As flames swallowed level after level, most just watched in awe

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2001, 12:00am

It was a perfect September morning for sightseeing. Brisk commuters threaded their way between slow-moving tourists under a crystal sky in Park Avenue. Eyes looked up casually towards the column of smoke rising over Lower Manhattan. Sirens wailed distantly. Just another fire, it seemed.

As radios barked to life in parked cars, commuters paused to listen, but the first grim fragments of news were not enough to faze some hardened New Yorkers. 'The World Trade Centre?' grinned one. 'Here we go again.'

At Union Square, all eyes turned south, where flames licked the mortally wounded twin towers of the trade centre. Strangers exchanged parcels of information.

'It was a plane,' said one.

'Two planes,' said another. 'One hit each tower and one was a big jet. Hijacked.'

The curious streamed south towards the disaster zone. At Washington Square, onlookers stood transfixed as flames swallowed floor after floor. The crowd erupted into screams and gasps when the south tower came down.

Everyone was on the phone, checking on loved ones. Cameras came out, but most people just watched in awe.

'How can this have happened?' one panic-stricken elderly American asked. 'This is like Pearl Harbour.'

The emergency rooms of hospitals were crammed. 'People are dying. I don't know how many,' said one exhausted paramedic.

At the foot of the burning towers, children from nearby schools and the panicked relatives of some of the twin towers' 40,000 workers stood weeping for loved ones missing in the chaos beyond the blue police barricades.

A despairing firefighter said it would take weeks to dig the bodies from what was left of the buildings.

Authorities continued to evacuate southern Manhattan in the afternoon, partly due to concerns about damage to structures around the twin towers.

'I was there,' said dazed David Appleyard, visiting New York from the Midwest. He was escaping north along Thompson Street, SoHo. 'I was on the 47th floor of the north tower when the other tower was hit. I got out before the second one got it.'

Something fell from a fiery window of the remaining tower; it seemed little more than a black dot in the distance. And then another. And another. Debris?

'They're jumpers, man,' the man beside me said. 'They're jumping.'

The north tower exploded. From the crowd came gasps and sobbing this time, not screams.

A single column of steel teetered for a moment and was sucked down with the rest into the black smoke.

Appalled or just plain frightened, many were turning away, joining the stream of stunned people leaving the disaster zone. Few were talking now. It takes a lot to silence a New Yorker.

Michael Cheyne is the Post's deputy chief sub-editor. Additional reporting by agencies.