"It's a bomb, let's get out of here."
A bomb, Dianne DeFontes thought, when thinking became possible again. At 8:46:30, an impact had knocked her off a chair in the law office on the 89th floor of the north tower, 1 World Trade Center. The door swung free, even though she had bolted it shut. In another part of the floor, Walter Pilipiak had just pushed open the door to the offices of Cosmos International, an insurance brokerage where he was president. Akane Ito heard him coming and looked up from her desk to greet him. Before Pilipiak could get the words "Good morning" out of his mouth, he felt something smack the back of his head, and he was hurled into a wall. Ceiling tiles collapsed on Ito. A bomb, they decided, several breaths later.
On the southwest end of the 89th floor, the insurance company MetLife had 10,000 square feet of space. After the initial slam, Rob Sibarium could feel every one of those square feet tilting as the tower bent south, so far that it seemed as if it would never recoil. It did, slowly returning to center. Something had happened in the other building, Sibarium thought. An explosion.
Mike McQuaid, the electrician installing fire alarms, was sure he knew what he was feeling: an exploding transformer, from amachine room somewhere below the 91st floor. Nothing else could rock the place with such power.
In the lobby, Dave Kravette had just ridden down from the Cantor Fitzgerald office to meet his guests, after ending the conversation with his wife about the newspaper delivery. Just a few steps out of the elevator, he heard a tremendous crash and what sounded like elevator cars free-falling. Then he saw a fireball blow out of a shaft. Around him, people dived to the ground. Kravette froze and watched the fireball fold back on itself.
She dropped the phone, Louis Massari would remember thinking. His wife, Patricia, had been reporting to him that she had bought a second home pregnancy test. The first one, that morning, had been positive, a surprise. Patricia worked as a capital analyst on the 98th floor of the north tower for Marsh & McLennan, an insurance and financial services concern; at night she took college courses. The pregnancy test was on her mind; it trumped, naturally, the test she was due to take that evening in her class and had been fretting over. So they had plenty to talk about.
"Oh, my God--" she said, and then Louis heard nothing. She had slipped, somehow, he was sure, and had pulled the cord out of the jack.
Higher still in the building, on the 106th floor, Howard Kane, the controller for Windows on the World, was speaking by phone with his wife, Lori. Kane dropped the receiver, or so it seemed to his wife, because the sounds of clamor and alarm, the high notes of anxiety if not the exact words, filled her ear. Maybe he was having a heart attack. Then she could hear a woman screaming, "Oh, my God, we're trapped," and her husband calling out, "Lori!"
Then another man picked up the phone, and spoke. "There's a fire," he said. "We have to call 911."
From the Risk Waters conference in Windows on the World, Caleb Arron Dack, a computer consultant, called his wife, Abigail Carter, on a cell phone. "We're at Windows on the World," Dack said. "There was a bomb." He could not get through to the police emergency line. He needed Abigail to call 911 for him. The bomb may have been in the bathroom.
At another breakfast, in a delicatessen a quarter mile below Windows on the World, the former director of the world trade department, Alan Reiss, had not heard, felt, or seen a thing. He sat with his back to the window that overlooked the plaza. Suddenly, one of the other Port Authority managers, Vickie Cross Kelly, looking past Reiss's shoulder to the window, called out.
"Something must have happened," she said. "People are running around on the mall." Reiss turned. He saw terrified people, sprinting in every direction. A person with a gun had set off the chaos, he guessed.
"I've got to go," Reiss said, tossing a five-dollar bill on the table, then headed for the trade center police office, one floor above them, in the low-rise building known as 5 World Trade Center. Through big plate-glass windows that faced east toward Church Street, he could see a blizzard of burning confetti. This was not as straightforward as someone with a gun. Another bomb?
In 1993, Reiss had just opened the door to his basement office when the terrorists' truck bomb exploded 150 feet away. Afterward, he had been part of the team that refitted the towers for better evacuation. As a matter of doctrine at the trade center, bombs were seen as a threat that could cause harrowing but local damage. They were unlikely to bring cataclysm.
