Chaos Erupts

I hear something: boom. It can't be.

NEW YORK -- It began the way all disasters seem to when you're not in the middle of them, with a minor aggravation. At 8:45 a.m., my Greenwich Village apartment rumbles as I'm getting dressed; a low flying plane. "Must be some kind of military exercise," I grouse, and then pause, realizing that since I moved from San Francisco three years ago I've never once had my windows rattled by flyboys. Weird.

"This just in: There's been some kind of explosion in the top floors of the World Trade Center," said the WNYC announcer. I contemplate heading out to the street for a look. You can see both towers perfectly from 6th Avenue and West 12th Street. But I probably wouldn't even be able to see the smoke. "We've got unconfirmed reports that a plane hit the north tower," he says a minute later, and I'm out the door.

A big, smoking wound gapes on the side of the north tower. Clumps of people stand in the street. A guy in a baseball cap tells me he saw the plane. "It was a passenger airliner," he says. "It was flying really low, and swerving. I didn't see it hit, but I heard it." Tiny shards of fire flicker in the hole.

I rush upstairs to listen for updates. This has to be the worst aviation accident of all time, I think. I'm pouring coffee and I hear something: boom. It can't be. "Another plane just hit the other tower," a frantic man with an Indian accent tells a radio reporter. No, that can't be right. The crash must have set off an explosion in some part of the tower. "A second plane has hit the south tower," says Highland.

I'm on the street again by the time I grasp that this is no accident. Huge billows of smoke cover the tops of both towers. Honking cars covered with gray dust crawl up 6th Avenue through the huge crowds of people staring south. I go back and forth between the street and my CNN-filled apartment a half dozen times. I'm heading around the corner when I hear people scream. The south tower is down. I see the north tower fall on live TV, and by the time I get to the street people are stumbling around on the sidewalk weeping, and a man is shouting that everyone should head to the hospital on the corner. "They need blood!"

There's a big empty patch of sky on the horizon where I used to admire the towers tinted pink by the dawn. Gone. More people than I can count, or can even stand to think about, now have even bigger holes in their lives.

-- Laura Miller

"There's a big white plane headed this way!"

WASHINGTON -- A controlled chaos erupted in downtown Washington in the wake of an explosion at the Pentagon, directly across the Potomac River. Streets were clogged with commuters battling bumper to bumper traffic as federal office buildings closed for the day and Washingtonians attempted to return to their homes. As White House personnel were evacuated, law enforcement authorities enlarged the security buffer around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Within two blocks of the White House on 17th Street, one police officer hurriedly waved pedestrians west, apparently concerned about imminent danger.

"West, west!" the policeman yelled. "There's a big white plane headed this way!"

While some D.C. residents rushed down the streets crying, panic painted on their faces, most seemed gravely curious. Small clusters gathered on street corners, exchanging information. Cars stuck in traffic with news radio blasting attracted interested pedestrians.

Sirens wailed continuously as police cars and ambulances attempted to maneuver through the clogged downtown avenues. Commuters cursed their cellphones, many of which had difficulty getting signals. At downtown pay phones, lines formed of individuals wanting to call family members and friends.

An earlier report of an explosion on the Mall -- the multi-block field between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial -- turned out have been inaccurate. The smoke that appeared to have been coming from the Mall, if one was north of downtown, actually emanated from the Pentagon, where the explosion was reportedly severe. A 60-foot section of the United States' military headquarters was ignited in a horrific conflagration and then collapsed. Downtown hospital emergency rooms began admitting casualties from the Pentagon explosion.

-- Jake Tapper

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