At Ground Zero, 'It Was Like You Imagine Hell'

The lucky ones emerged as a parade of ash-covered refugees, with torn clothes and terrified faces.

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He made it to the street below. "All of a sudden I see smoke, everything flying through the air," he says. "There were people crawling under cars to get away." Oriente, 22, a recent computer-school graduate, was eager to start his new job and says he had planned to get to work earlier. "If I'd been 10 minutes early," he says, "I'd have been dead. The people that interviewed me for the job—they were nice people—now they must be gone."

"This big cloud." Fate intervened for others, keeping them from the tower where they usually toiled at that time of day. Boris Shapiro, a computer consultant, was a few minutes late for work after taking his son to school in New Jersey and missing the train he usually took. As he emerged from the subway, the first tower collapsed. "All you saw was this big cloud of dust," he said. "Then everybody started running, even the police themselves." An immigrant from the Ukraine, he now felt afraid in his adopted country, punching the buttons of an inert cellphone trying to reach his wife, who works at a building adjacent to the plaza. "I'm pretty shaken," he says.

Even those used to dealing with stress and disaster said the scene was terribly frightening and sad. Brenda Isiofia is a mental-health worker for New York City who watched the second plane hit and then saw the towers collapse. "I feel like crying," she says. "There's no words to describe this. It's beyond description. How could people do this?"

By nightfall, the horror had begun sinking in. Many people went home to be with those they loved; others headed to bars and restaurants. At The Watering Hole on Gramercy Park, the kitchen ran out of food. Yet the streets were eerily quiet; one could have sent a bowling ball down Seventh Avenue without hitting a vehicle.

The sunset, viewed just a few blocks away from the scene of destruction, had a kind of tragic beauty. Instead of the twin towers dominating the skyline, the clouds spun a rosy gold behind the delicate Gothic spires of the empty, ash-covered Woolworth building.

Many ended the day exhausted, though somehow not ready to go home. At St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village, just a few miles from the World Trade Center, healthcare workers and volunteers milled around with sad, tired eyes, awaiting more victims. A cardboard sign read, "No more blood donations tonight—please return at 9 a.m. tomorrow."

With Noam Neusner and Katherine Hobson in New York, Ulrich Boser and Chris Haines in Washington