September 11, 2001
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'This is war, total war'

Jeet Thayil in New York

Words seem inadequate to describe the scene in New York City on Tuesday morning following the airborne attack that felled the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. By noon today one of the world's most recognisable skylines had been forever altered, affecting tens of thousands of lives in the process.

When the first explosion occurred, at around 9am, most people were on their way to work. Subway and bus services were abruptly suspended. Airports, bridges and tunnels also stopped services. Very soon it was clear that nobody could get in or out of the city except on foot.

Thousands of New Yorkers took to the city's streets. The Brooklyn Bridge was choked with pedestrians as office-workers headed back home. Most offices stopped work for the day, fearing further attacks. This was especially true of landmark structures such as the Lincoln Centre, the United Nations and the stock and diamond exchanges.

Downtown, the streets and buildings were enveloped in a thick haze of smoke, soot and ash. The air was clogged with smoke, making visibility and breathing difficult. Small groups of people gathered around radios or television sets listening disbelievingly to the news. Many sobbed openly as they heard of the extent of devastation. Stockbrokers in suits and construction workers in hardhats walked down the street in a haze, covered in white ash. They wore the ash, a film of white on their hair and clothes, like a badge of honour. "This is war, total war," said a man waving a small transistor radio. "Go home, go home."

Farid Ali, 37, a Queens-based cab driver, had a very close call. He had just dropped a fare near the Marriott Hotel and planned to wait in line at a nearby taxi stand for his next passenger. He changed his mind and headed uptown. A few minutes later the entire area was enveloped in smoke and debris.

"There was ash up to my shoulder," Ali told "It was pitch black on the street. I thought I was going blind. I looked up to see the World Trade Centre and there was nothing to see, just a big gas cloud."

Policemen, firemen, emergency medical service and other city personnel blocked off access to streets near the 'kill zone' as some news services called the area around the World Trade Centre. Following the initial explosions, debris from the stricken North and South Towers of the WTC became potentially fatal. Some pedestrians in the area were killed by falling debris that had, in effect, become shrapnel.

Collateral damage to adjacent buildings was heavy. Police refused to comment on the extent of casualties, but some experts have said the eventual toll will be in the thousands. Around 100,000 people are said to visit the World Trade Centre daily. Fortunately the attack happened just before the start of the working day, preventing even more fatalities.

"I am amazed at the goodness of our people," a city priest said on a television news station. "Yes, this is a tragedy, but one that we can handle." He was right. Hundreds of New Yorkers immediately pitched in to help, carrying the injured to safety, commandeering traffic, organising rescue efforts.

Outside St Vincent's Hospital, one of the city's premier medical institutions, stretchers were lined on both sides of the street as a stream of ambulances brought the wounded and the dead. In the midst of that chaos and incipient panic, doctors announced a problem that seemed unique to this great city. There were too many people wanting to donate blood, they said. They could not handle such an influx of potential donors.

The Attack on America: The Complete Coverage

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