Los Angeles Times

Paul Wong
Ash covers a street in downtown New York City after the collapse of the World Trade Center following a terrorist attack.<br><br>AP PHOTO

NEW YORK In a matter of just a few minutes, the nation”s largest city was plunged into an unimaginable disaster.

In New York, huge clouds of smoke billowed from the World Trade Center as fire engulfed the two towers. Workers at the center began jumping from the 60th floor and higher, some with their legs in a bicycle motion as they plunged to their deaths.

Then came a crash and one tower was gone, altering the New York skyline in a matter of seconds. As the mass of steel and glass settled to the ground, the reverberations sounded like thunder in the distance.

Streams of police moved back from where the building had once stood because their staging areas was being buried under building debris. In the street, Kevin McNeal, was in his office on the eighth floor of Tower 1 when the plane struck. He was covered with dust.

“My whole floor was destroyed,” he said. “I thought it was a bomb.”

On that same floor, Robert Liipiak was just opening his office door when the first plane struck and the force of the crash slammed him into his desk. Liipiak guided his office workers to the stairwell, but it was locked. For a few moments, they were trapped. Then police arrived to help them down to the ground floor.

Robert Knowles was on the 54th floor when the first plane struck. As he was knocked to the ground, the windows of his office blew out.

“It snapped the desk out of the window like a piece of paper,” he said. “I was praying I wouldn”t get sucked out the window.”

Knowles said he managed to make it to the 30th floor, where progress in walking down the smoky stairwells slowed dramatically. Water from the sprinkler system was everywhere and the acrid smoke was so thick that breathing became difficult.

“It was really tough,” he said. “I was praying for people in wheelchairs.”

On the ground, there was panic as police and firefighters tried to rescue survivors through the blinding smoke that was everywhere.

In only minutes, the first tower began to topple and police cars began racing backward, away from the carnage. Behind them came a huge plume of smoke and debris blowing down the street.

Traffic did not move and people got out of their cars. Thousands gathered in the streets staring up at the flames and the smoke. There was a sense of incomprehension.

Mark Asnin, a New York television photographer, had rushed to the buildings after the first fire alarm.

“We had no warning,” he said, his voice shaking. “Suddenly there was this tremendous explosion and it was like a tornado was coming, a big black cloud of dust and debris. The debris was blowing at our backs. I saw a photographer for The New York Post who got cut up. We had no time. We just dove under a fire truck. It was black, black, so black. and people were screaming for their lives.”

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