The silver streak of an American Airlines jet was flying unusually low over Lower Manhattan. People buying their morning coffee on the street pointed upwards. The plane tilted, homing in on its target, flashing its red logo at the city below.
“I heard it first and thought it was a military plane,” said Adrian Harris, 41, a security guard on Broadway, moments after the first crash.
“It was so loud,” said Colin Heywood, 36, a British designer who lives in a loft with a view of the Twin Towers. “I was in my bedroom making a telephone call and I saw it tilt and head towards the building. As it hit, its wings seemed as wide as the tower. It disappeared into the building, as if it was swallowed inside.” That was 8.45am.
As we spoke on lower Broadway, a second flash appeared in the clear blue sky. 9.03am, a second plane, a second explosion, the south tower hit. Glass and metal sprayed into the sky like confetti.
As we ran into a doorway a flaming object hurtled towards us. One of the plane’s engines hit a street sign and skidded on to the pavement at the corner of Murray Street and Broadway. It was burning to the touch.
A rush of people came up Broadway, many sobbing. Secretaries in bare feet, men in suits flailing at their mobile telephones as they ran.
“I was coming out of the train in the basement of the Trade Centre,” said Esther Borneo, 38, a computer programmer, who was on her way to work in the north tower. “There was smoke and people were running like crazy. I saw people jumping off the building.”
As the fire in the first building inched up the top floors, people appeared to be hurling themselves out, men with their ties flapping around their heads. They fell like rag dolls, unable to hang on as an inferno consumed the building. Many in the street bent over, retching at the sight.
In the streets closest to the World Trade Centre, shoes, lunchboxes, handbags and body parts lay strewn. Clinton Lettsome, 41, a cleaning supervisor in the building, sat slumped against a wall, covered in dust. He had been on the seventh floor of the north tower when the first plane struck.
“There were broken bodies, pieces of bodies, shoes, hats, bags, computer equipment. A lot of people got hurt running out,” he said. “All those people jumping out the windows, who’ve never done anything to anyone.”
The mood on the streets after the first explosion was still desperately tense. The sound of a police helicopter overhead prompted a stampede. It felt like we were running from a serial killer. A pair of fighter jets appeared over the Hudson River sending people scurrying for doorways.
Police and fire engines were descending on the scene. “I couldn’t even breathe when I got off the train,” said Kristin Peri, 31, an employee with Deutsche Bank next door to the World Trade Centre. Still breathing heavily and wiping away tears, she said: “It was like watching a movie, the way the building exploded and people just running.”
Tom Snyder, 55, a worker with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the largest tenant in the World Trade Centre, was on the 77th floor of the south tower when the first plane hit. “We were told the south tower had been secured and we started to evacuate. About half way down, we felt the whole building shake. We didn’t know what it was.”
Even then the terror was not over. At 10am, police came running up the street screaming for people to run for cover. Behind them, the south tower collapsed, exploding like a bag of flour. Many police and firemen who had been trying to deal with the initial explosions were trapped beneath the debris.
Crowds crammed into building hallways. Where I was, in an office building on lower Broadway, the crowd was suffocating. People were terrified, muttering prayers, sweating and gulping for air as the bodies pressed in. Many tried calling their families on mobile phones, but the system had collapsed.
An exit was found through the back of the building. Through the dark cloud of dust, people stood still, as if frozen in volcanic dust. Police came handing out dust masks. But many threw themselves to the ground, choking on the thick grey green cloud.
Achille Niro, 52, an employee with the Port Authority was at his desk on the 72nd floor of the south tower when the first plane hit. “I was sitting in my offices, and it was just going back and forward like nothing before. We were trying to figure out what was going on.”
As he and his colleagues reached the 28th floor, they stopped for water and to make telephone calls. “There was just this massive explosion. The fire department were also evacuating and we all started running as fast as we could. But we got out of the lobby and we saw flames coming out above the 85th floor.”
The building began collapsing behind them. “Everyone was moving, and this cloud of dust and debris caught up with us. We couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. I told this woman I was with to stop and we waited for the cloud to clear.”
At 10.28am, the second tower, the north tower collapsed. Another huge dust cloud rose into the sky. The World Trade Centre was gone. Glass buildings all around, the heart of America’s financial system, were reduced to slivers.
People wandered lost and confused. All trains, bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan were closed. Restaurants began offering water to passers-by.
Joe Melillo, 57, a Wall Street trader, stood covered in dust at a pay phone, trying to call his wife in New Jersey. He had just managed to escape the north tower, having walked down from the 81st floor. “No sooner did we go 10 steps, than it collapsed,” he said, spitting the dust out of his mouth. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like a cyclone around us.”
“This is much worse than 1993,” said Michael Spector, a staff analyst for the city of New York, recalling the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre by Islamic fundamentalists. “Here you have visible damage. The building’s just gone. Back then, you couldn’t really see the damage.”
Walking the streets of lower Manhattan, one heard a blank poem of anger, bafflement and pain. “This should open New York’s eyes.” “Palestinians.” “Get off the phone.” “Crazy.””Anyone here with medical experience?”
One security guard from the World Trade Centre stood with his tie askew, trying to find some humour in the devastation. “I need a new job. In a flat building,” he said.
As ambulances and police cars raced downtown, crowds gathered round cars to hear radio reports. Police tried to shoo people away as the dust floated across the city, coating the street markets of Chinatown. It was not just two buildings that disappeared, but for one terrifying morning, the spirit of a city that thought itself indomitable.