If You Want To Humble An Empire

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LYLE OWERKO / POLARIS

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Felipe Oyola and his wife Adianes did listen to the announcement. When Oyola heard the first explosion in his office on the 81st floor of the south tower, he raced down to the 78th floor to find her. They met at the elevator bank; she was terrified. But when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the tower was safe, they both went back to work. Oyola was back on 81 when the second plane arrived. "As soon as I went upstairs, I looked out the window, and I see falling debris and people. Then the office was on top of me. I managed to escape, and I've been looking for my wife ever since."

United Flight 175 left Boston at 7:58 a.m., headed to Los Angeles. When it passed the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, it made a 30-degree turn, and then an even sharper turn and swooped down on Manhattan, between the buildings, to impale the south tower at 9:06. This plane seemed to hit lower and harder; maybe that's because by now every camera in the city was trained on the towers, and the crowds in the street, refugees from the first explosion, were there to see it. Desks and chairs and people were sucked out the windows and rained down on the streets below. Men and women, cops and fire fighters watched and wept. As fire and debris fell, cars blew up; the air smelled of smoke and concrete, that smell that spits out of jackhammers chewing up pavement. You could taste the air more easily than you could breathe it.

P.S. 89 is an elementary school just up the street; most of the families live and work in the financial district, and when bedlam broke, mothers and fathers ran toward the school, sweat pouring off them, frantic to get to their kids. Some people who didn't know if their spouse had survived met up at school, because both parents went straight to the kids. "I just wanted to find my kids and my wife and get the hell off this island," said one father. And together they walked, he and his wife and young son and daughter, 60 blocks or so up to Grand Central and safety.

The first crash had changed everything; the second changed it again. Anyone who thought the first was an accident now knew better. This was not some awful, isolated episode, not Oklahoma City, not even the first World Trade Center bombing. Now this felt like a war, and the system responded accordingly; the emergency plans came out of the drawers and clicked one by one into place. The city buckled, the traffic stopped, the bridges and tunnels were shut down at 9:35 as warnings tumbled one after another; the Empire State Building was evacuated, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the United Nations. First the New York airports were closed, then Washington's, and then the whole country was grounded for the first time in history.

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