Look. Oh my God, they are jumping 

THE news passed down 5th Avenue by relay. At 9am in midtown the orderly procession of office workers had not heard nor seen anything, but there was growing curiosity about the funnel of black smoke downtown.

As lines formed on the edges of the pavement, a middle-aged man came sprinting towards them; he was pointing at the twin towers and imitating a plane's movement. Word rustled through the crowd of a plane crash, then of two.

People jump to their deaths from the burning World Trade Centre 
Further down the avenue, workers were now pouring out on to the pavements and the talk was more informed, more incredible. Cars parked and turned on their radios full blast, around which people clustered.

"A hijacking?"

"It's what?"

Word was passed around in disbelief. People began reaching for their cellphones and moving slowly, wide-eyed towards the scene. The evidence of this hellish scenario was burning in front of them.

The tower on the left had a cavernous hole at the top of the building and volcanic smoke, a terrible pall of black and white, raced in all directions. In contrast, the downward line of flame was almost mathematical; it lit up each floor by turn, window after window a bright red square.

Now the structure of the building was literally melting, great drips of metal and showering glass. "The architecture is not meant to let that happen," said one man wonderingly. "I mean, this should not happen."

"How do they put that out?" asked his female companion. An ancient-looking fire engine came rattling past, a pitiful answer. The crowd gathered in downtown Thompson Street had seen the first, then the second plane hit the twin towers.

Jason Griffith, a property manager, said he was on his way to the gym when the first plane crashed. "I said out loud, that plane is flying too low, it is going to hit the building." He watched the explosion that followed in disbelief.

"I have a friend who works inside there, so I've been trying to call him. You know, my cellphone isn't working though." The crowd was beginning to speculate reluctantly about those in the tower. "Well, I think they will be evacuated," said a woman seeking reassurance in the grim expressions of those around her.

As the smoke and flames consumed the upper floors of the buildings, the crowd began to whisper and shudder, clicking their cameras to record the scene that their eyes could scarcely believe. The most powerful nation on earth was under deadly attack.

Brent Yonehara, a law student from Los Angeles had just heard about the attempted bombing of the Pentagon.

"I can't believe this. I was on my way to school and I saw this plane coming right over, just over the buildings. I could see the markings on it. I thought it was out of control but then it righted itself and went straight for the tower. And now they've hit the Pentagon. Are we safe here?"

The question was repeated through the crowd. "Are we safe? Is this war?" A woman with a baby whispered to her husband that he should get a supply of water from one of the few shops that were open.

These are sophisticated people, city people. Their fear showed itself in contained gestures. Most people simply looked up, their hands to their mouths as a couple of fighter planes flew over the towers. The noise came from the screaming sirens, and the car radios.

Then the first tower collapsed, suddenly, quietly, absolutely, in a cloak of glass and ash. The crowd screamed and surged forward towards it. "Holy shit. It's gone. The whole building has gone," one man shouted. "It just came down like it was nothing," said another.

Now people were bursting into tears, and a group of students crouched terrified on the pavement. "I'm so cold," cried one girl. But there was another horrible distraction. A woman pointed at the second tower. "Oh my God, they are jumping."

A figure, as small as a bird, tumbled down the side of the tower. More silhouettes followed - four, five, six. The crowd watched with tears streaming down their faces; these desperate figures hurtling towards their death.

"But couldn't they get out? Couldn't they have hung on?" asked one woman through a stream of tears. They could not have waited. Ten minutes later the second tower folded as quickly as the first.

The famous skyline of New York, reproduced throughout the city on walls and in pictures and postcards, had been devastated within a matter of hours. The crowd continued to stare frozenly at the empty plinths.

Following those screams, the watching crowd became once more low key in its shock. Only one middle-aged black man, who was carrying a bottle of vodka, railed noisily: "What is the matter with you all? Don't you see what has happened? This bad, bad place. This evil world."

Those around him ignored him, isolated in their sense of shock but as his cries grew louder and more accusing, a young preppie-looking man turned on him.

"Just shut up will you. Why are you shouting? Just shut up."

The black man reeled round to face him. "I'm shouting because my mother is in there."

The young man reached out to him.

"I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry," he said and the two of them hugged each other, a small, human gesture against epic shock and grief.


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