NEW YORK -- In the most devastating terrorist onslaught ever waged against the United States, hijackers crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center on Tuesday, toppling its twin towers. The world watched on television as another plane slammed into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed outside Pittsburgh.
"Today, our nation saw evil," President Bush said in an address to the nation Tuesday night. He said thousands of lives were \"suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.\"
Establishing the death toll could take weeks. The four airliners alone had 266 people aboard, and there were no known survivors. Officials put the number of dead and wounded at the Pentagon at about 100 or more, with some news reports suggesting it could rise to 800.
In addition, a union official said he feared 300 firefighters who first reached the scene had died in rescue efforts at the trade center -- where 50,000 people worked -- and dozens of police officers were missing.
"The number of casualties will be more than most of us can bear," a visibly distraught Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.
Police sources said that some people trapped in the twin towers managed to call authorities or family members and that some trapped police officers made radio contact. In one of the calls, which took place in the afternoon, a businessman phoned his family to say he was trapped with policemen, whom he named, the source said.
Because of fires and unstable debris, no rescue attempts were going on Tuesday night at the site of the towers, however.
No one took responsibility for the attacks that rocked the seats of finance and government. But federal authorities identified Osama bin Laden, who has been given asylum by Afghanistan\'s Taliban rulers, as the prime suspect.
Aided by an intercept of communications between his supporters and harrowing cell phone calls from at least one flight attendant and two passengers aboard the jetliners before they crashed, U.S. officials began assembling a case linking bin Laden to the devastation.
U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between bin Laden supporters discussing the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, according to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The people aboard planes who managed to make cell-phone calls each described similar circumstances: They indicated the hijackers were armed with knives, in some cases stabbing flight attendants. The hijackers then took control of the planes.
Shortly after 7 p.m., crews began heading into ground zero of the attack to search for survivors and recover bodies. All that remained of the twin towers by then was a pile of rubble and twisted steel that stood five stories high, leaving a huge gap in the New York City skyline.
\"Freedom itself was attacked this morning, and I assure you freedom will be defended,\" said Bush, who was in Florida at the time of the catastrophe. As a security measure, he was shuttled to a Strategic Air Command bunker in Nebraska before leaving for Washington.
\"Make no mistake,\" he said. \"The United States will hunt down and pursue those responsible for these cowardly actions.\"
Officials across the world condemned the attacks, but in the West Bank city of Nablus thousands of Palestinians celebrated, chanting \"God is Great\" and handing out candy. The United States has become increasingly unpopular in the Mideast in the past year of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, with Washington widely seen as siding with Israel against the Arab world.
At the Pentagon, the symbol and command center for the nation\'s military force, one side of the building collapsed as smoke billowed over the Potomac River.
The first airstrike -- on the trade center -- occurred shortly before 8:45 a.m. New York time. A burning 47-story part of the trade center complex, long since evacuated, collapsed in flames just before nightfall.
Emergency Medical Service worker Louis Garcia said initial reports indicated that bodies were buried beneath two feet of soot on streets around the trade center.
\"A lot of the vehicles are running over bodies because they are all over the place,\" he said.
National Guard member Angelo Otchy of Maplewood, N.J., said, \"I must have come across body parts by the thousands. I came across a lady, she didn\'t remember her name. Her face was covered in blood.\"
For the first time, the nation\'s aviation system was completely shut down as officials considered the frightening flaws that had been exposed in security procedures. Financial markets were closed, too.
Top leaders of Congress were led to an undisclosed location, as were key officials of the Bush administration. Guards armed with automatic weapons patrolled the White House grounds and military aircraft secured the skies above the capital city. National Guard troops appeared on some street corners in the nation\'s capital.
In Afghanistan, where bin Laden has been given asylum, the nation\'s hardline Taliban rulers rejected suggestions he was responsible.
Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, said he received a warning from Islamic fundamentalists close to bin Laden, but had not taken the threat seriously. \"They said it would be a huge and unprecedented attack, but they did not specify,\" Atwan said in a telephone interview in London.
Eight years ago, the World Trade Center was a terrorist target when a truck bomb killed six people and wounded about 1,000 others. Just the death toll on the planes alone could surpass the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
This is how Tuesday\'s mayhem unfolded:
At about 8:45 a.m., a hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the trade center, the 25-year-old, glass-and-steel complex that was once the world\'s tallest.
Clyde Ebanks, an insurance company vice president, was at a meeting on the 103rd floor of the south tower when his boss said, \"Look at that!\" He turned to see a plane slam into the other tower.
\"I just heard the building rock,\" said Peter Dicerbo, a bank employee on the 47th floor. \"It knocked me on the floor. It sounded like a big roar, then the building started swaying. That\'s what really scared me.\"
The enormity of the disaster was just sinking in when 18 minutes later, the south tower also was hit by a plane.
The chaos was just beginning. Workers stumbled down scores of flights, their clothing torn and their lungs filled with smoke and dust.
John Axisa said he ran outside and watched people jump out of the first building; then there was a second explosion, and he felt the heat on the back of his neck.
Donald Burns, 34, was being evacuated from the 82nd floor when he saw four people in 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,\" he said.
Worse was to come. At 9:50, one tower collapsed, sending debris and dust cascading to the ground. At 10:30, the other tower crumbled.
Glass doors shattered, police and firefighters ushered people into subway stations and buildings. The air was black, from the pavement to the sky. The dust and ash were inches deep along the streets.
Meanwhile, at about 9:30 a.m., an airliner hit the Pentagon. \"There was screaming and pandemonium,\" said Terry Yonkers, an Air Force civilian employee at work inside the building.
A half-hour after the Pentagon attack, a United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 jetliner en route from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, crashed about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
Airline officials said the other three planes that crashed were American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 from Boston to Los Angeles, apparently the first to hit the trade center; United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767 from Boston to Los Angeles, which an eyewitness said was the second to hit the skyscrapers; and American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 en route from Washington-Dulles to Los Angeles that a source said hit the Pentagon.
Giuliani said it was believed the aftereffects of the plane crashes eventually brought the buildings down, not planted explosive devices.
At mid-afternoon, Giuliani said 1,500 \"walking wounded\" had been shipped to Liberty State Park in New Jersey by ferry and tugboat, and 750 others were taken to New York City hospitals, among them 150 in critical condition.
Well into the night, a steady stream of boats continued to arrive in the park. \"Every 10 minutes another boat with 100 to 150 people on it pulls up,\" said Mayor Glenn Cunningham. \"I have a feeling this is going to go on for several days.\"
Felix Novelli, who lives in Southampton, N.Y., was in Nashville with his wife for a World War II reunion. He was trying to fly home to New York when the attacks occurred
\"I feel like going to war again. No mercy,\" he said. \"This is Dec. 7 happening all over again. We have to come together like \'41, go after them."
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