Nation & World

'Evil Acts' - Bush vows revenge for attacks; thousands killed as hijacked jets hit World Trade Center

This story was originally published on Sept. 12, 2001 after the attacks.

Addressing the nation after one of the most horrific days in history, President Bush vowed revenge Tuesday night for the full-scale terrorist assault that destroyed both towers of the World Trade Center, crushed a wing of the Pentagon, pulverized four hijacked jetliners and slaughtered thousands of Americans.

"The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts . . ., " Bush said on national television after spending several hours sheltered in an underground bunker in Nebraska. He returned to Washington in a plane escorted by jet fighters.

"We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

Federal investigators served search warrants Tuesday night at the homes of four Broward residents believed to be on the planes. "We're looking to see if there's a terrorist link, " said a law enforcement source familiar with the probe. No other details were available.

Bush said "thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, " and there was no doubt that the ghastly blitz of terror inflicted massive devastation and monstrous carnage.

It utterly destroyed two 110-story symbols of the nation's financial power, and it wrecked part of a huge, five-sided building known worldwide as the seat of American military might.

More than 50,000 people might have been in the World Trade Center and no one knew how many people were buried under mountains of rubble that still smoldered in New York City - and at the Pentagon - Tuesday night.

At least 200 New York City firefighters were believed killed. At least 78 police officers were missing. Horribly injured survivors jammed hospitals. It might take weeks to assemble a complete casualty list.

"I have a sense it's a horrendous number of lives lost, " New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani said. Late Tuesday, he said some survivors were still trapped in the debris and were making cellphone calls, begging for help.


The prime suspect in a meticulously planned event many Americans compared to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor: Osama bin Laden, the renegade Saudi who has declared war on American interests and has been sheltered by Afghanistan's rulers.

"This is perhaps the most audacious terrorist attack that's ever taken place in the world, " said Chris Yates, an aviation expert 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."

Whoever was responsible managed to exploit a comprehensive breakdown in national security. Four planes were simultaneously hijacked, despite security checks at all airports, and four flight crews were overpowered.

All four planes were bound for California, and highly explosive fuel filled their tanks to the brim.

Initial reports suggested that the hijackers - working in teams of three, four or five men - wielded knives, in some cases stabbing flight attendants and herding passengers and crew to the back of the planes.

One federal source told The Herald that, on at least one plane, terrorists committed "horrific acts of violence" on passengers in an effort to force pilots to open the cockpit.

But the first priority Tuesday night remained the victims who must be found and rescued - or identified by next of kin. A search and rescue team from South Florida mobilized to help.

And Americans somehow must cope with what happened Tuesday in Lower Manhattan, near Washington, D.C., and in a grassy field in Pennsylvania.

Bodies fell from the World Trade Center moments after an American Airlines jetliner speared one tower and a United Airlines plane punctured the other.

Some people dangled from window sills, grasping for life, then leaping to certain death from as high as the 80th floor, among them a man and a woman holding hands. Witnesses on the street screamed every time a person jumped.

"It looked like a snow blower, " said Debbi Gibbs, who lives nearby. "The sky was full of sparkles, pieces of glass and metal, bigger pieces of metal, then unmistakably people falling, falling in a different way from the debris."

Many people remained trapped inside the twin buildings for more than an hour. Then, one after the other, the skyscrapers collapsed, their structural integrity melted by the intense heat of fires.

Massive clouds of smoke and wreckage billowed in the air. Afterwards, pieces of office paper floated over Brooklyn, more than three miles away.


Another hijacked American Airlines plane slammed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., collapsing one side of the five-sided structure.

A fourth element of the terrorist plot might have been partially foiled - though at a terrible cost: Hijackers aboard a United Airlines jetliner apparently targeted the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., or the Capitol in Washington. Instead, that plane crashed 85 miles away, into a field in Shanksville, Pa.

"We are being hijacked! We are being hijacked!" one man aboard that plane screamed into a cellphone as the Boeing 757 went down.

There were no known survivors from any of the crashes. The planes carried a total of 266 people.

Throughout the day, Americans shuddered under a blanket security alert.

All U.S. airports were closed and air traffic was halted until at least noon today. Stock exchanges did not operate Tuesday and will not open today.

Military troops, including an infantry regiment, took positions in Washington. Other units mustered elsewhere. The Navy dispatched aircraft carriers and guided missile destroyers to New York and Washington.

The White House and the Capitol were largely evacuated. Authorities heightened security at the borders with Canada and Mexico.

"We are at war, " said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. "We are actually at war."


