This article was originally published in Newsday on Sept. 12, 2001

In an unprecedented attack that told Americans they're no longer safe, two hijacked jets on a horrifying suicide mission slammed into the World Trade Center yesterday - killing thousands in the nation's worst terrorist assault - and another crashed into the Pentagon.

The attack did far more than punch a gap in the New York skyline; it tore a hole in the national psyche as Americans watched live television images of the devastation, a frightening exhibit of American vulnerability.

Each of the 110-story Twin Towers collapsed within 90 minutes of the attacks in an unforgettable, eerily slow-motion cascade of ash and blood, trapping an untold number of the buildings' 50,000 workers.

The attack also left a hole in a city's heart, with union officials saying as many as 200 firefighters, including top officials and a department chaplain, apparently died in the rescue. Scores of police were feared dead, too.

"It was like Pearl Harbor, but worse, because this is civilians, not the military," said Jim McDonald, who said he saw screaming masses of people flee the trade center when he arrived at his job in TriBeCa. "You don't feel safe anywhere. It feels like a war zone."

President George W. Bush, pledging to hunt down those responsible for the attack, put the military on its highest level of alert and declared New York a disaster area.

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"Today, our nation saw evil," said Bush, denouncing "these acts of mass murder."

Authorities in Washington immediately called out troops, including an infantry regiment. The Navy sent aircraft carriers and guided missile destroyers to New York and Washington. Gov. George Pataki mobilized the National Guard, and by afternoon, armed soldiers were directing traffic on Manhattan street corners.

Late last night, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said that there were people still alive in two buildings, including police officers, and that rescuers were attempting to get to them. There was no word on how many.

Onlookers said that after the jets pierced the skies over lower Manhattan and struck each tower 18 minutes apart, they saw people jumping to their deaths to escape hellish flames.

"I saw 10, 15 bodies fall from one of the towers," said Robert Rios, 24, of Ridgewood, trembling. "People were running everywhere, screaming, crying. It was like war, the bodies dropping from the sky."

The grim chain reaction continued when a fourth hijacked jet carrying 45 people crashed into a field at Shanksville, Pa. A Virginia congressman who got a military briefing said it was apparently targeting Camp David, the presidential retreat, 85 miles away.

In New York, fire spread to a third high-rise in the World Trade Center complex, the 47-story building No. 7, and it collapsed into a pile of debris early in the evening. The building, which housed the city's high-tech emergency command center, stood atop a power substation that also was damaged, cutting off electricity to most of lower Manhattan.

Federal officials quickly focused on an old foe - Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, whom authorities say was behind attacks that killed more than 220 people at two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and 17 sailors on the USS Cole last year.

"There are indications that individuals associated with Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network have been involved" in yesterday's attacks, said an administration official closely linked to U.S. intelligence.

The surprise attack was planned so intricately that a radar device that alerts authorities to a hijacking had been disabled in the cockpits of both planes that hit the World Trade Center, sources said.

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The terror assault came eight years after a bombing in a World Trade Center garage killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Ramzi Yousef, a ringleader in an attack aimed at punishing U.S. support for Israel, had bragged to federal agents that he wanted to topple one tower on top of the other, killing thousands of civilians, prosecutors said during a 1997 trial.

Beyond toppling the towers, this attack shut down New York - a primary election was canceled and financial markets and the United Nations closed.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was trapped in a building for 20 minutes when he went to the scene, said Manhattan would be closed below 14th Street today, including financial markets.

"This is one of the most difficult days in the history of the city and the country," Giuliani said, expressing fear for the safety of hundreds of police and firefighters involved in the rescue. "... Our focus now is on saving as many lives as possible."

City officials declined to say how many rescue workers were missing. But Giuliani said, "No question we've lost police officers and firefighters. Some, I know personally."

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The attack began at 8:45 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 11, a 315,000-pound Boeing 767 carrying 92 people from Boston to Los Angeles, crashed into One World Trade Center, apparently several stories above the 80th floor, and disappeared into the structure.

Meanwhile, huge red and orange fireballs roared higher and higher from a gaping hole in the structure, standing out brightly against the azure sky.

"At first, we just saw papers and stuff coming down, but then you noticed all of sudden, it's like that's people, they were jumping out two at a time," said Bill Kelly, a day trader. "I counted 10 of them and then I stopped. This was before the second plane hit."

At 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 carrying 65 people from Boston to Los Angeles, sliced into the midsection of Two World Trade Center. Another grisly shower of debris rained on the streets.

"This landing gear, it landed on a woman," Kelly said. "She was five, 10 feet away from me. She was lying on her back, but her clothes half torn off and it looked like her back was gone."

Meanwhile, American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 carrying 58 passengers from Dulles International Airport outside Washington to Los Angeles, had turned on a course toward the Pentagon, where 24,000 people work.

Passenger Barbara Olson, a Washington lobbyist, made a frantic last-minute call to her husband, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, to say the plane had been hijacked by a group of men with knives and box-cutters, according to a family friend, Bob McConnell.

