A day of infamy
By JOHN STACKHOUSE, The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
President George W. Bush last night vowed swift and severe retribution against those who carried out the worst terrorist attack in history, one that summoned the ghosts of Pearl Harbor and shattered every American's belief that the age of war was behind them.
Vowing a "war against terrorism," Mr. Bush returned to a stunned Washington, D.C., last night to assure Americans that after a day of engineered catastrophe, in which thousands died, the world's strongest military power was ready to strike back at an enemy - even one he could not identify.
"We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them," he said in a brief televised address.
Mr. Bush quoted the Bible and spoke of America's "quiet, unyielding anger" as his country prepared for a chilling new age of terror.
But only today, as rescue and recovery teams begin to unearth bodies, will people start to see the scale of suffering, and the extent of devastation in American lives.
Workers fight to find victims
Aided by sniffer dogs, bulldozers and spotlights, nearly 2,000 disaster workers were struggling againt raging fires and falling debris early this morning as they fought to reach survivors buried in mounds of concrete and steel.
One trapped victim used a cellphone to call from the basement of the demolished World Trade Center, saying there were more survivors. At least two Port Authority workers were pulled from the rubble.
But rescue workers said a 15-metre-deep crater was preventing them from reaching critical areas of the disaster.
"It depends on the will of God as to where you are and where you're standing," New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani said late last night.
In a historic attack on U.S. soil, four commercial aircraft were hijacked yesterday morning and pointed at civilian targets. Two collided into the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center, causing the 110-storey buildings to collapse.
A third plane hit the Pentagon, just outside Washington in Arlington, Va., while a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania before reaching its suspected target, the presidential retreat at Camp David, in Maryland.
Death total estimated in thousands
Although the accurate numbers may not be known for days, Mr. Bush put the death toll in the thousands. Hundreds of people were feared dead in the Pentagon attack. In New York, 265 firefighters, including the city's fire chief, and 85 police officers who were trying to evacuate the World Trade Center are missing and presumed dead. There were no survivors from the four airplanes, which were carrying 266 people in total. The first Canadian victim identified was NHL scout Garnet (Ace) Bailey, who was aboard one of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center.
In Washington, politicians united behind Mr. Bush to tell the world the United States would not be daunted by any attack, and was prepared to unleash a military assault the likes of which no one has seen since the Persian Gulf war.
Senators and congressmen gathered last night to sing God Bless America, while a mood for sharp, perhaps unprecedented, revenge seemed to sweep the nation.
"We will respond," Democratic Senator Richard Durbin from Illinois vowed. "America's been attacked. Those who attacked us will pay a price."
Blame placed on bin Laden
U.S. officials quickly pointed to fugitive terrorist leader Osama bin Laden as the mastermind of the attacks. He is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and has been blamed for 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa.
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican, said last night that U.S. officials had intercepted communications, involving Mr. bin Laden's supporters, linked to the attacks.
But as much as Mr. Bush and other politicians vowed retaliation, his country, and much of the world, awakes today to a cold new reality, knowing that the world's sole superpower could not stop a relatively small but skilled group of suicide attackers.
The scar on the American psyche, following a decade of triumphs, may be greater still. Every office tower, every airport, every public space which Americans so cherish will now be seen as a danger zone, a place where the nation that values freedom above all else cannot tread freely.
"I have no idea how life is going to go on after this," said Nina O'Reilly, 29, a fashion designer from Montreal living in New York.
'America's most vicious day' could trigger recession
The economic impact was already being felt, as parts of Wall Street lay in tatters and economists warned that the attacks may have been enough to push the U.S., and much of the world, into an economic recession.
While the world's major stock markets stayed closed, the U.S. dollar dropped sharply yesterday, and gold and oil prices soared.
America's most vicious day - one that is already being compared to the worst carnage of the Civil War - began during a sun-splashed rush hour that quickly turned to horror as hijackers of the commercial airplanes struck at the pre-eminent symbols of American commerce and might, and at the heart of American self-confidence.
The entire U.S. military was placed on the highest alert in peacetime, as the Bush administration assessed a wave of public and political pressure to attack those nations held responsible for previous terrorist attacks. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was in the Pentagon when it was hit by one of the hijacked airplanes, called the attacks "well co-ordinated" but refused to label them acts of war.
Images of war, nonetheless, ripped through the arteries of Wall Street, smashing offices, boutiques, restaurants and lives that were basking in the last glow of summer when the attacks began. Although billows of smoke and dust hung over lower Manhattan through the day, it was not until night, when more rescue teams waded into the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers, that the scale of the destruction became clearer.
