Hijacked planes destroy World Trade Center towers

Third jetliner slams into Pentagon

Thousands feared dead in worst U.S. terror attacks

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 12, 2001|By Dan Fesperman and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Dan Fesperman and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Terrorists carried out the most destructive attack on the United States in history yesterday, a horrifying rain of four hijacked airliners that toppled both towers of the World Trade Center in New York and destroyed a section of the Pentagon.

Although the death toll won't be known for days, thousands were believed dead, including 266 aboard the planes, hundreds of firefighters and police missing in the rubble in New York and scores of people in the 1,300-foot-plus-high towers, where about 50,000 worked.

At the Pentagon, a source said, "the services believe they have fewer than 500 unaccounted for," including military, civilian and contract personnel.

Buildings in Manhattan's financial district were still burning late last night, as was a part of the Pentagon.

The fiery assault on prominent symbols of the nation's financial and martial strength jolted the nation. Airports, schools, government buildings and virtually every place a large crowd might gather were closed, and comparisons were made to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

This time the enemy is unknown and the response uncertain, although President Bush signaled last night in a nationwide address that he hasn't ruled out a broad retaliation, saying, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts, and those who harbor them."

As Bush vowed to "hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts," others were grappling with how to strike back against zealous, shadowy foes.

Their weapons of choice were Boeing passenger jets -- two 767s and two 757s, each taking off from an East Coast airport within a few minutes of 8 a.m., each loaded with enough flammable fuel to make it to California and each with the same array of flight controls, suggesting that the hijackers had been trained to pilot the planes.

The apparent sophistication of the operation immediately focused investigative attention on Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi who has been linked to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said U.S. intelligence officials had overheard bin Laden associates discussing an attack. "We happened to know just today that we have information that indicates representatives that are affiliated with Osama bin Laden were actually saying over the airwaves, private airwaves that they had hit two targets," Hatch said.

A U.S. official familiar with the information was more cautious. "There are indications that people with links to bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization may have been responsible, but it is still premature," he said.

Warning received

Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper in London, said he received a warning from Islamic fundamentalists close to bin Laden but did not take the threat seriously. "They said it would be a huge and unprecedented attack, but they did not specify," Atwan said.

In Afghanistan, where bin Laden has been given asylum, the hard-line Taliban rulers condemned the attacks yesterday while attempting to deflect blame from bin Laden, saying he didn't have the necessary resources.

By late yesterday, the only identifiable resources employed in the attacks were careful planning and a willingness to die.

The terrorists struck first aboard American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 that left Boston for Los Angeles at 7:59 a.m. with 92 crew members and passengers aboard. One or more persons then hijacked the plane and apparently took the controls, changing course for New York.

Barbara Olson, a television commentator and wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, a passenger on one of the later hijacked flights, described the hijackers' methods in a phone call to her husband before the plane crashed, according to several reports.

She said the hijackers were armed with knives and cardboard cutters, and that they herded passengers, pilots and crew members to the back of the plane.

Attorney General John Ashcroft told members of Congress that three to five terrorists were aboard each hijacked plane. Some reports said the hijackers forced passengers with cellular phones to call relatives, announcing that they were about to die.

At 8:45 a.m., with an estimated 20,000 people at work inside the two 110-story towers of the World Trade Center, the American Airlines jet out of Boston plowed into the upper third of the north tower, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the blue sky.

Lawyer Coleman Nutter, 52, was working on the 58th floor, about 20 stories below the impact.

"I heard it, and I also felt it," Nutter said. "I looked out my window and saw paper, debris and glass falling down. I went to the stairs and started to walk down, but it was packed." It took him a harrowing half-hour to make the trip to the ground floor.

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