Rescue workers pulled mounds of rubble from the roof of an all-terrain vehicle parked close to where the north tower of the World Trade Centre used to stand, and found a miracle inside. Five firemen were inside the car. They had been there for two days, in a tomb of wreckage. But they walked out alive.
Word of the astonishing discovery quickly spread through the rescue area in the early afternoon yesterday. It means that the number of people pulled alive from the debris of the World Trade Centre doubled all at once from five to 10. The immediate effect was to lift spirits of the thousands of rescue workers and spur all of them to accelerate their efforts.
Yet, it will barely detract from the otherwise overwhelmingly grim overview of the situation on the southern tip of Manhattan island. Earlier, the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, told reporters that a total of 4,763 people had been put on the city's missing persons list following the kamikaze levelling of the twin towers by two commercial jets on Tuesday.
That number could still rise as the city, as well as numerous commercial enterprises that used to have offices in the towers, continued in their efforts to assess just how many people were still inside the towers when they fell.
As if to emphasise just how appalling the final death tally is likely to be, the city confirmed that it had ordered a total of 11,000 body bags. Rescuers meanwhile reported finding more bodies in the tangle of wreckage yesterday as well as scores of severed body parts and other organs.
The situation was "horrible and gruesome," the Mayor said at a press conference at the New York Armoury, adding, "I'm sorry that I have to describe it that way, but that's unfortunately the situation that we're facing."
The official death toll by early afternoon had risen to 94, far below where it will end up.
A morgue set up in a Brooks Brothers clothing store received remains a limb at a time. Other bodies and parts of bodies were being driven north in refrigerated grocery lorries to the city's main morgue on First Avenue and 27th street. On their journey they passed by Bellevue Hospital, where so many relatives have been gathering for news of missing loved ones.
Speaking before the five firefighters were found, the Mayor revealed that it had been several hours since rescuers had received any more messages via cellphones from people apparently buried alive under the debris. He said that that did not mean that anyone was giving up on finding more people alive, with the use of heat sensors, camera-equipped remote-control robot vehicles and numerous sniffer dogs.
"We've have indications from the dogs that we use to try to spot people, we've had indications that there are people," Mr Giuliani said. "We've followed those up, and in some cases that's not correct, but we're going to continue to do that. We're still hopeful we can find people."
Police officers confirmed the discovery of the five firemen, saying they were founding sitting patiently in a Chevrolet Suburban. Construction workers drafted to remove rubble saw metal yesterday morning and quickly surmised that it was the roof of a car.
The men had been inside the car, under the rubble and in darkness, for two full days. Two of the men walked out when rescuers got to them. The condition of the other three was not revealed.
Moving the rubble remains one of the largest challenges. Convoys of dump trucks were heading north out of the rescue area weighed down with concrete and steel, and other loads were being taken out of the area on barges on the Hudson River.
The rubble was taken to an old rubbish dump on Staten Island, where the FBI and other investigators searched for evidence, hoping to find the two planes' black box flight recorders, which might reveal clues as to what happened in the final terrifying minutes before the crashes.
Officials with the federal government indicated that roughly 450,000 tonnes of debris would have to be cleared from the site of the towers, as well as another 15,000 tonnes from a third building that collapsed. The densely packed bottom tip of the island, an area of roughly five square miles, remained off-limits to everyone but emergency workers, at the orders of the Mayor.
Among the companies that were trying to finalise an inventory of employees who are either safe or missing is the stock trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Its offices were located on one of the highest floors of one of the towers. It said that of its 1,000 employees at the World Trade Centre, roughly 900 were still unaccounted for.
Mayor Giuliani opened the New York Armoury late on Wednesday to absorb the thousands of New Yorkers who are desperately seeking information on friends and relatives they believe may have perished on Tuesday.
New Yorkers arriving at the Armoury yesterday were given seven-page forms on which to fill in all the personal information about the people concerned. Grief counsellors were also on hand.
The missing persons list also includes the passengers and crew of the four jet airliners that were hijacked on Tuesday by the perpetrators of the suicide attacks.
The discovery of the five firefighters gave at least a smidgen of solace to a firefighting department that has been decimated by this tragedy. More than 300 of its members – that is, two per cent of the force – have been missing since the collapse of the towers, and remained unaccounted for last night. That in itself was driving the firefighters to push harder with their rescue efforts.
"You know your brothers are in there," one fireman said. "There's no quitting."
Smoke continued to billow up from the rescue site yesterday. It had been travelling north through Manhattan over the previous 24 hours, leaving a distinctive burning smell as far away as Central Park, which is eight miles north. The smoke has caused many New York residents to cover their faces with handkerchiefs and masks.Reuse content