NEW YORK — First, the horrific noise. Then the flames, the smoke and ash darkening the morning sky. A second crash. Then the debris, the bodies tumbling from the buildings as people tried to get out any way they could. And then, unbelievably, the buildings folding upon themselves, twin towers no more.
The lucky ones emerged as a parade of ash-covered refugees, with torn clothes, broken shoes, and smoky, terrified faces.
Earthquake? Robert Mansfield was in his office on the 82nd floor when the first plane hit. "I thought it was an earthquake at first," he says. "The whole building just rocked." An official with the New York Port Authority, Mansfield raced with colleagues for the nearest emergency exit; they found a locked door. "We thought we were trapped." They retraced their steps, only to discover a fire had broken out in their offices.
They doused the fire, found another exit, then climbed down 82 stories, meeting hundreds of others in the dark, silent stairwells. Entering the lobby, they heard the second plane crash into the tower next door. "We hit the ground," Mansfield recalls. "There was debris flying everywhere, and it was pitch black. I heard a lot of screams, but I couldn't see anything." With the help of firefighters, he made it to the street, a figure of ghostly white. His suit pants were coated in gray ash, his dress shirt balled up in his hand—it had been his mask.
Icksoo Choo clambered down 78 flights of Tower One's emergency-exit stairwell. It was pitch dark. He remembers being amazed by the discipline of those fleeing for their lives. The director of Hyundai Securities, Choo was with about 30 others when they reached the first floor. But the way was blocked. Suddenly they heard a huge roar—the second crash. "I was on the first floor, trapped, in total darkness," he says. "I thought, 'I'm going to die!' "
Finally, after an agonizing 20 minutes, a firefighter hacked an exit through a window with his ax. Covered in soot and ash, Choo was on the street, dazed by the smoke, the debris, the screams. "You couldn't see anything. It was like you imagine hell." Even after walking six blocks north, standing in the sunlight, he sensed no joy and not much relief. His staff, he thought, what had happened to them? "I thought, 'Thank God I'm alive,' " he says. "But I don't feel much. I'm responsible for all these people." He clutched his briefcase, his grip knuckle-white.
Trapped. Alfred Wong was working as an analyst in training at J.P. Morgan on Wall Street when he got orders to evacuate the building. He was trying to walk home south to Battery Park City when the first tower collapsed, and he saw people screaming and running toward him amid billows of smoke. "Then the smoke cloud swallowed us all," he says. "We could barely breathe. I had ashes in my mouth." Amid the chaos, police herded him and hundreds of others into the Brooklyn Tunnel. The 20-minute walk in darkness and lingering smoke was nightmarish. "I keep imagining the ceiling collapsing on us."
For many watching from the streets below, the most haunting sight was of the trapped in their final moments of terror. "There was one thing I'll never forget. There was a guy... passing around binoculars," says Mark Chemtob, a financial adviser with American Express whose office is one block away from the World Trade Center. "When I looked through the glasses, I could see people waving from the windows on top of where the plane crashed. They were pretty much naked, waving their shirts, trying to get help."
Richard Velez, an off-duty emergency medical technician, was in his truck across the street from the towers to drop his wife off at work when the plane crashed. "I saw someone fall off the top floor . . . he was just tumbling down out of control," Velez recalled. "People were just coming out of the building as the flames were heading up. It was an unbelievable sight. They looked like debris, but you could tell the hands and feet."
David Oriente was headed to work on his first day as a help-desk technician at Morgan Stanley, high up in the World Trade Center. He stepped off a PATH train from New Jersey in the mall below the towers as the first plane crashed. "The ceiling collapsed right in front of me," he says. "People were coming out, sliced up all over, crying, bleeding. People didn't know which way to go."
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