In the weeks and months following the 1993 attack, the danger from a powerful bomb attack on the trade center, especially the two towers, had been considered by the Port Authority and its security consultants. Most experts agreed that while the towers could be hurt by a bomb, they could not be destroyed. Anyone might, in theory, sneak a bomb onto a floor, but the damage would largely be confined to 1 floor out of 110--or looked at another way, 1 acre out of 110. In general, bombs are as powerful as they are big. The larger the bomb, the bigger the explosion, the greater the damage. The 1993 terrorists had driven 1,200 pounds of explosive into the basement. Even so, the base of the towers, the strongest part of the buildings, easily deflected the explosion. Compared with the powerful load absorbed by the face of the towers from winds that blew every hour of every day, the truck bomb in the basement was puny.
Moreover, there was no simple way of getting 1,200 pounds of explosive to the upper floors, where the structure was not as dense as the base. If the monumentalism of the towers made them a natural target, their very height added protection, not vulnerability. Gravity was part of the built-in defense to the devastation of a big bomb.
From what Reiss could see, he was sure that someone had set off a big bomb. While it is true that small bombs--explosives fitted into a tape recorder or hidden inside a suitcase--can blow an airplane out of the sky, that destructiveness has less to do with the bomb than with the altitude. What rips apart the aircraft is not the size of the bomb but a rupture in the fuselage at 35,000 feet, with the lethal force coming from the difference between the cabin pressure and the atmosphere. Those forces are not present even at the top of skyscrapers as tall as the twin towers, limiting the destructive energy of a conventional bomb to its size.
By the time Reiss had run up one flight on the escalator, he guessed that a truck bomb must have blown up somewhere around the trade center.
Reiss no longer worked in the basement, as he had in 1993, and he wondered, fleetingly, who in his old department had arrived for work on the 88th floor of the north tower. Up there, no one had illusions about a truck bomb. The moment arrived as a powerful fist rocking the building. As soon as Gerry Gaeta, a member of the team that oversaw construction projects at the trade center, could find his words, he hollered, "It's a bomb, let's get out of here." And he was sure he knew how it had gotten up there. Moments earlier, a messenger had arrived with a trolley of documents for Jim Connors in the real estate department. Surely that was how the bomb had been wheeled in, Gaeta thought; the boxes of "documents" had been a Trojan horse.
Down the hall, Nicole De Martini had just drawn the last sip of her coffee and had risen to leave her husband's office to go to hers, in the south tower, when she and Frank heard a boom from overhead and felt the building lurch. Nicole watched a river of fire spill past the window in Frank's office. It was a bomb, they both thought.Or maybe the machine room had exploded, burning diesel fuel. Nothing else could explain the force they felt, one that seemed directly above them.
The elevators had rocked, swinging like pendulums. Pasquale Buzzelli, a Port Authority engineer going to his office on 64, felt the car right itself, then slowly descend to the 44th floor, where he had started from. Smoke began to pump through the shaft. No one seemed to understand what was happening, so he got back on the elevator, which now was working just fine, and rode up to the 64th floor. There he met his boss, Patrick Hoey, the engineer in charge of the Port Authority's bridges and tunnels, who was just as puzzled.
"What happened, Pat?" Buzzelli asked.
"I don't know, but it near knocked me out of my chair," Hoey replied.
The tower had miles of elevator shafts. In one that served the middle of the building, six men were in a car bound for the upper floors. They felt the jolt, then a swoop. A window washer named Jan Demczur punched the emergency stop button. In a moment, fingers of smoke crept into the car, rising past the cuffs of the men in the car, pushing down from the roof. They rang the intercom. No one answered. On board another elevator, which had just left the north tower lobby, was Judith Martin, the secretary who had lingered outside for a cigarette. She and six other people were now stuck, pressing the alarm and calling for help.
