New York City was the scene of the greatest attack in U.S. history in 2001. The two commercial airplanes, commandeered by terrorists, that struck New York's World Trade Center killed nearly 3,000 people, injured thousands more, devastated sections of the city's financial hub and undermined New York's second biggest industry, tourism. But the courage and determination of New Yorkers earned the respect of the world.
Tuesday, September 11 began as a perfect autumn day of clear blue skies and gentle breezes tempering a bright morning sun. But by the time most New Yorkers arrived at work September 11 had turned into the bleakest day in the city's history. At 8:48 a.m., the top floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center erupted into flames as terrorists slammed into it.
From VOA's New York Bureau, just blocks away from the scene, staff member Dianne Murrell watched the disaster unfold as the second airplane crashed into the south tower 15 minutes later. "The first tower is on fire," she said. "There is a gaping hole where the plane entered, which is facing me with flames coming out. Where the second plane just hit, that whole side is on fire all the way around."
Intense flames shot into the sky and smoke billowed across the downtown financial district and into New York Harbor. People ran through the streets as buildings were evacuated. And then the unimaginable happened: the mighty twin towers collapsed within half an hour of each other.
Among those caught in the collapse was New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had rushed to the city's emergency command center near the site after the first plane hit.
"We tried to get out three different exits. Could not get out. Finally, got out one exit," he said. "We were about two blocks away when the second tower came down. We were able to escape that as well. But in the course of it we lost some of the people who I have worked with, known for many, many years."
At first city officials feared that as many as 6,000 people had perished. Among the nearly 3,000 who are now thought to have died in that one horrible moment of history are more than 400 city fire, police and emergency workers.
Saying the deaths would be too much to bear, Mr. Giuliani urged New Yorkers to return to normal. "We are going to go about our business and lead normal lives and not let these cowards effect us in any way," he said.
But "normal" took on a new meaning in the days and weeks after September 11 as the constant wail of sirens pierced the night and winds carried the odor of smoke and burning chemicals throughout the city.
Still, in the face of greater adversity than they had ever imagined, the people of New York remained calm, lining up by the thousands to donate blood, volunteering by the tens of thousands to work in the recovery effort and to help the families of the missing.
New York's rescue effort sadly turned to a recovery effort as hope of finding anyone alive faded. Firehouses became the focus of the city's grief as people brought flowers, lit candles and made donations to the families of the 343 firefighters lost in the rescue effort. To the public the firefighters became the heroes of our time. But most felt drained, not heroic.
"I have been a fireman for about three years now and I may do 20 more years but I'll never be the same, no matter what," said one firefighter. "Twenty years from now, every time I walk through these doors, every time I buckle my coat, I'll be thinking of these guys and I'll be thinking of that Tuesday morning."
With helicopters overhead, warships in the harbor, and National Guard troops patrolling streets and major transportation centers, New Yorkers often felt they were living in a state of siege. But they adjusted.
The city and its people forged ahead, electing a new mayor, quietly marking the holiday season, debating how to recover from the staggering economic loss caused by the attack.
Almost four months later, funerals and memorial services continue as a part of daily life - sometimes as many as 15 a day as the remains of those lost are identified through the use of DNA.
Dozens of museum exhibits, books and documentaries have already been dedicated to September 11 and its aftermath. In all, the spirit of the people of New York has played a major role in the story, proving, as New Yorkers never doubted, that the attack may have diminished their skyline but not their people.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001