Students were left stunned, saddened and frantic to reach friends and family yesterday morning after a pair of hijacked airliners slammed into and demolished both towers of New York City”s World Trade Center. The attack is the worst terrorist episode ever carried out in the United States.

Paul Wong
Flames burst from the south tower of the World Trade Center after a hijacked United Airlines 767 passenger jet slammed into the 110-story building shortly after another plane crashed into the north tower yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Television stations carried live footage of the buildings” collapse, including pictures of a hijacked Boeing 757 slamming into the south tower. The attack began at about 8:45 a.m., and by 10:30 a.m. both buildings were absent from the city”s skyline. In Washington, about 100 people died when a plane crashed into the Pentagon.

“Our society changes as of today. This is a watershed event,” said Law Prof. Robert Precht, the attorney for one of the four men convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1993.

“I”m overwhelmed. I kind of wish I was back in the city I can”t reach my friends, the lines are down. I used to work down there, on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center. I don”t know if any of my co-workers actually survived,” said Phillip Ng, an LSA sophomore from New York.

Classes for the day were canceled around noon. About 15,000 students attended a vigil in the Diag last night, shortly after President George Bush made his first address from the Oval Office.

“I”m a former student from (New York University) and I”m still waiting to hear from people,” said LSA sophomore Anna Szymanski at the vigil. “One NYU dorm is a block away from the trade center I”m praying everyone is safe.”

At the Michigan Union shortly after the bombing, LSA freshman Aubair Simonson purchased a poster of the New York City skyline.

“I”m going to hang it. I”m never going to forget this day,” he said. “All we have left now of the World Trade Center, which is almost the centerpiece of the New York skyline which I love, is just pictures.”

In Ann Arbor, city and federal buildings also closed around noon. So many people responded to a call to donate blood, hospitals were forced to turn them away.

The events began to unfold early yesterday morning, when knife-wielding hijackers sent the two planes into the twin 110-story towers. The deadly calamity was witnessed on televisions across the world as another plane slammed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed outside Pittsburgh.

Said Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet: “We have been attacked like we haven”t since Pearl Harbor.”

Establishing the U.S. death toll could take weeks. The four airliners alone had 266 people aboard and there were no known survivors. At the Pentagon, about 100 people were believed dead.

In addition, a firefighters union official said he feared an estimated 200 firefighters had died in rescue efforts at the trade center where 50,000 people worked and dozens of police officers were believed missing.

“The number of casualties will be more than most of us can bear,” a visibly distraught Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said.

No one took responsibility for the attacks that rocked the seats of finance and government. But federal authorities identified Osama bin Laden, who has been given asylum by Afghanistan”s Taliban rulers, as the prime suspect.

Aided by an intercept of communications between his supporters and harrowing cell phone calls from at least one flight attendant and two passengers aboard the jetliners before they crashed, U.S. officials began assembling a case linking bin Laden to the devastation.

“I think Bush and the people around him really don”t understand what is going on in world politics,” said University political science Prof. Emeritus J. David Singer. “This might help because it”s a demonstration that America is so vulnerable to other kinds of attacks and weapons and that defense against missiles should be low priority.”

The people aboard planes who managed to make cell phone calls each described similar circumstances: They indicated the hijackers were armed with knives, in some cases stabbing flight attendants. The hijackers then took control of the planes.

At the World Trade Center, the dead and the doomed plummeted from the skyscrapers, among them a man and woman holding hands.

Shortly after 7 p.m., crews began heading into ground zero of the attack to search for survivors and recover bodies. All that remained of the twin towers by then was a pile of rubble and twisted steel that stood barely two stories high, leaving a huge gap in the New York City skyline.

“Freedom itself was attacked this morning and I assure you freedom will be defended,” said Bush, who was in Florida at the time of the catastrophe. As a security measure, he was shuttled to a Strategic Air Command bunker in Nebraska before leaving for Washington.

“Make no mistake,” he said. “The United States will hunt down and pursue those responsible for these cowardly actions.”

More than nine hours after the U.S. attacks began, explosions could be heard north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, but American officials said the United States was not responsible.

“It isn”t us. I don”t know who”s doing it,” Pentagon spokesman Craig Quigley said.

Officials across the world condemned the attacks but in the West Bank city of Nablus, thousands of Palestinians celebrated, chanting “God is Great” while handing out candy. The United States has become increasingly unpopular in the Mideast in the past year of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, with Washington widely seen as siding with Israel against the Arab world.

At the Pentagon, the symbol and command center for the nation”s military force, one side of the building collapsed as smoke billowed over the Potomac River. Rep. Ike Skelton, briefed by Pentagon officials, said, “There appear to be about 100 casualties” in the building.

The first airstrike occurred shortly before 8:45 a.m. EDT. By evening, huge clouds of smoke still billowed from the ruins. A burning, 47-story part of the World Trade Center complex already evacuated collapsed in flames just before nightfall.

Emergency Medical Service worker Louis Garcia said initial reports indicated that bodies were buried beneath the two feet of soot on streets around the trade center.

“A lot of the vehicles are running over bodies because they are all over the place,” he said.

Said National Guard member Angelo Otchy of Maplewood, N.J., “I must have come across body parts by the thousands. I came across a lady, she didn”t remember her name. Her face was covered in blood.”

For the first time, the nation”s aviation system was completely shut down as officials considered the frightening flaws that had been exposed in security procedures. Financial markets were closed, too.

Top leaders of Congress were led to an undisclosed location, as were key officials of the Bush administration. Guards armed with automatic weapons patrolled the White House grounds and military aircraft secured the skies above the capital city. National Guard troops appeared on some street corners in the nation”s capital.

Evacuations were ordered at the tallest skyscrapers in several cities, and high-profile tourist attractions closed Walt Disney World, Mount Rushmore, Seattle”s Space Needle, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The Federal Reserve, seeking to provide assurances that the nation”s banking system would be protected, said it would provide additional money to banks if needed.

In Afghanistan, where bin Laden has been given asylum, the nation”s hardline Taliban rulers rejected suggestions he was responsible.

Bin Laden came to prominence fighting alongside the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen holy warriors in their war against Soviet troops in the 1980s. But former followers say he turned against the United States during the 1991 Gulf War, seething at the deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War campaign to oust Iraq from Kuwait. He has repeatedly called on Muslims worldwide to join in a jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

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

Eight years ago, the World Trade Center was a terrorist target when a truck bomb killed six people and wounded about 1,000 others. Just the death toll on the planes alone surpassed the 168 people killed in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

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