In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency as a "preemptive" response to the attacks. Many public buildings closed Tuesday in South Florida and many private companies released employees early. Disney World closed its theme parks.

Public schools - including all state universities - are open today in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Back in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, rescue efforts continued throughout the night, and National Guardsmen were sent in to help. Hundreds of volunteers and medical workers converged on triage centers, offering help and blood.

With so much unknown, the president - who began the day in Sarasota - spent much of Tuesday in a Cold War-era, underground command center at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the Strategic Air Command.

Later, Bush returned to Washington, and he addressed the nation. He reassured his people that the government was functioning, the economy would survive and Americans would find a way through this.

"America has stood down enemies before and we will do so this time, " the president said. "None of us will ever forget this day. Yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

The appalling sequence of events - certain to reshape the way Americans view the world - involved two jetliners from American Airlines carrying 156 people and two from United Airlines carrying 110 people.

In addition to the 50,000 people who work in the World Trade Center, tens of thousands visit the buildings, and the attacks detonated at the beginning of the business day.

"We're in the World Trade Center and it has just been bombed, " Bob Hurley, 35, a tool salesman from Atlanta, told The Herald by cell phone. "We are OK, but I think a lot of people are dead."

In the background, a Herald reporter heard people screaming and the thud of heavy explosions. Hurley was on the 22nd floor.

"The elevators are frozen, " Hurley said. "We are going down the stairs. There's a lot of smoke, but people are organizing. We are getting the hell out of here."

A little later, the buildings collapsed - as millions of Americans watched on live television. Hurley called back an hour later to say that he and his companions had survived.

The magnitude of the event stunned and frightened Americans everywhere. They jammed telephone lines in many parts of the country, and lined up at many gasoline stations and cash machines in South Florida.

No attacks occurred in Florida, but bomb threats were received at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.


At Chesterbrook Academy in Pembroke Pines, many parents picked up their kids by mid-morning. Beth Cleary, an administrator at the private school, said teachers were comforting the youngsters.

"Children asked, 'Can we pray?' " Cleary said. "And we said yes. We're trying to be positive, a calming influence."

An executive of the Miami law firm of Hightower, Rudd, Weiser & Acosta sent a memo describing Tuesday's events as the equivalent of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The company dismissed employees early and closed its office in the New World Trade Center, which houses the Israeli consulate.

The comparison to the event 60 years ago that propelled the United States into World War II occurred to many Americans.

"This is the second Pearl Harbor, " said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "I don't think that I overstate it."

Homestead Air Force Base was placed on heightened alert. At the U.S. Southern Command headquarters near Miami International Airport, officials also tightened security.

Investigators focused on bin Laden for several reasons.

For one thing, he has proven himself an effective, bloodthirsty enemy of the United States, sponsoring terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and a U.S. destroyer on a part in Yemen.

For another, a bin Laden associate had been scheduled for sentencing today - in a courthouse near the World Trade Center - for his role in the 1998 bombing of a U.S. embassy in Tanzania that killed 11 people.

In addition, Thursday is the eighth anniversary of the so-called Oslo Accords, the U.S.-brokered peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.

On Tuesday night, explosions rocked Afghanistan, which harbors bin Laden. But American officials said they were not responsible for the blasts, which were attributed to Afghan rebels.

No word emerged Tuesday from bin Laden, though Afghanistan's rulers condemned the attacks and rejected suggestions that he was behind them.

In New York, people who witnessed the work of bin Laden or whoever perpetrated these crimes still struggled Tuesday night to come to terms with images their eyes registered but their brains could barely process.

"I can't believe I have to live the rest of my life and know that I saw these two planes purposely fly into these buildings, " said David Mark of Fort Lauderdale, a yacht captain who was in Manhattan on Tuesday. "That's when your heart dropped."

Said another witness, Keith Myers: "It kind of makes you want to go home and spend time with your family. It puts everything in perspective."

Herald staff writers Lila Arzua, Jennifer Babson, Paul Brinkley-Rogers, Jane Bussey, Jacqueline Charles, Wanda DeMarzo, Andrea Elliott, Gail Epstein, Keny Feijoo, Tere Figueras, Manny Garcia, Donna Gehrke-White, David Kidwell, Larry Lebowitz, Amy Lipman, Phil Long, Evelyn McDonnell, Natalie McNeal, Karl Ross, Holly Stepp, Shannon Tan, Ana Valdes, Jane Wooldridge, Luisa Yanez and William Yardley contributed to this report, which was supplemented by Herald wire services.