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NEW YORK CITY-It began with a call to our offices that the World Trade Center was on fire. Within minutes, the report had escalated to news that a jetliner had smacked into one of the towers. First thoughts turned to a similar tragedy that had befallen the Empire State Building decades ago, but that accident had occurred in heavy fog. This didn’t make sense.

But the news grew only more senseless with the report that a second plane had hit the remaining tower–and that a third had hit the Pentagon. Now it seemed that rumor had outpaced reality; none of this could be true.

But sorting out fact from fiction proved to be harder than anticipated, and we determined to get on-the-scene coverage in an attempt to get the story straight. But the A, B and C subways–the lines servicing the World Trade Center–were quickly bogging down. Giving up on the subway lines, I emerged at 8th Avenue and West 14th Street and walked over to Broadway. The first realization–a total non-sequitor–was that all of the Village eateries were empty–no patrons, no servers. Of course, they were all on the sidewalk, flooding into streets devoid of all vehicular traffic. Their hands cupped over their mouths, people stood wide-eyed, staring up at the site of one tower–Tower Two–engulfed in smoke, the other involved apparently only on the upper third. Smoke billowed from certain floors and what seemed small sporadic fires dotted its facade.

As I crossed the first police line, outside of St. Vincent’s Hospital, onlookers confirmed what was unbelievable–that one of the towers was down. People sat on curbs, sobbing as the roar of ambulances rose.

By the time I had made my way through the crowds and reached Thompson Street, the skyline had changed again and only smoke filled the space once occupied by the Twin Towers. A police officer confirmed that any survivors were being taken to St. Vincent’s and Bellevue.

I recalled a story I had covered years before–the 1993 bombing of the Trade Center. I recalled then-building manager Charles Maikish telling me that on the day of the attack one of his priorities was to keep the lights of both towers lit. “We wanted to send the message that they weren’t going to take us down,” he had told me at the time. I was chilled by the realization that it took nearly a decade, but “they” finally accomplished their horrible goal; there were no more lights to be lit.

Unable to use my cell, I ducked into the Verizon building just south of Thompson where a security guard gave me use of the desk phone, and I confirmed the latest news for Northeast bureau chief Glen Thompson, who was piecing together information the best he could from his outside sources as well as from Southwest bureau chief Connie Gore in Dallas and myself. (Throughout most of the ordeal, the only cell phone link that seemed to function was–oddly–between Connie and me.)

As I continued through the crowds I realized that there is a strange and frightening dynamic that emerges from the rubble of tragedy. As I pushed my way south I noticed that side-by-side with weeping onlookers were groups who seemed oblivious to the magnitude of what was taking place. They laughed and nudged each other carelessly and I wondered if this was false bravado, an over-reaction to the sudden awareness of our own mortality, or incredible ignorance. One girl was heard telling her companion that she wasn’t going to let “it” spoil her fun. Another complained to the FBI that unless she was allowed to cross the barricade, she couldn’t get to Brooklyn.

The southward trek ended abruptly at Leonard Street, where the FBI stood guard. They almost didn’t need to. Not more than four blocks south, a solid wall of smoke cut off any intention I had of passing through.

The surreal nature of the event was underscored then as we strangers stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of Broadway. Overhead, we heard the sound of a jet, and we all grew quiet. We knew by then that all air traffic had been halted and we all looked up. I stopped breathing, thinking for the first time that my life could be in danger. The scene took on the proportions of a science-fiction movie, only this was real and the fear was palpable. The sound–emanating apparently from a military jet–passed and we all breathed easier, but not before a series of residual explosions, unrelated to anything we had heard above, rocked the street.

Turning to get back to the office, I encountered two men–covered in soot and recently emerged from the rubble of the WTC. One held an audience in the middle of the street, the other sat quietly on a bench. A Port Authority worker, he granted some time for an interview–under the proviso that the story give credit to the rescuers who were risking their lives a few blocks south.

Close by, another man rapped his useless cell phone repeatedly on the park bench and then clutched his head in his hands. That one gesture, more than any other, seemed to summarize the day.

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