Thursday September 13

Big Apple rocked to the core

By Paul McGeough, Sydney Morning Herald

Battered, bruised, dazed and disoriented. The city that never sleeps has been dealt its hardest blow, writes Paul McGeough.

TONIGHT the smoke plume still hangs over lower Manhattan, its edges eerily lit by the bedazzling lights of a skyline that has been reshaped by the terrorists' hatchet-blow.

Their snap demolition of the imposing twin towers of the World Trade Centre means that the Empire State Building again is the tallest building in the city. But it also means the nation that has walked tallest in the world is badly battered and bruised.

Images on TV screens are horrendous. The song speaks truly New York is the city that never sleeps. But tonight it is dazed and disoriented as it comes to terms with the death of thousands of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers whose only crime was to go to work yesterday morning.

Those who have not fled the island of Manhattan are staying home. They panicked for much of the day food stores and banks were rushed and they queued for petrol, despite two- and three-fold price hikes at the pumps.

But New Yorkers also came together, united in fear, sorrow and confusion. What was written most on faces in the street was disbelief, an inability to grasp the idea that any single element of the assault on New York might have been attempted, let alone the successful execution of the whole sophisticated and terrible plot.

Aircraft often fly low over the city as they head into or away from New York's three airports. But even before United Airlines Flight No 11, with a terrorist pilot thought to be at the controls, ploughed into the side of the 110-storey north tower at the WTC, its low trajectory provoked one onlooker to cry: "Holy shit."

It was 8.48am, and it was the start of one of the bloodiest days in this civilisation. What is the toll? It's probably more than 10,000; it might be more than 20,000.

The jet came in from the north, its near-full fuel tanks exploding in a huge ball of flame that then evaporated to reveal a gaping black triangle of destruction about two-thirds of the way up the tower.

The second attack came 18 minutes later American Airlines flight number 175 careened in from the west, slicing through the south tower like a knife through butter.

This time the amateur video first picked up the roar of the jet's engines and then the cries of horror from city crowds who watched as another huge explosion enveloped the top of the south tower in a ball of fire.

The two implosions and a third at the Pentagon reduced the administration to a wobbly attempt to demonstrate it still had a grip on the levers of power.

For much of the day Air Force One skedaddled about the country, putting down first in Louisiana and later in Nebraska so that President Bush could be briefed on secure telephone lines before returning to the White House, from where he addressed the nation.

New York became a fortress as all inbound traffic road, air and rail was halted and disturbing images were telecast of thousands of city workers leaving Manhattan on foot, across the bridges that anchor the island to the rest of America.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney appealed to all Americans to light candles last night so that their children might see a glimmer of hope in their flames and hundreds of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate gathered on the steps of the Capitol in Washington to sing God Bless America.

People kept talking about Pearl Harbour the attack, not the movie. Till yesterday the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had been the worst attack on US soil 2,280 soldiers and 68 civilians died in the 1941 attack that finally brought the US into World War II.

But yesterday, New York's financial district was something from a very different war zone.

Block after block looked like something from a nuclear winter. Every street and car, every dazed worker and grim-faced emergency crew was layered with thick, throat-rasping dust. Street after street was littered with the shredded remains of the papers that had filled the desks and filing cabinets of the thousands of offices in the towers.

New Yorkers then reeled with news of the hit at the Pentagon. But nothing, nothing could prepare them for the collapse minutes later of the world's biggest commercial complex, which opened for business in 1975 and which has stood as a monument to capitalism and its victory in the Cold War.

The collapse was horror in slow motion. The south tower went first, in a cloud of dust that masked its loss for a few minutes. And the collapse 23 minutes later of the north tower was unnerving especially with the huge communications tower on the top of the building remaining vertical as all 110 floors collapsed in a heap.

And then, just like the movies, the collapses created massive clouds of shredded steel, fragmented glass, crushed masonry and office furniture that barrelled uptown with hundreds of terrified emergency and office workers and this reporter running for their lives as they tried to stay ahead of the maelstrom. It had a life of its own, menacingly turning corners as it enveloped all before it. After it passed, leaving darkness, people stumbled into the sunlight clutching each other and to the fact that they still were alive.

Ella Lean, a phone company worker said: "I looked outside and saw that a big chunk of the WTC was missing. Fifteen minutes later I saw people jumping out of the building bodies were flying out.

"I don't know if they already were dead or if they were jumping to their death."

Michael DeVita had been working on level 84 of the south tower when the north tower took the first hit: "There was debris and dust everywhere. It looked as though a volcano had erupted."

As hundreds of walking wounded found their way to hospitals, rescue workers commandeered commuter ferries to rush survivors across the Hudson River to safety in New Jersey.

