An unprecedented and highly orchestrated series of attacks Tuesday turned the twin World Trade Towers in New York into piles of rubble, severely damaged the US Department of Defense's Pentagon building near Washington, D.C., and prompted officials to close all US air traffic for the first time ever. The attacks also shuttered US financial markets, brought major cities in the country to a standstill, snarled telecommunication networks, swamped the Internet and left much of the world reeling in horror, anger, fear and disgust.
Up to 50,000 people work in the twin towers, which had stood at 110 stories each. Windows around New York bore signs pleading, "Give blood, people are dying." Manhattan was basically sealed off from the rest of the world as businesses in other major cities throughout the country, including Boston and Chicago, sent workers home, with government shutting down all but the most essential services. Major national sites, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, closed.
By late afternoon, there was no word on the number of casualties from the airplane crashes, but officials said that the death toll is expected to be enormous and there were reports, though unconfirmed, of deaths at the Pentagon, which reportedly burst into flames as a section of one side of it collapsed. The five-sided building is located in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, and is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense.
No one as of late afternoon East Coast time claimed responsibility for the attacks, involving at least four hijacked airplanes, two of which took off from Boston's Logan International Airport. The carnage began shortly before 9 a.m. local time when American Airlines Flight 11 smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. That flight had left Boston at 7:59 a.m., bound for Los Angeles with 81 passengers and 11 crew members, according to the airline.
A few minutes after 9 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the south tower. That flight, also bound for Los Angeles from Boston, carried 56 passengers and nine crew members.
Also hijacked were United Flight 93, a Boeing 757 on its way from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, which crashed north of the Somerset County Airport in Pennsylvania, with 38 passengers, two pilots and five flight attendants, and American Flight 77, which left Dulles Airport en route to San Francisco carrying 58 passengers and six crew members. That plane crashed into the Pentagon shortly after takeoff, according to reports.
As the story unfolded, first one and then the other tower of the World Trade Center, well-known features of the Manhattan skyline, collapsed. Soot and debris had taken over the air around the towers after the attacks. Some who were stranded in the towers were seen leaping from the buildings before the structures tumbled. The World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists in 1993, killing six and injuring hundreds.
But nothing had prepared the nation -- indeed, the world -- for the magnitude of Tuesday's attacks. Military and government officials compared it to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, which pulled the US irrevocably into World War II.
Immediately, government officials began speculating that terrorists linked to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden were behind the attacks. News reports said that bin Laden warned three weeks ago that American interests would be subjected to an "unprecedented attack." Bin Laden is wanted in the US for 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that claimed 224 lives and injured more than 4,000.
Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement said that bin Laden is not responsible for the attacks, according to news reports. Bin Laden is believed to be in Afghanistan. Officials of the Taliban renounced the attacks, as did Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.
"It's an unbelievable disaster," he said, according to published reports. "It is touching our hearts." He offered condolences to the US and condemned the attacks.
Earlier in the day, Abu Dhabi television reported that a call had been received from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), claiming responsibility for the World Trade Center kamikaze attacks, but the DFLP later denied responsibility. But some Palestinians were reportedly celebrating word of the attacks on the West Bank.
However, the predominant reaction seems to be horror, with world leaders expressing sorrow and offering the US help. President George W. Bush, facing the worst crisis of his presidency -- or of any recent presidency -- cut short a trip to Florida and was reportedly flown around the nation as a precaution while security officials determined if it was safe for him to return to Washington. The White House was among the federal buildings evacuated.
"Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you freedom will be defended," Bush said, speaking from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where he also announced that the US military is on high alert. "Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and pursue those responsible for these cowardly actions."
(Reports from the Washington Post, the New York Times and newswires were used in this story.)