Deserted streets tell tale of panic and destruction

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2001, 12:00am

Lower Manhattan looked like a war zone yesterday morning. What was once the financial heart of New York is now little more than a collection of shattered buildings set in a surreal landscape of devastation.

Exhausted soldiers, police officers, firefighters and other emergency crews had worked through the night clearing rubble in a desperate search for survivors in the area around the doomed World Trade Centre buildings. By morning, talk was of recovering bodies.

There were reports of cab drivers ripping the seats out of their vehicles so they could help transport bodies to military morgues. The twin towers - once the tallest buildings in the world and a symbol of American economic might - looked like snapped-off sticks stuck in a pile of grey ash.

Only a few storeys of the original 110 can be seen standing. The rest are mounds of pulverised brick and twisted metal.

As they crumbled, the towers destroyed or damaged buildings in an eight to 10-block radius. From the branch of a shattered tree near one empty building, an American flag could be seen fluttering defiantly in the wind, placed there after the attack.

The streets tell a tale of the panic and destruction that seized the city for most of Wednesday. Ash and debris cover the ground. Shoes, handbags and briefcases lie abandoned where people dropped them as they fled.

Police kept the growing crowd of people away from the centre of the disaster, but onlookers still gathered, most in silence, and looked at the hole in the skyline where the towers used to stand.

Most New Yorkers were told to stay home from work, as bridges and streets in Manhattan were opened only for one-way traffic leaving the area.

In coffee shops tragic stories were recounted. Tales of victims phoning out from the top floors of the World Trade Centre in the final few minutes of their lives were particularly common.

'My friend's dad called her to say goodbye. It still makes me cry when I think about it, but I can't stop,' said one young woman.

Bold headlines in the daily newspapers summed up the mood. 'US Attacked' said the New York Times. The tabloid Daily News was more direct: 'It's War.'

A man selling newspapers on a street corner was visibly upset as he gestured at the horrific photos that filled the pages in front of him.

'Only an animal could do this to another person. They are animals, just animals. I cannot believe this has happened,' he said.

In Washington it was the quietest of dawns. Virtually no cars were on the streets, and only a few people were outside - mainly drunks and the homeless.

In the pre-dawn darkness, lights burned brightly only in the White House, where President George W. Bush's national security team worked from its bunker-like Situation Room.

Once the sun was up, people started streaming back into the Pentagon by the hundreds.

Firefighters had battled blazes that burned through the night on the building's rooftop, while search and rescue teams worked their way through the rubble of the collapsed west side with listening devices, in the hopes of detecting signs of survivors.

But one Pentagon official said 'they don't believe anyone is alive'.