rescue workers used commuter ferries to carry victims across the Hudson River to safety in Hoboken–New Jersey–where the scene resembled a war zone–with victims laid out on stretchers–limping on crutches–and others walking without a shirt and with their pants torn.
Dozens looked shell-shocked and were weeping in nearby streets. The thick plume of smoke rising from what used to be the World Trade Center was clearly visible in the background.
Bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey were closed–making it impossible for parents to return home and pick up their children from school.
Bush vowed to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice as he stopped in Louisiana to talk to the nation. "Make no mistake–the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," the president said.
Bush had begun his day in Florida prepared to speak about education but quickly changed his plans when the news of the attacks emerged.
With a military jet at each wingtip–Bush’s Air Force One aircraft rushed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and was immediately surrounded by soldiers bearing automatic weapons and dressed in camouflage fatigues and helmets.
He was on the ground there only briefly before heading for Nebraska–landing at Offutt–a base with a key role in strategic nuclear planning under its US Strategic Command.
Disaster relief agencies said they were working with the military to rush thousands of pints of blood to New York City and Washington to treat an untold number of injuries from aerial hijack attacks in those cities.
"We have not seen an attack like this–certainly not since Pearl Harbor," said Adm. Robert Natter–commander of the US Atlantic Fleet–which was dispatching ships and aircraft for air defense to Washington and possibly New York.
As international flights were diverted to Canada–authorities shut down all flights in the United States.
Foreign financial markets fell sharply on news of the attacks. The London FTSE index plummeted 5.7 percent–and Latin American markets tumbled. Oil prices spiked up.
Bin Laden–a Saudi millionaire and Islamic militant–believed to be in Afghanistan–was blamed for the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in which 224 people died.
An Arab journalist with access to bin Laden told Reuters in London the renegade Saudi had warned three weeks ago of an "unprecedented attack" on US interests.
Washington has offered a $5 million reward for his capture. George Tenet–director of the CIA–said this week the Saudi was the most immediate and serious threat to US security.
Beside the embassy bombings–US officials link bin Laden to last year’s bombing of a US Navy ship in Yemen and with foiled plots at the turn of the millennium.
The previous worst act of terrorism in the United States was the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people died. Timothy McVeigh was executed earlier this year.
An earlier bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 resulted in six deaths and hundreds of injuries.
WORLD REACTS WITH REVULSION TO US ATTACKS
World leaders reacted with revulsion to Tuesday’s devastating US terror attacks and Washington’s allies demanded war on international terrorism–but in the Middle East–some people flaunted their glee.
Russia and the West urged unprecedented solidarity to answer an unprecedented catastrophe.
No one claimed immediate responsibility for what a European Union leader equated with Pearl Harbor and what Norway called the worst terrorist attack in history. Early US speculation centered on Saudi-born guerrilla–Osama bin Laden.
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and an Afghan Taliban envoy joined states around the world in condemnation.
European leaders from Britain to Russia broke off normal business for crisis meetings.
From every corner–politicians grappled for the strongest language to describe the nightmare: horrendous–abominable–disgusting–monstrous–abhorrent–cowardly–vile–insane.
The European Union said it was the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor 60 years ago and was "one of those few days in life that one can actually say will change everything."
"This is an act of war by madmen," EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten added in comments to Reuters.
EU foreign ministers are to hold an emergency meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss a joint response.
Flags were lowered on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s office and on official buildings in Germany. A black flag was ordered hoisted over Austria’s parliament.
In a "Dear George" telegram to Bush–Russian President Vladimir Putin said:
"Such an inhuman act must not go unpunished. The entire international community should unite in the struggle against terrorism."
"France has always condemned terrorism–condemns it without reserve and thinks we must fight terrorism by all means," President Jacques Chirac said as he broke off a regional tour to rush back to Paris. British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his disgust before he too raced back to his office from a conference.
"This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life," he said.
Queen Elizabeth expressed "total shock."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder promised Bush "unlimited solidarity" in a letter of condolence for as yet unknown casualties. Parliament in Berlin suspended normal business.