'No sick people' a bad sign
The city's fire department said entire companies of firefighters had been lost during earlier rescue attempts. The greater death toll may not be known for days: Up to 40,000 people could have been in the two buildings when they were hit.
At makeshift field hospitals and triage centres erected at a sports complex on Manhattan's lower west side, doctors said they feared a horrible death toll, given the slow influx of casualties last evening. The city's major hospitals also felt an eerie quiet in the early evening as they braced for days of atrocious scenes to come.
“It's surreal inside, but there are no sick patients. I think so many people are dead. It's a bad sign that there are no mass casualties,” said Dr. James Dillard, a pain specialist.
The twin towers collapsed after two airplanes, hijacked from Boston, crashed into them just before and after 9 a.m. yesterday.
Barely half an hour later, as Americans, and the world, watched the calamity on TV, a third plane slammed into the Pentagon in central Washington. A fourth, allegedly headed toward Washington, crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.
As fires continued to burn in the Pentagon last night, the rest of the U.S., along with much of Canada and Europe, was placed under emergency restrictions not seen since the Second World War. Airspace from the North Pole to the Rio Grande has been closed to civilian traffic, and is not expected to reopen until later today.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien referred to the attack as "an assault not only on the targets but an offense against the freedom and rights of all civilized nations."
Across the United States, and in parts of Canada, schools were closed. Major office towers in downtown Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles were also evacuated, as were the Disney theme parks in Florida and California.
In Washington, D.C., where a state of emergency was declared, F-16 fighter jets patrolled the sky last night, with orders to shoot down any unknown aircraft. The U.S. had already diverted 120 airplanes to Canadian airports - mainly Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax - where thousands of travellers were left stranded last night.
In Europe, major airports were also closed for the day, as NATO members put their own armed forces on high alert and prepared for a possible co-ordinated attack with U.S. forces. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called mass terrorism “the new evil in our world."
Attacks very sophisticated
What Western leaders did not want to admit was that the attacks yesterday were more guileful and sophisticated than any fiction writer dabbling in tales of terrorism ever imagined.
The first sign of trouble came just before 8 a.m. when American Airlines Flight 11, destined for Los Angeles from Boston, was hijacked, although the culprits appeared to move so swiftly the pilots were not able to press an emergency alarm.
While crossing the Hudson River, the plane, with 81 passengers and 11 crew aboard, veered off its course and headed straight for lower Manhattan, where it smashed into the upper levels of the World Trade Center's south tower. Then, just after 9 a.m., as the world's television cameras focused on the horrifying sight, a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, with 65 people aboard and also bound for Los Angeles, flew directly into the north tower.
As parts of the world's most famous skyscrapers went up in flames, men in business suits were seen leaping or falling to their deaths. Then, with lower Manhattan under siege, the south tower collapsed to the ground, taking with it hundreds, possibly thousands, of people. Within an hour, the other twin tower was gone, the very emblem of a city and a commercial age reduced to rubble. A third tower of 47 floors in the complex, which had caught fire and been evacuated, crumbled in the late afternoon.
Less than an hour after the first strike, a third plane, an American Airlines flight, struck the Pentagon after it was hijacked from Washington's Dulles Airport. The fourth hijacked plane, a United Airlines flight departing from Newark, N.J., jerked into an erratic flight pattern over Pennsylvania and then crashed.
Likened to Pearl Harbor
Public officials across the political spectrum compared the attacks to Dec. 7, 1941, when kamikaze Japanese pilots attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Nearly 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack, which dragged a reluctant U.S. into the Second World War.
"This is the second Pearl Harbor. I don't think that I overstate it," said Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.
Mr. Bush, who made national security an early theme of his administration, seemed to have been caught off guard. He was hurried from a Florida tour to a military base in Louisiana and then on to a strategic command centre in Nebraska, not returning to the White House until early evening.
Security experts said the hijackers demonstrated a skill not seen before, as they must have penetrated the security systems at several airports and then placed trained pilots aboard at least four separate flights. Early reports suggested they had used knives to gain control of the planes.
For Americans, who are increasingly turning inward and looking to military technology to shield them from faraway threats, the attacks may have dealt a blow hard to measure.
“There seems to be so much political hatred against the U.S., especially in the Middle East, but I didn't think it could happen on this scale,” said Randy Hansen, 49, a sound-system designer who was working at a fashion show in downtown Manhattan during the attack.
With reports from Brian Laghi, John Ibbitson and Deirdre Kelly