Snapshots of a City under Siege

As the depth of the disaster unfolds, survivors tell their tales, and citizens try to puzzle out what happened -- and why

By Diane Brady, with Charles Whalen

On Sept. 11, New York City went numb. Tourists and office workers milled through the barricaded streets of Manhattan, staring south at billowing smoke where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be. Others fought back tears as they recounted hearing screams and watching a stream of people fall or jump to their death. In separate attacks during the height of the morning rush hour, two planes smashed into the 110-story buildings that loom over Wall Street. About an hour later, they collapsed in a thunder of fire and dust.

The ripples of the tragedy are immediate. Sirens echo. Subways are closed. Buildings are evacuated. Trading stops. Store owners padlock their doors as fighter planes roar overhead. Ash and debris spew across the East River into Brooklyn. At Times Square, a throng gathers by the giant Nasdaq screen to watch it replay the explosions again and again. Two sheets flutter off a nearby Toys 'R' Us store that's under construction with the scrawled messages: "Pray for the Family and Victims" and "God Bless America." A trio of giggling boys on bicycles rides by, toting safety goggles and disposable cameras -- as if the memory needed to be captured on film to be believed.

"A HUGE, HUGE RUMBLING."

  Adam Mayblum, 35, an employee of May Davis Group, a private investment firm, was in his office on the 87th floor of 1 World Trade Center when one of the planes struck. "The vibration shook our building so hard that we must have been thrown 10 or 15 feet. I remember looking out the windows at [the other tower], and I saw paper flying though the air like a ticker-tape parade, like somebody threw a box of paper out. Then the smoke started coming in pretty quick -- maybe within a minute. There were little fires all over the place. And we heard things starting to collapse," Mayblum recalls.

Mayblum and a few colleagues managed to make their way to the emergency stairway, stopping every few floors to relay the scene above to SWAT teams and firemen on their way up. "The rescue workers went up there. They didn't come down.

"When we got to the third floor, we could hear the building collapsing above us. The lights went out. And there was a huge, huge rumbling at almost the same moment. That was the first time that I really feared for my life. I was afraid we were never getting out. The way out was blocked, we had to walk down a dark corridor -- pitch black. Apparently the other way we wanted to go was blocked, too. Then we found a way and walked out -- didn't even know where we were. The floor was covered in soot -- it looked like a construction site. It turned out that we were just above the lobby. And we made it out to the courtyard. [Rescue workers] said don't look up. I guess people were jumping up above.

"We walked up the street, I think it was 7th Avenue, toward Canal. We turned around and looked at the building, and I could see that in the general area of our floor it was engulfed in flames -- the whole building, all the way around. Then somebody told me 2 World Trade wasn't even there any more.... I sat down on the sidewalk just to catch my breath. We looked to the right, and we saw a big mushroom cloud appear out of nowhere. It was just one billowing mass of soot and smoke headed toward us, and we just high-tailed it up the street."

"HELPLESS."

  The scenes are too horrible to be believed. For onlookers, detachment is the only defense. At St. Vincent's Hospital near Greenwich Village, a sea of medical workers in pastel scrubs and surgical gloves lines the curb, waiting for the victims to arrive. A chaplain stands at the front, ready to administer last rites to those who make it back barely alive.

One by one, the parade of dust-covered ambulances pulls up. As hospital staff unload the injured into wheelchairs and stretchers, others rush to scrape debris off the hoods. In between, police cars screech up with off-duty doctors and nurses, sporting backpacks and stunned looks as they race inside. Jeanette Pimentel passes through a barricade to light a candle and hold up a yellow flower. A police officer tells her to move. "I just lost my uncle," she screams. He nods: "I'm sorry."

Across the street, hundreds line up to donate blood and debate what happened. "I feel so helpless," says Emma Johnson, as a staff member walks by, shouting for anyone with a nursing license to step forward. She was near the scene when it happened and, like many, wandered uptown on foot after all transportation lines closed down. Johnson suspects Osama bin Laden of organizing the attack and argues that "the U.S. should respond the way it should have responded years ago with this man -- hunt him down and kill him." Chung Lee, a venture capitalist from Boston, just shrugs and says "whoever it is, George Bush has to do something drastic, because he knows people see him as weak."

"BOOM! IT'S GONE!"

  Amid the shock, in fact, are a number of people who claim not to be surprised. Michael Nuamah of Brooklyn says he used to work in the World Trade Center and was always nervous, despite the draconian security measures implemented following the February 26, 1993 bombing, which killed six and left more than 1,000 injured. "If I was a general, I would attack there," he says. "It's the world's financial center. Now -- boom! -- it's gone!"

Steven Tsounis, a database analyst for Morgan Stanley who saw his building crumble as he was walking to work, notes that the area got a bomb threat just last week. "They wouldn't let me go in the one entrance, and we all got a bit nervous after that," he says. Still, he felt safe because security was so tight. "I thought the only way they could get a bomb in there would be to fly a plane into the building," he says. And so they did.

Some are already worried about the aftermath. Mario Russell, who handles immigrant and refugee services for a local charity, frets that the attack may spark a backlash against the wrong people. "There's going to be a lot of pain," he says, watching the line of bodies heading into St. Vincent's. He predicts that Americans -- starting with George W. Bush -- will lash out in the wrong direction. "We can't send troops overseas and start bombing embassies," he says. "That's not dialogue, and it won't bring peace."

"I COULD FEEL FLAMES."

  For most, though, tomorrow is the time to ponder such things. On this day, there's only shock and fear. Legal assistant Bernice Rivera works next door to the twin towers, on the 38th floor of an office building. At the first explosion, she ran to her window to see smoke and papers flying everywhere from one tower. Then, she saw the second plane hit the other tower.

She grabbed her bag, raced down 38 flights and never looked back. Rivera knows people who worked in the twin towers. She can't reach them, and assumes they're probably dead. "I could feel the flames through my window," she sobs, standing in a crowd at Penn Station, waiting for train service to resume to go home to Selden, Long Island. Right now, she just wants to go home.

But home felt far away to the millions trapped on the small island of Manhattan. While transportation services slowly resume, many people are stranded for the night. A long line snakes through the hall of the Hotel Pennsylvania across from Madison Square Garden and Amtrak's Penn Station, as people try in vain to book a room. "If you don't have a reservation, please don't stand in line," one manager shouts as his staff puts out cold soda for people to drink.

"HE LOOKS ARABIC."

  An atmosphere of paranoia prevails. "I'm sorry, I can't give you a bathroom key with that," says a guest-services manager, pointing to a man's stuffed paper folder. "We don't know what's in there, and we have to make sure everyone is safe." Nearby, a woman whispers to her mate: "He looks Arabic to me."

For many, the big challenge is getting out the message that they're O.K. -- and checking that loved ones are also. Cellular service and phone lines are overloaded. "I have to reach my kids," yells one man, jumping to the front of a pay-phone queue near 14th Street. His children attend school near Battery Park, he explains as several people stand aside. A woman offers him her quarter. After several tries, he hangs up and cries.

Still, as the foot of Manhattan goes up in smoke, some try to get on with their day. At the Whole Foods Market, a woman thumps on the door impatiently, as a security guard points to a sign stating that, due to the "current situation," the store would be closed. "So where should I buy food?" she yells. Another jokes that maybe now the city's housing market will soften to the point where she could afford an apartment.

In Times Square, hawkers are already selling postcards of the now vanished twin towers. Valentina Aberti of Venice, for one, isn't feeling too put out. "Terrorism is everywhere," she shrugs, "but Americans like to think they won't feel it." Not anymore.

Brady and Whalen report for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht