'It Was Like Swimming Through Black Smoke'

The black tower of smoke came billowing out as our Long Island Rail Road train approached the tunnel linking Queens to Manhattan. "The World Trade Center's on fire," announced a ticket-collector in a scratchy PA announcement. A flurry of cell phone calls followed, and within minutes we all had the horrible news: two hijacked planes had flown into the building that-until now-have been universal symbols of the New York skyline. At first, we didn't believe it. But as each cell phone caller hung up, the confirmation kept coming in. "My husband's downtown," said one woman in a shaky voice. "I work in the World Trade Center," said another, standing in the vestibule. "I don't know what to do."

Similar scenes were played out in other trains too. On the 9 a.m. Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York, half the passengers got off and decided to go back home. One elderly couple from Philadelphia was particularly upset by the news. "We'll never get to see the show!" the woman wailed. "We had such a nice trip planned." The two had tickets to "The Producers."

Workers at the high-rise Penn Plaza fled their building as building security announced that they should evacuate. Minutes later, at about 9:40 am, the order was rescinded and some people trickled back. Most stayed down on the sidewalk. Up in a 36th floor conference room, lawyers who saw both crashes were still standing at their picture window, looking at the black smoke billowing from the then still-standing towers. "I was on the phone talking to someone in the building when it happened," one says incredulously. "He said 'My God, the whole building just shook,' and then I could hear screams. I don't know what happened to him."

On the midtown streets, a similar air of horror and disbelief was everywhere. New Yorkers famous for keeping their distance from strangers trembled and shared information, clustering around radios that store-owners had turned up at full volume for those passing by. It was like a scene from the streets of Israel, where everybody monitors the news constantly and bus drivers turn up their radios whenever the news gets bad. Subways were closed, as were bridges and tunnels into Manhattan.

Downtown, where the centers were situated, the scene was almost unimaginable. Shocked, hysterical workers wandered dazed through the streets, sharing their experiences. One woman described how she managed to get out of the Trade Center buildings into Fulton Street, then got knocked down in the crush. A baby, she says, was lying on the ground.

Others watched in horror as people jumped out of the buildings to their deaths. "I saw about 15 people jump out," says eyewitness Jeremy Davids. "You'd hear a gasp in the crowd, and you'd look up, and the person would still fall for about 10 or 15 seconds. Some flailed their arms, some kept them straight." Some eyewitnesses reported seeing as many as 50 people plummet from the buildings.

Even worse was to come. Within an hour of the planes hitting the building, the first tower collapsed. A fireball zipped down Broadway, covering the area in thick white dust and deep darkness. "It was like swimming through black smoke," said one officer from the New York Sheriff's Department who was near the first tower when it fell down.

While no casualty figures are available, the collapse pushed an obviously-high toll even higher. A team of ambulance staff and medical personnel who set up a casualty area at the base of the building were crushed, disappearing under the rubble without a trace. Four hours after the blast, trauma doctors waiting nearby said they are treating few injuries. "They've either walked out of here or they're dead," said one doctor.

Emergency service workers told one NEWSWEEK reporter of being forced to wait, unable to dig out an untold number of buried victims. "People with minor injuries could be dying of smoke inhalation," fretted one doctor.

Other eyewitnesses described choking on the dust and huddling with firefighters who were searching side streets with flashlights.

The tragedy generated kindnesses too. Those who had water shared it with others choking from the pall. At least one pharmacy offered free drinks to those in the area. Other stores offered phones, or gave out T-shirts to provide makeshift masks as protection from the choking dust.

For many in the area, the hardest part was getting away. Police blocked off further routes after receiving reports of a bomb threat to the Brooklyn Bridge. When the Manhattan Bridge was re-opened to pedestrians, hundreds of dust-covered survivors stumbled across. Many collapsed as they made it into Brooklyn, where waiting ambulances ferried them off to hospital.

In the city and the suburbs, schools debated whether to close and many anxious parents went to pick up their children early.

Survivors' stories began to emerge, including some from those who had experienced both this disaster and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

"This makes the first one seem like a cakewalk," Jim Pesomen told NEWSWEEK. Pesomen was on the 81st floor of his World Trade Center office when the plane hit. "I'm getting out of the city after this," he said.