A powerful bomb exploded in the parking area beneath the World Trade Center towers. This was the first and failed attempt by terrorists to take down the twin towers.
Just before noon on the morning of February 26, 1993, a bomb went off beneath one of the towers of the World Trade Center, New York. It was so powerful that a steel reinforced concrete floor collapsed, tons of debris came down, a fire was started, and power for the entire complex was cut off. Fifty thousand people were soon without lights, heat, or elevators, and smoke was rising into the towers.
The World Trade Center (WTC) consisted of twin towers with 110 floors in each, located on a sixteen-acre site near the southern tip of Manhattan Island. They rose to more than 1,350 feet above street level and in 1970, when they were first occupied, they were the world’s tallest buildings. The elevator system was a combination of express and local elevators and this arrangement increased the amount of floor space given to occupancy. In conventional systems only half the area on each floor is available for offices. In the WTC it was 75 percent. Economy of space was obtained by having three vertical zones, ground to forty-first, then to seventy-fourth, and from that point to the top. Express elevators served the three zones and four banks of local ones operate within each vertical zone.
The explosion occurred in an underground garage beneath the WTC, powerful enough to rock the towers and demolish the steel-and-concrete ceiling of the underground train station, a major transportation point for New Jersey commuters. A huge hole was ripped in the station wall and an even bigger cavity was created beneath. Thick black smoke from the smoldering fire created by the blast swept upward to the top of both buildings where as many as 100,000 people work or visit daily. On February 26, there were 50,000 people in the buildings, including two hundred kindergarten and elementary school children who were visitors. They had to be left for hours on the observation deck until injured people were attended to. Six had been killed by the blast and a thousand injured, mostly from smoke inhalation. To the thousands who were in the building it was a terrifying experience. There was darkness, no heat or light, no elevators working, and smoke everywhere.
Hundreds of people poured out of the towers into the streets, their faces black with soot, some of them having managed to find their way down from as high as the hundredth floor. Many others stayed on their floors waiting for assistance to arrive. They packed cloths against doors and vents where smoke was entering or used moistened cloths on their faces. The blast just so happened to be located at the point where it could do the most damage. It knocked out the power plant for the entire complex, plunging everyone in the Twin Towers into darkness. One newscaster, unfortunately, went on the air and advised people in the towers that if they were having trouble breathing, they should break out the glass window. This was the worst thing he could have said and his call was quickly refuted by others. There were over five hundred emergency personnel on the ground who could be hit with flying glass and, furthermore, the open window would allow smoke to enter the area.
Charles Maikish was the director of the whole WTC and as he felt the tower sway a little beyond the normal he knew that a major accident had taken place. He was on the thirty-fifth floor at the time so his first move was to check the elevators. They, in accordance with emergency procedures, had already moved back down to their starter floors. He made his way as best he could to the lobby and began to organize a command center there. Smoke was everywhere. A policeman on duty in the building made a hole with his bare hands at the top of an elevator and consoled a group of five-year olds who were stranded in it. A fireman broke down an elevator door and found it was full of partly conscious people lying on the floor. Down below in the parking area, those who were arriving at the time of the blast witnessed the smoke and fire and heard the screams of those who were closest to the bomb.
New York’s television stations are located on the top of the first tower and all but one were cut off. The one that remained was not dependent on the towers for its power so, where battery power and various radio outlets were available, the station provided information for people on their different floors. Everyone was urged to stay calm and to wait. The scale of the rescue effort must have been disheartening, having to reach and help people on 110 floors in each of the two towers, not knowing how many were stuck in elevators. It was impossible to say how long it would take to get everyone to safety and meanwhile anxious relatives and friends waited below. For two hours the fire and smoke persisted. A number of disabled people had to be rescued by helicopter from the roof. Close to midnight on the twenty-sixth the last elevator was reached. Several had been stuck in it for eleven hours. The terrorists had planned to send up a cloud of cyanide gas amid the smoke of the fire but the cyanide was burnt up in the heat of the explosion and did not vaporize.
