NEW YORK | Moments after the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center shortly before 9 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Manhattan erupted in a frantic wailing of sirens as rescue vehicles from all over the island sped to its southern tip, and pedestrians stopped in their tracks on sidewalks to watch a rising tower of smoke that quickly became visible for miles.
About 20 minutes later, the city watched, horrified, as a second plane, apparently bound from the west, flew directly into the center’s southern tower.
Shortly before 10 a.m., the top of the first tower hit collapsed in a billow of smoke and dust. By 10:28 a.m., when the southern tower collapsed, a massive mushroom cloud of black and silver smoke spread out over the entire southern tip of the island, rising high into a clear blue sky.
Many of the survivors seen emerging from the scene appeared bloodied or burned, their clothing often tattered and covered with soot. In places, the layer of ash coating the surrounding streets rose to more than an inch. Debris and glass scattered for blocks around the heavily congested financial district.
Within minutes of the first plane crash, the city — whose emergency command bunker was in the World Trade Center — activated its emergency plans and shut down, closing all bridges and tunnels, halting many subway lines and, like the rest of the nation, suspending service at all airports. Hospital emergency staffs scrambled to receive patients, wheeling waiting gurneys into the streets to save seconds.
As word of the catastrophe hit, office workers began crowding the streets in an effort to get home. Many were in for a long, futile wait, as virtually every route onto or off of the island was closed. The city also postponed its political primary election, which was to have taken place today.
Speaking on local television station NY 1, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani urged citizens to remain calm. He warned those outside lower Manhattan to stay away, and instructed those in the affected area to walk north as quickly as possible and keep the streets clear.
“I saw people jumping off of the World Trade Center,” said Giuliani, who arrived on the scene shortly after the first plane hit. “It was a horrible, horrible situation.”