The jet crashed into the Pentagon at 9:45 a.m., causing an unknown number of fatalities and dozens of injuries. Part of the building collapsed.

With all eyes by then on the burning World Trade Center, Tower Two collapsed at 10 a.m., falling straight down, and Tower One disappeared into its own rubble 29 minutes later.

A blanket of gray white ash spread thickly over Lower Manhattan as crowds of people ran north. Faces were coated, ghost-like, but for the tracks of tears. There was an acrid smell in the air.

Pataki ordered all New York Army and Air National Guard troops - including medical personnel, engineers and aviators - to report to their duty stations.

Seven hundred and fifty troops had reported to armories throughout New York City by the afternoon and another 750 troops reported to Stewart Air Force in Newburgh late yesterday.

As many as 3,000 additional National Guard troops were to be be deployed and available for duty today, the Pataki administration said. In addition, 600 State Police officers were dispatched to the city.

Lower Manhattan was covered under 3 to 4 inches or more of soot and ash, as if a volcano had erupted. It was so thick in some areas that public safety officials said it covered bodies.

Firefighters, some with tears in their eyes, carried colleagues out of the rubble. The streets of lower Manhattan became eerily quiet except for the endless sounds of fire alarms and sirens. Rescuers said they had to dig their own way free after the first tower collapsed. "We went in with nine and came out with six," one officer on the police bomb squad said, eyes red and sad.

Bush was in Florida at the time of the attack. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in Washington, was taken to a secret secure location along with first lady Laura Bush. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also were taken to a secure location.

U.S. embassies were shut down worldwide.

By midafternoon, downtown Washington was deserted except for the throngs of police and Secret Service agents who blocked motorists and pedestrians from coming within three blocks of the White House.

Pataki, in calling out the National Guard, called the assault "an attack on our freedom and our way of life." He added: "We must retaliate."

Contributing to coverage today were staff writers Halimah Abdullah, Sylvia Adcock, Deborah Barfield, Mohamad Bazzi, Harry Berkowitz, Bill Bleyer, Pete Bowles, Rick Brand, Laura Price Brown, Samuel Bruchey, Valerie Burgher, Pat Burson, Sid Cassese, Alfonso A. Castillo, Mae M. Cheng, Rita Ciolli, Arthur Claps, Errol Cockfield, Robert Cooke, Bobby Cuza, Justin Davidson, Tom Demoretcky, Anthony DeStefano, Carrie Mason-Draffen, Barbara J. Durkin, Zachary R. Dowdy, Carol Eisenberg, Emi Endo, Merle English, Martin C. Evans, Dan Fagin, Thomas Frank, Mitchell Freedman, Josh Friedman, Karen Freifeld, Sean Gardiner, Laurie Garrett, Glenn Gamboa, Verne Gay, Ann Givens, John Gonzales, Peter Goodman, Katti Gray, Joe Haberstroh, Celeste Hadrick, Vera Haller, Susan Harrigan, Mark Harrington, Jamie Herzlich, Katia Hetter, Erik Holm, Noel Holston, Ron Howell, Patricia Hurtado, Tom Incantalupo, Aileen Jacobson, Dan Janison, Bart Jones, S. Mitra Kalita, Robert E. Kessler, Ann L. Kim, Sylvia E. King-Cohen, Jessica Kowal, Hugo Kugiya, Chau Lam, Earl Lane, Edward W. Lempinen, Leonard Levitt, Karen Lipson, Herbert Lowe, Tami Luhby, Carl MacGowan, James T. Madore, Joseph Mallia, Sheila McKenna, Matthew McAllester, Stephanie McCrummen, Tom McGinty, Elizabeth Moore, Samson Mulugeta, William Murphy, Christian Murray, Collin Nash, Bryn Nelson, Ridgely Ochs, Tania Padgett, J. Jioni Palmer, Rocco Parascandola, Liz Paw, Kris Petcharawises, Monty Phan, Liam Pleven, Robert Polner, Elaine S. Povich, Chastity Pratt, Roni Rabin, Margaret Ramirez, Jordan Rau, Graham Rayman, Sumathi Reddy, Nedra Rhone, Delthia Ricks, Michael Rothfeld, Joshua Robin, Knut Royce, Ray Sanchez, Elizabeth Sanger, Stephanie Saul, Indrani Sen, Dionne Searcey, Andrew Smith, Jan Stuart, Jamie Talan, Corey Takahashi, Curtis L. Taylor, Lauren Terrazzano, Katie Thomas, James Toedtman, Joie Tyrrell, Robin Topping, Theresa Vargas, Bryan Virasami, Mary Voboril, Alan Wax, Kathryn Wellin, Olivia Winslow, Michael Woods, Monte R. Young and Steve Zipay. Freelance writers included Wendy Davis, Richard Kagan, Tania E. Lopez, Vivian Walt, Leonard Post and Roshni Abayasekara.