In the Marriott Hotel, tucked between the two towers, the Rev. Paul Engel, naked except for a cross dangling on a chain around his neck, had just gone to the lockers after working out when he heard an impossibly loud screech of metal on metal, like the squeal of train brakes. A Catholic priest, Engel went every morning to the health club atop the hotel. Normally, he finished his exercise with some laps in the pool, but had skipped that part of his routine today. Now he quickly pulled on the nearest garment, his swimming trunks, and peeked at the pool. It was on fire.
From a window on the 61st floor in the north tower, Ezra Aviles had seen everything. He knew it was no bomb. His window faced north, and he saw the plane tearing through the skies, headingstraight for the tower. It had crashed into the building over his head--how far, he was not sure. In fact, its lower wing cut the ceiling of the 93rd floor, and its right wing had ripped across the 98th floor, at the very moment that Patricia Massari was speaking to her husband about her home pregnancy test.
Aviles worked for the Port Authority. He dialed five numbers, leaving identical messages, describing what he saw, and telling everyone up the chain of command to begin the evacuation. He called one colleague, John Paczkowski, but reached his voice mail. "It seems to be an American Airlines jetliner came in from the northern direction, toward--from the Empire State Building, toward us," Aviles said. He ticked through a list of notifications--he had called the police and the public affairs office, and had beeped the chief operating officer for the agency. "Smoke is beginning to come, so I think I'm gonna start bailing outta here, man ... . Don't come near the building if you're outside. Pieces are coming down, man. Bye."
Then he phoned his wife, Mildred, who was at home with two of their three children. "Millie, a plane hit the building," he said. "It's going to be on the news."
By then, the havoc was escalating, even if the cause was not apparent. In the police bureau at the base, Alan Reiss heard talk of a missile having been fired from the roof of the Woolworth Building, just a couple of blocks east of the trade center.
As Reiss was listening to this, a Port Authority detective, Richie Paugh, arrived.
"We're going out onto the plaza to let you know what's going on," Reiss told the desk. He and Paugh walked down the hallway from the plaza, past an airline ticket counter. A revolving door put them under a soffit, an overhang sheltering the entrance to 5 World Trade Center. They peered out. Debris had rained onto the plaza--steel and concrete and fragments of offices and glass. Above them, they could see the east side of the north tower, and also its northern face. Instead of the waffle gridding of the building's face, they now saw a wall of fire spread across ten or fifteen floors. Then they saw the people coming out the windows, driven toward air, and into air. The plane had struck not two minutes earlier.
On the ground, they saw an odd shape. Reiss looked closer. It was the nose gear of an airplane, missing the rubber tire, but with its wheel still connected to the hydraulic elbow that retracts into the bottom of the plane. Paugh began to take notes on its shape and location. Reiss protested. "There's crap falling on us," he said. "I don't have a hard hat on or anything, let's just drag it in."
He and Paugh lugged the part into the police office. "It's evidence, put a sticker on it," Reiss said.
"A plane hit the building," Paugh said.
"It's a big plane," Reiss added. "It's not a Piper Cub. This is a bi-i-i-g fucking wheel."
For hundreds of people on the upper floors of the north tower, death had come in a thunderous instant. The remains of one man who worked for Marsh & McLennan, which occupied space on the 93rd to 100th floors, would later be found five blocks from the tower. American Airlines Flight 11 had flown directly into the company's offices. The impact killed scores of people who could never have known what hit them.
Flight 11 had hit 1 World Trade Center, the north tower, at 450 miles an hour, having traveled the full length of Manhattan Island, fourteen miles from north to south, in less than two minutes. When it slammed into the north side of the building, the plane's forward motion came to a halt. The plane itself was fractionalized. Hunks of it erupted from the south side of the tower, opposite to where it had entered. A part of the landing gear landed five blocks south. The jet fuel ignited and roared across the sky, as if the fuel continued to fly on course, even without its jet. Much of the energy deflected from the speeding plane shot in waves down the skeleton of the north tower. The waves pulsed into the bedrock, rolled out to the Atlantic Ocean, and along the bed of the Hudson River. The impact registered on instruments in Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, twenty-two miles to the north, generating signals for twelve seconds. The earth shook.