Day of Infamy

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The day after the attack, the sun rises over where the World Trade Towers stood in lower Manhattan

Morning came, and everything was changed. The sun rose Wednesday over the absence of a national landmark, a smoldering ruin in lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers had stood. In Washington the Pentagon, still on fire, was deeply scarred — along with Americans' collective sense of security. After a day in which terrorists had managed to effectively shut down both cities, suspend all air traffic in the U.S. and force evacuations across the country and in U.S. facilities worldwide, a day in which President George W. Bush warned that "the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," there was nothing to do in the bright, crisp fall sunshine but to clean up, search for those responsible — and mourn the dead.

The grim numbers

  • Rescue officials estimate between 100 and 800 people died inside the Pentagon;
  • The four hijacked planes-turned-bombs between them carried 266 people;
  • New York City officials reported that 265 firefighters and 85 police officers were missing in the wreckage of the World Trade Center; and
  • Speculation over the numbers that had died in the landmark office towers ran in the thousands, as rescuers worked feverishly to free survivors trapped beneath the rubble.

    The destruction of lives, and of a landmark

    In a tragic and spectacular explosion that engulfed lower Manhattan in thick smoke and gray powder debris, two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City at around 9 a.m. EST. The first plane was an American Airlines commercial jet bound for the West Coast; the second United flight 175 en route to Los Angeles. Both planes were hijacked shortly after takeoff from Boston's Logan airport and flown off-course to New York.

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    The planes were loaded with fuel for transcontinental flights, and that jet fuel ignited a hellish blaze that sent temperatures at the point of impact soaring to an estimated 2000 degrees F. Within an hour, the intense heat caused the seemingly invincible steel beams of the towers to melt like cotton candy. At 10 a.m. EST, the southern tower of the World Trade Center was enveloped in smoke after a second, gigantic explosion, and part of that tower collapsed and was destroyed. About twenty minutes later, the northern tower imploded. At 5 p.m. EST, weakened by the impact and heat of nearby explosions, building seven of the World Trade complex collapsed.

    Attack on the heart of the military

    In Washington, the Pentagon was evacuated after another commercial airline crashed into the building. A short time later, part of the building collapsed. A fire was also reported on the Mall. The White House, the Capitol and other government buildings were also evacuated, and Washington became a ghost town. If the terrorists sought to undermine the conduct of government, they succeeded at least for the day. They may not, however, have hit all of their targets: Wednesday afternoon, White House officials reported that both the White House and Air Force One were targets of the terrorist attacks; officials speculate the plane that crashed into the Pentagon may have been intended to destroy the White House instead.

    Reaction sweeps the country

    As Tuesday wore on, more evacuations were reported across the nation, including at Chicagoís Sears Tower, as city governments scrambled to secure downtown areas. Workers were sent home early and schools were closed for the day.

    As news of multiple hijacked planes trickled out, the FAA shut down the nation's airports and airspace. At approximately 10:00 a.m. EST, United flight 93, en route from Newark to San Francisco crashed near Pittsburgh. The airplane, a Boeing 757, was apparently hijacked, and experts speculate that Camp David might have been its ultimate target. Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that passengers on United flight 93 may have tried to overtake the hijackers, crashing the plane into the countryside, rather than allowing it to hit its intended mark.

    Bin Laden denies responsibility

    On the other side of the world, Saudi terrorist-financier Osama Bin Laden on Wednesday denied responsibility for Tuesday's attacks in a statement published by a Pakistani newspaper, although he praised the terror strikes nonetheless. U.S. intelligence and security officials reportedly indicated on Tuesday that they were in possession of evidence directly linking his network to the terror strikes, and most terrorism experts agreed he was the prime suspect in an operation of unparalleled sophistication. The Afghanistan-based fugitive's statement follows a pattern of denying responsibility but praising the perpetrators that has become something of a Bin Laden signature following terror attacks attributed to him. And Tuesday's emergency press conference by his hosts — Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia — expressing condolences to the U.S. and insisting on Bin Laden's innocence appeared defensive. The Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan hinted Wednesday that the movement would consider extraditing Bin Laden after weighing the evidence against him, but they made a similar promise after the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings to no avail. Still, the missiles that exploded in the Afghan capital Kabul overnight Tuesday turned out to have come not from the U.S. but from the Taliban's domestic foes, as part of that country's ongoing civil war.

    Bush takes to the airwaves

    At 8:30 p.m. EST, the President reassured the nation. "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts," he said in his first prime-time address in what suddenly seemed a scared new world. "Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror."

    "These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat," Bush said. "But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

    The speech was simple, somber and brief. It made no news, announced no action; it sought simply to reassure and encourage. It began for viewers with 10 seconds of a silent Bush who had not been told the cameras were rolling. But it put the president of the United States back at his desk at the Oval Office after a day on the move. The string of catastrophes that led from the nationís financial heart in New York to its military one at the Pentagon led a wary Bush from an education event in Florida to military bases in Louisiana and Nebraska before the presidential helicopter finally touched down on the White House lawn shortly before dusk at 7 p.m. ET.

    That same twilight found the erstwhile combatants of the U.S. Congress standing together and declaring solidarity in the face of an evil the likes of which Americans had perhaps seen on the movie screen but never imagined crossing over to the evening news. Dennis Hastert and Richard Gephardt, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, a crowd of Republicans and Democrats alike, stood on the Capitol steps and told Americans that their government was resolved to keep them safe and make them proud. They promised retaliation. They held a moment of silence. They broke into "God Bless America." The tone in Washington had changed indeed, and perhaps forever.

    "Freedom will be defended"

    Earlier in the day, President Bush responded to the attack with a pledge to "hunt down and punish" those responsible. "Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you freedom will be defended. Make no mistake. Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

    In Sarasota, Florida, President Bush learned of the attack during a story reading session at a local school. Before boarding Air Force One, Bush said, "Today we had a national tragedy." Two airplanes, he continued, crashed into the World Trade Center "in an apparent terrorist attack on our country." Air Force One was initially reported to be en route to Washington, but at 12:30 p.m. EST, wire services indicated the President had landed at an airforce base in Louisiana. At 4 p.m. EST, the President was on his way back to the White House. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had been in Peru on a state visit, cut his trip short, and prepared to return to Washington.

    Before departing Florida, President Bush authorized the full resources of the federal government to help New York and Washington to investigate those who may have perpetrated what may have been a series of terrorist acts. At noon, the U.S.-Mexico border was sealed, and all international flights were diverted from U.S. airports.

    Reaction far from the blast sites

    As the casualty count mounted in Washington and New York, the sports and entertainment industries cancelled events scheduled for Tuesday evening and later in the week. The Latin Grammys were postponed, and the Emmys, which were to air Sunday night, have been "indefinitely" suspended, according to the event planners. Americans will also have to do without a few daily staples for the time being: The "Tonight Show," Broadway plays and Major League Baseball games have all been cancelled until further notice. College football organizers are mulling the possibility of canceling the weekend's games.