The chief of New York’s fire department provided a summary of the events of February 26,1993. He pointed out that there had been numerous trips to the WTC since 1970 when it was first occupied. These related to minor fires, fire alarms, and one or two major fires but nothing in these experiences prepared the department for the events of February 26. It was the largest incident ever handled in the city’s one hundred and twenty-eight-year history. In fact, it was the equivalent of several major multi alarm fires combined into one. Many fire department units from other parts of the city had to be called in to help. The statistics tell the story well. Six people died and more than a thousand were injured, fifteen of the latter having received traumatic damage directly from the blast. Eighty-eight firefighters and thirty-five police officers were injured.
Approximately 25,000 people were evacuated from each tower. Most of the victims were trapped on the upper floors and hence the large amount of time needed to rescue them. Search and rescue work was finally completed shortly before midnight on the same day. The bomb weighed more than a thousand pounds and did comprehensive damage on seven floors, six of them below street level. The crater it made measured 130 by 150 feet and was located beneath the Vista Hotel. While the emergency work was concentrated in one day the Fire Department staff maintained a presence at the WTC for a further month. The bomb was located where it could do the most damage. Later it was discovered that the total destruction of the entire World Trade Center’s two towers was planned. Fortunately, the terrorists underestimated the strength of the buildings.
Arrests of four of the six terrorists, those who were still in the United States, came quickly because the FBI had an informant who taped conversations with them two months after the bombing. Their trials were held in New York and they obviously had no trouble finding enough money to hire the best and probably the most expensive lawyers they could find. William Kunsler, the well-known defense attorney, represented at least one of them. For six months the trial proceeded. The jury had to be together all of that time with protective security throughout. All of the rights of the accused were safeguarded as fully as they would be for any American.
The judge handling the court cases knew that he was dealing with extremists for whom neither justice nor life had much value. They had their own view of Islam and felt that to die in the name of Allah was a holy act. They certainly had no respect for the American rule of law so the courthouse had to be made secure for the entire period of the six-month trial. The jury found all four guilty—Mohammed Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Mahmond Abouhalima, and Ahmad Ajaj. Pandemonium broke out as soon as the verdicts were given with Allah’s name being shouted and anger vented at what they called injustice. Salameh, who for some unknown reason thought he had won the case against him, lunged at the members of the jury and had to be restrained by marshals. There was screaming and abusive language before they were handcuffed and dragged away to serve their 240 years.
Before the leader of the terrorist unit, Ramzi Yousef, was finally caught and imprisoned he had worked out plans for additional attacks. He came to the United States prior to the events of February 26, 1993, on an Iraqi passport and left very soon after the bombing. Then in Manila, Philippines, in January of 1995, while mixing some bomb material, a fire broke out and he was forced to run away to avoid detection. He knew that U.S. authorities were on his trail. When investigators examined the place that had caught fire they found evidence that led to his arrest in Pakistan a month later. They also found details of a plan to blow up eleven U.S. commercial planes on one day. He hoped to use a new liquid explosive that could pass metal detectors at airports. Most sinister of all was a note among his belongings saying he could use chemicals and poison gas against whole populations.
Ramzi Yousef’s plots were the most ambitious terrorist conspiracies ever attempted against the United States, that is, until the devastating events of nine eleven, all bearing a frightening resemblance to the plans found in the Philippines. Now the whole nation knows that terrorism demands eternal vigilance. The last of Yousef’s five, Eyad Ismail, a twenty-six-year-old Palestinian, the youngest of the six, was the one who drove the lethal truck to the WTC, then escaped after lighting the fuse and fled to Jordan where he was captured in 1995. No one among the six is ever likely to be released. They each received 240 years imprisonment. In the event that any one tries to make money by publishing a book on the bombing, the judge levied a fine of ten million dollars on each to pay for restitution. Yousef was levied a bit more, 250 million damages for restitution. Actual cost of the damage to the WTC was half a billion dollars.