America under attack: World Trade Center Collapses

NEW YORK, SEPT. 11. In one of the most horrifying attacks ever against the United States, terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center in a deadly series of blows on Tuesday that brought down the twin 110-storey towers. A plane also slammed into the Defence Department as the Government itself came under attack.

Thousands could be dead or injured, a high-ranking New York City police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Authorities had been trying to evacuate those who work in the twin towers when the glass-and-steel skyscrapers came down in a thunderous roar within about 90 minutes after the crashes, which took place minutes apart around 9 a.m. But many people were thought to have been trapped. About 50,000 people work at the Trade Center and tens of thousands of others visit each day.

American Airlines initially said the Trade Center was hit by two of its planes, both hijacked, carrying a total of 156 people. But the airline later said that was unconfirmed. Two United airliners with a total of 110 aboard also crashed _ one outside Pittsburgh, the other in a location not immediately identified. Altogether, the planes had 266 people aboard.

``This is perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack that's ever taken place in the world,'' said Mr. Chris Yates, an aviation expert at Jane's Transport in London. ``It takes a logistics operation from the terror group involved that is second to none. Only a very small handful of terror groups is on that list... I would name at the top of the list Osama bin Laden.'' The U.S. President, Mr. George W. Bush, ordered a full-scale investigation to ``hunt down the folks who committed this act.''

Within the hour, the Defence Department took a direct, devastating hit from a plane. The fiery crash collapsed one side of the five-sided structure.

The White House, the Defence Department and the Capitol were evacuated along with other federal buildings in Washington and New York.

Authorities in Washington immediately called out troops, including an infantry regiment. The Situation Room at the White House was in full operation. Authorities went on alert from coast to coast, the U.S. and Canadian borders were sealed, all air traffic across the country was halted, and security was tightened at strategic installations.

In June, a U.S. judge had set this Wednesday as the sentencing date for a bin Laden associate for his role in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa that killed more than 200 people. The sentencing had been set for the federal courthouse near the World Trade Center. No one from the U.S. attorney's office could be reached on Tuesday to comment on whether the sentencing was still on.

Afghanistan's hardline Taliban rulers condemned the attacks and rejected suggestions that bin Laden was behind them, saying he does not have the means to carry out such well-orchestrated attacks. Osama bin Laden has been given asylum in Afghanistan.

Mr. Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, said he had 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,'' Mr. Atwan said in a telephone interview in London.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, thousands of Palestinians celebrated the attacks, chanting ``God is Great'' and handing out candy.

American Airlines initially identified the planes that crashed into the Trade Center as Flight 11, a Los Angeles-bound jet hijacked after takeoff from Boston with 92 people aboard, and Flight 77, which was seized while carrying 64 people from Washington to Los Angeles.

In Pennsylvania, United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 en route from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, crashed about 130 km southeast of Pittsburgh with 45 people aboard. United Airlines said another of its planes, Flight 175, a Boeing 767 bound from Boston to Los Angeles with 65 people on board, also crashed, but it did not say where. The fate of those aboard the two planes was not immediately known.

United's pilots union said United Flight 175 crashed into the Trade Center. But the airline had no immediate comment.

An emergency dispatcher in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, received a cell phone call at 9:58 a.m. from a man who said he was a passenger locked in the bathroom of United Flight 93, said the dispatch supervisor, Mr. Glenn Cramer.

``We are being hijacked, we are being hijacked!'' Mr. Cramer quoted the man as saying. The man told dispatchers the plane ``was going down. He heard some sort of explosion and saw white smoke coming from the plane and we lost contact with him,'' Mr. Cramer said.

Evacuations were ordered at the United Nations in New York and at the Sears Tower in Chicago. Los Angeles mobilised its anti- terrorism division, and security was intensified around the naval installations in Hampton Roads, Viginia. Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, was evacuated.

The planes blasted fiery, gaping holes in the upper floors of the twin towers. About an hour later, the southern tower collapsed with a roar and a huge cloud of smoke; the other tower fell about a half-hour after that, covering lower Manhattan in heaps of gray rubble and broken glass. Firefighters trapped in the rubble radioed for help.

``I have a sense it's a horrendous number of lives lost,'' the Mayor, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, said. ``Right now we have to focus on saving as many lives as possible.''

The toll on the crashed planes alone could surpass that of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, which claimed 168 lives in what was the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

``Today we've had a national tragedy,'' Mr. Bush said in Sarasota, Florida. ``Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.'' He said he would be returning immediately to Washington.

The crashes at the World Trade Center happened minutes apart, beginning just before 9 a.m.

Heavy black smoke billowed into the sky above one of New York City's most famous landmarks, and debris rained down on the street, one of the city's busiest work areas. When the second plane hit, a fireball of flame and smoke erupted, leaving a huge hole in the glass and steel tower.

- AP

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