Less than twelve hours after a catastrophic act of terrorism leveled New York’s World Trade Center towers and ripped through the Pentagon, the streets in the nation’s capital were eerily quiet.
Even as firefighters extinguished the last flames at the Pentagon and World Trade Center and began a rescue effort for hundreds of people feared dead, the destruction and chaos from earlier in the day seemed as confusing and horrific as when it all began.
Just before 9 a.m., an American Airlines Boeing 767 en route from Boston to Los Angeles sharply changed direction and locked on a collision course with the World Trade Center. It slammed into the side of one of the twin 110-story towers with amazing force.
Twenty minutes later, a United Airlines Boeing 767 on the same route hit the other twin tower in a spectacular explosion of fire and debris.
Moments after, television cameras captured the desperate pleas of people on the upper floors of the building gasping out of windows for oxygen and help. What some originally thought was debris falling from the upper floors turned out to be office workers jumping to escape.
Within an hour, reports from Washington told of an explosion in one section of the Pentagon. By late afternoon, officials confirmed an American Airlines 757 that took off from Washington Dulles Airport en route to Los Angeles crashed into the building.
Around 10 a.m., officials in Pittsburgh said a United Airlines 757 en route from Newark to San Francisco crashed in a rural area 80 miles southeast of the city.
To add to the devastation, early reports in Washington said a car bomb detonated outside the State Department and another explosion had occurred at the capitol. Federal officials later said those reports were false.
With all federal offices and Washington tourist attractions evacuated, a steady flow of cars and office workers jammed streets and sidewalks in the late morning hours. Some people stood on corners, looking cautiously to the sky when an airplane passed overhead. Others questioned with bewilderment how such a massive attack could be carried out with absolute secrecy.
The initial rush of people flooded the Metro subway system and city streets. Major arteries out of the city clogged with cars. On I-395, the thoroughfare that leads to the south by the Pentagon, exits were closed to divert traffic. By evening when the furor on the roadways subsided, the beltway around the Washington area resembled a quiet street.
Office buildings on K Street where powerbrokers and lobbyists normally work until late in the evening were dark and empty. Many coffeeshops and restaurants closed as early as noon. On a regular evening, happy hour in Washington’s many outdoor cafes would have been in full swing. Tuesday, there was silence.
SHOCK ACROSS THE CITY
When Rhoda and Leonard Frischer left their Westchester County, N.Y., home yesterday for a few days of rest in Washington, they expected a mild, sunny atmosphere. Instead, they watched the Pentagon explode in a plume of smoke.
“We knew that it was a terrorist,” Rhoda Frischer told U-WIRE. “It was horrible.”
“This is the worst thing that has happened since Pearl Harbor,” her husband Leonard Frischer added. “I hope there’s a big retaliation.”
For George Washington University sophomore Jessica McLellan, the morning began with the evacuation of her residence hall because of a bomb threat at a hotel next door.
“It’s shocking that this is such a large-scale attack and we didn’t know what was going on,” she said.
Fo Oyegbola stood in shock as she tried to locate her parents who were scheduled to be in New York’s financial district on business Tuesday.
“I haven’t been able to get in touch with them,” she said. “It’s crazy. This doesn’t happen in America. It usually happens overseas.”
For Rhoda Frischer, the day’s events signaled a new challenge for America.
“I think everyone is very concerned,” she said. “It’s going to change every aspect of our lives.”
RESCUE EFFORTS UNDERWAY
Rescue efforts continued through the night and may last for a number of days.Rescuers Tuesday evening reached some areas of the Pentagon and World Trade Center where fires and smoke began to subside.
Tuesday night in a nationally-television address, President Bush gave the first clear estimates of casualties. He said thousands of people may have died in the explosions.
Hospitals in Washington estimated hundreds of people arrived with injuries, but put the death toll under 100. That number is expected to rise steadily as bodies are recovered from the wrangled concrete of the Pentagon. The same outcome is expected in New York as the search effort continues to find victims in the rubble.
President Bush called the strikes a “despicable act of terror” and said the “military is powerful and it is prepared” to respond.
The day that jolted the American psyche could be a painful reminder of innocence lost, of a new era in society. But to many in the streets and the halls of power Tuesday, it was a call to rekindle a sense of national solidarity and unity.