There the landing site was like another Hollywood creation hundreds of stretcher cases lined up on the waterfront, many on crutches and nearly all with their shredded clothing hanging from the dusty bodies.

But the drama surpassed even the imagination of Hollywood when Barbara Olsen, a high-profile political commentator and wife of the US Solicitor General Ted Olsen, picked up the telephone as she was flying to Los Angeles to tell her husband that the plane had been hijacked and that even the pilots had been herded to the rear of the aircraft.

Ms Olsen is presumed to have died when the aircraft was ploughed into the Pentagon.

In the streets of New York people watched horrified, transfixed as bodies started to tumble from the upper levels of the twisting, buckling towers.

An eyewitness: "The bodies were just dropping, jumping. They were jumping, like first it was two; and then another and another. I couldn't look."

The insurance firm Marsh and McLennan had 1700 workers in the building but by last night it had accounted for only 500 of them. Hundreds of employees of the New York Port Authority are presumed to have died and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani warned the city to expect a death toll of many thousands when he said: "I wouldn't want to say what the death toll is, but an horrendous number of lives have been lost."

Mike Wilson, who worked on level 51 of the north tower, said that after the hit some of his colleagues opted to stay at their desks because the stairwells were so crowded. All are presumed dead.

He said: "People figured that once the plane had hit, that was it. They just didn't think that the building would fall down. These people and all the firemen who were going up, well they all are dead."

Another witness: "I saw people jumping off buildings. Everyone was screaming, running people were stampeding. They were screaming that another plane was coming and then the south tower exploded."

William Rodriguez, who was in the basement of the north tower: "I went up into the building to help the police rescue people. And when I left the building I found those who had jumped embedded in the pavement there was the body of a woman which looked as though she had melted into the cement."

George Cornilius: "When I got down to the plaza level of the WTC the police were yelling: `Don't look back, don't look back."'

In the early hours of Wednesday there were reports that people were still alive in the rubble and had managed to make calls on their mobile phones. Mayor Giuliani, asked how long might they survive, answered: "For some time and we don't know how long it depends on the will of God."

At a trauma centre in lower Manhattan, police officer Tyrone Dux took a break before returning to the disaster zone. With tears streaming down his face, he said: "New York is crying. It's like night-time down there I didn't hear any screaming, just dead, dark silence. Dark. Frightening."

And at the Chelsea Piers, usually a place of fun for Manhattan, an army of 500 surgeons, doctors and nurses were told as they awaited the arrival of the injured into their field hospital: "If it looks like they are going to die, let them. There will be a lot more coming in that you will be able to save. The ice-rink next door is to be the morgue."

Donald Burns, 34, who was on level 82 of the north tower, said he saw four severely burned people on the stairwell: "I tried to help them but they didn't want anyone to touch them. The fire had melted their skin. Their clothes were tattered."

Boris Ozersky, 47, a computer networks analyst, raced down 70 flights of stairs before the tower collapsed. He said of the implosion: "I just got blown somewhere, and then it was total darkness. We tried to get away, but I was blown to the ground."

"Holy Father, protect us," one woman sobbed, tears streaming down her face. And a dazed-looking man following close behind her murmured: "It's about prayer. God is the only one."

There were surreal moments: on the run downtown, the realisation that everyone around me was crying; the point near Seventh Street where everyone was running north to get away from the disaster area, instead of standing and gawking at the smoke billowing from the twin towers.

Today New York is still a disaster zone. All streets south of 14th Street are closed and businesses are not allowed to open. Schools and the Stock Exchange are closed.

In the early hours of the morning the rubble had cooled sufficiently for rescue workers and heavy machines to move in, clearing a path to the eight-storey stump that remains of the south tower.

All around buildings have been wrecked and may have to be demolished. Late yesterday afternoon a third tower in the complex 47 storeys tall collapsed of its own accord under the weight of rubble from the taller towers. And the authorities fully expect the Marriott Hotel within the complex to shatter as well.

The area was flood-lit throughout the night, revealing the devastation wrecked cars and emergency vehicles, warped and tumbled buildings. Utter devastation.

For the first time since D-Day national baseball games were cancelled, the presentation of the Grammy and Emmy Awards postponed, and people are queuing up by the hundreds to donate blood.

Aircraft carriers have been stationed off the coast and more than a dozen fighting ships were headed for the Hudson and East Rivers. Fighter aircraft circled the skies above Manhattan yesterday.

New York sleeps restlessly tonight.

And in the minds of some were the words of former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who said: "This is a black day; September 11 is a defining day we will never be the same again."

This black day started as a day made by God. Manhattan was at its September best, with not a cloud in a blue, blue sky. But by day's end it was the hand of the devil that seemed to have the city by the throat.

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