Richard Lacayo, TIME Magazine Senior Writer

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From the moment of the first explosions at the World Trade towers at around 8:45 AM, crowds had been gathering on the esplanade along the Jersey City side of the Hudson River, which looks directly across the Hudson, to the towers of lower Manhattan. There are a number of new office towers and apartment buildings under construction at the water's edge in the same area, and the construction workers were being brought down from the unfinished floors and were gathered at the construction sites also looking over in disbelief at the burning towers. That was when the unbelievable was topped by the unimaginable. A huge explosion thundered across the sky from Manhattan, and the south tower of the Trade Center was engulfed in a massive globe of thick smoke that rushed north and south. But within seconds a gap appeared in the smoke at its upper levels, to show a literally unbelievable sight — blue sky, where the south tower had been for almost thirty years. People observing the sight from the Jersey side gasped and screamed. In the river below, ferries that ordinarily travel between Manhattan near the Trade Center and ferry ports on the Jersey side rushed madly westward toward the Jersey side. They continued to run even after the first explosions as a means to evacuate people from the Trade Center area. The thick smoke could be seen rushing northward toward a public school about a mile north of the Trade Center, which is located in a part of Manhattan that in the past twenty years has been developed as a fashionable mix of residential and office towers. For a while the smoke continued to engulf the towers, so that it was not possible to see again the sight that had seemed so impossible — the disappearance of the South Tower. But on this sunny and clear morning it was possible from time to time to glimpse openings in the cloud that confirmed that the Tower was gone.

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The North Tower, still standing at that point, was in flames, with new bursts of fire coming from windows that faced the side where the South Tower had just exploded. Periodically, debris fluttered from the roof and upper stories of the North Tower, where the famous visitor observation deck is located.

As the smoke began to clear a bit it was possible to see that the lower half of the South Tower appeared to be standing, a weird stump on the horizon, while the North Tower blazed beside it from its upper stories. Suddenly the sky was filled with the noise of an especially fast moving aircraft — a military plane? Another terrorist dive bomber? People in the crowds below on the New Jersey side looked up in panic trying to see if an other plane might be attacking their side of the river. It occurred to me that this was a taste of what it must have been like in London during the blitz, with people all over the city wondering what would come from the sky next.

Suddenly, another massive explosion. Now it was the North Tower. The tower appeared to buckle somewhere above its midpoint, then to collapse down. More screams from the onlookers in Jersey City. Another massive plume of smoke rushing upward and also in all directions from the tower. More chaos among the small ferry boats still in the river, where the water was weirdly sparkling in the bright morning sunlight. A final surreal touch: A three-masted sailing ship gliding northward on the river amid the chaos — a replica of the Half Moon, the vessel Henry Hudson first piloted up the river in 1609. It appeared for a moment like a ghostly onlooker from the very opening days of the New World, witnessing a most terrible moment of its ever unfolding history.