Innocence Lost Forever on 9/11

In just one chilling hour, America joined the ranks of the lost innocents

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Who these fanatics are we still don't know. Several men were taken into custody for questioning in Massachusetts and Florida. But officials were quick to note that they had not been arrested and might not have anything to do with the crimes. President Bush called the attacks "more than acts of terror. They were," he told the nation, "acts of war."

And the scenes of devastation in New York and at the Pentagon certainly looked like battlegrounds. Everything around the World Trade Center was covered in gray ash, making the streets look like the surface of the moon. As one traveled farther away from ground zero, high-heeled shoes could be seen littering the streets as women abandoned fashion for survival. David Dolny, 49, watched the buildings collapse from nearby. "I sent my daughter to study for a year in Israel last week thinking more about danger to her than me," he said.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer foresaw a terrible future. "This is the new form of warfare," he said.

In Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, the jetliner that crashed into the Pentagon destroyed hundreds of the building's offices, slicing through the first two outer rings and halfway penetrating the third. As with the two jets that struck the World Trade Center, it banked to one side at the last second, evidently so that the plane's fuselage would crash through as many floors as possible. "At work, we had watched the attacks on the World Trade Center before we were hit," said Charles Lewis, a naval petty officer, from his hospital bed in suburban Virginia. "People in the office were commenting, 'If that can happen there, what's to stop it from happening here?'... No more than 10 minutes later it happened to us.

"We were thrown maybe 10 or 15 feet across the room," he said. "After the blast, I fell in the fetal position, all balled up. At the time of impact, everything went black." Many fled into the Pentagon's center courtyard, before realizing that it could be the site of another attack. Then they headed for the exits on the opposite side of the building. Once outside, the panic seemed to mount when warnings came about another possible attack.

Back across the river, Secret Service agents, some with weapons drawn, charged out of the White House yelling, "Everybody out! Everybody out!" to the startled tourists in line for White House tours. Allen Cashion of Newport Beach, Calif., had left his hotel room at 5:30 a.m. to snag the much-sought-after ticket. "It was chaos," he said. "I just picked up the kids, one under each arm, and ran. I didn't know what to do."

Bush was not at the White House—he was speaking in Florida—and would not return for some hours. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, could see smoke rising from the Pentagon. Cleland, who lost both his legs and his right arm in Vietnam, said he felt suddenly under attack. "I thought I was going through the Tet offensive all over again," he said. That sense of danger spread quickly. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott had gathered his staff together after the attack in New York and also watched smoke rise from the Pentagon. Anticipating that a hit on the Pentagon might be a prelude to one on the Capitol, Lott ordered his staff out of the building and quickly left himself with his security detail. "We all instinctively knew that we had to get out of the Capitol," says Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean. "We left our computers on and got out of there because it was immediately obvious that there could be a plane headed our way."

All 19 buildings of the Capitol complex were evacuated, reminding some of when Congress and President James Madison fled the invading British in 1814. By the next day, however, everybody was back at work and asking questions. The first was: How could it happen? How could the FBI and CIA not have had an inkling that such a conspiracy existed? Where was American intelligence-gathering? Where was airport security? Where were the plans to foil an air attack on Washington buildings? (Ever since a small plane crashed on the White House South Lawn in 1994, such an attack has been openly talked about.)