The loss of life was already catastrophic when two hijacked jetliners crashed into the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center at the peak of this morning's rush-hour traffic, according to reports from CNN and Reuters News Agency. Within two hours, both monoliths had collapsed in a huge cloud of smoke and fire. As many as 50,000 people are believed to work in the World Trade Center complex, and the death toll is estimated to be in the thousands.
But what President Bush called "an apparent terrorist act on our country" was only the prelude to a nightmare that would not end.
About an hour after the initial 9 a.m. attack, a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, collapsing a portion of the country's military command center, throwing people off their feet inside the building, and setting off a massive fire.
Later still, another hijacked jetliner crashed 80 miles south of Pittsburgh, Penn., reported by Reuters to have been on its way to either New York City or Washington D.C.
Other commercial planes were soon reported missing. Fires were reported in a Washington Mall and the State Department, where stories of a car-bomb explosion were later denied. The New York Port Authority said it had closed all bridges and tunnels into the city. The White House, the United Nations building in New York, the Justice Department, the Capitol and all other government buildings were evacuated, along with the Sears Tower in Chicago. Every airport in the nation an unprecedented step was shut down. All commercial flights were grounded, all international flights heading into D.C. and New York were diverted to Canada.
The United States found itself plunged into chaos, panic, fear and the deadliest attack on the U.S. mainland in modern history.
As broadcast and Internet news sources pumped out information that was often in conflict with itself, hospitals in New York were overwhelmed with patients, and hospitals across the nation initiated emergency blood drives with no knowledge of how much blood could save a wounded city.
"Hundreds of people are burned from head to toe," Reuters was told by Dr. Steven Stern at St. Vincent's Hospital in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of lower Manhattan.
And that was at a single hospital.
President Bush quickly abbreviated a visit to Florida to confront the greatest crisis of his presidency and what some have called the greatest crisis of any presidency since Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the country through the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
"Terrorism against our nation will not stand,'" Bush said, to school children, teachers and parents at Florida's Emma E. Booker Elementary School, where he had been scheduled to talk about education. "Today we've had a national tragedy ... I have spoken to the vice president, to the governor of New York, to the director of the FBI, and have ordered that the full resources of the federal government go to help the victims and the families and to conduct a full scale investigation to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act.'
"May God bless the victims, their families and America," Bush said in a voice cracking with emotion. Bush later said, "Freedom itself was attacked this morning ... and freedom will be defended."
By press time, facts beyond the physical damage were scarce, and speculation was rampant.
Early guesses about the source of the attack centered on Saudi-born guerrilla leader-in-exile Osama Bin-Laden, who is believed responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people died.
An Arab journalist with access to Bin-Laden told Reuters in London that the renegade Saudi three weeks ago had warned of an "unprecedented attack" on U.S. interests.
But no one knew for sure.
"It's clear that this is terrorist-related, we're not sure who is responsible," one official told CNN News of the Pentagon attack.
"There was no advance warning of this," another unidentified official said.
Throughout the morning, however, facts of damage and response began to emerge from a variety of news sources:
American Airlines told CNN that it lost two planes in "tragic accidents": Flight 11 from Boston with 81 passengers and 11 crew aboard and Flight 77 from Washington Dulles airport with 58 passengers and six crew aboard. Both planes were en route to Los Angeles
United Airlines Flight 93 airliner headed from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, crashed near Somerset, Penn. Police said initial reports indicated no survivors. United also confirmed the crash of Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said in reaction to the news of the terror attacks that "we want to tell the American children that Afghanistan feels your pain and we hope that the courts find justice."
In New York, more than 10,000 rescue personnel rushed to the scene. The entire downtown area of Manhattan was evacuated as far north as Rockefeller Center, according to an official at an emergency command post.
Israel has evacuated all its missions around the world.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta was evacuated. CDC was preparing bioterrorism teams in case they become necessary.
U.S. stock markets were closed after the New York attacks.
The border between the United States and Mexico was closed.
The previous worst act of terrorism in the United States was the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people died.
Timothy McVeigh was executed for that attack earlier this year.
A previous bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 resulted in six deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Donations to American Red Cross
Your donations to the American Red Cross can help those suffering from the terrorists attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Send your donations to:
Central Arizona Chapter
American Red Cross
6135 North Black Canyon Highway
Phoenix, Arizona 85015
(602)336-6660 or 1-800-842-7349
People rely on the American Red Cross to be there when help can't wait. Since 1916, the Central Arizona Chapter has delivered on its commitment to this community, and with help from supporters, will continue to deliver on this promise.