The storming of Fortress America: The unthinkable has happened. The distant scourge of urban terrorism has penetrated America's defences. Peter Pringle and Patrick Cockburn report from New York on the shock waves of the World Trade Centre bomb

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THE United States awoke yesterday to a fresh and terrifying notion: international urban terrorism had come to America.

Immune for 17 years to the epidemic of bombs that have rocked the world's big cities, Americans had the luxury of seeing terrorism as something that happened far away - in the Middle East, Ireland or Latin America.

'Lockerbie has come to a fantastic Manhattan address,' wrote the New York Daily News columnist, Mike McAlary. 'The hand of an anonymous madman has written a political message on American soil with New York blood.'

Although the motive for the attack on the World Trade Centre, the world's second tallest building, remained unclear, Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York, appeared to be convinced that an international terror group was responsible. 'No foreign people or force has ever done this to us,' he said. 'Until now, we were invulnerable. . .Fear is another weapon to be used against us, and that's what terrorism is all about.'

Mayor David Dinkins, facing an election this year, was on his way back to New York yesterday from Japan, where he has been on a nine-day business trip.

Up to 100,000 people inhabit the two-tower complex during office hours, although no more than 50,000 are estimated to have been present on Friday. Many had to struggle through smoke and darkness, down scores of flights of stairs, to reach safety. Some 200 five-year-old schoolchildren who had gone to the World Trade Centre on an outing were caught in the blast. Seventy stayed trapped in a pitch black and smoky lift for five hours before they could be rescued. It took the others several hours to walk in stages from the 107th floor observatory of the building, which is one-third of a mile high, down to the ground floor. 'There was never an announcement. There was no alarm. The lights went out and there was total darkness in the stairwell,' said soot-covered George Zuber, who made his way down from the 98th floor.

About two dozen people, including one pregnant woman, were unable to use the stairs and had to be flown by helicopter from the roofs of the towers.

Nineteen different callers claimed responsibility, including anonymous spokesmen for alleged Serbian and Croatian militant organisations. Negotiations on the UN-sponsored peace plan for Bosnia are due to reopen tomorrow. But police and FBI investigators appear to be mystified by the attack.

Whoever planted the bomb could not have chosen a target more evocative to Americans. At 12.18pm on Friday afternoon, office workers in the twin, metallic towers, which dominate the southern tip of Manhattan island, were starting lunch or were still working in their offices when a bomb exploded far below the 110- storey building in parking lot 2B, blowing a hole through five reinforced concrete floors. When firemen made their way to the site of the explosion, they found it had brought down the roof of the train line beneath.

It took five or six hours before the police and fire brigade were prepared to say that they suspected a bomb explosion. Early yesterday morning, the FBI was still speaking of 'an explosion of unknown origin'. This was partly because the wreckage and smoke made it difficult to reach the underground car parks, but there was also disbelief that bomb attacks had finally happened in the US. 'This sort of thing just doesn't happen in America,' said one New Yorker.

The relatively small number of previous bombings had been mostly home-grown. The only significant exception was a bomb attack on La Guardia airport in December 1975, in which 11 died. In the worst US terrorist act, attributed to Russian anarchists, 40 died when a bomb went off on Wall Street in 1920.

A parade of bomb experts appeared on television, on radio and in the newspapers yesterday to list the anxieties so familiar to Britons after years of IRA bombings: suitcase bombs, storage-locker bombs and car bombs.

President Bill Clinton pledged the full support of the US government to find out who planted the bomb. 'Working together, we'll find out who was involved and why this happened,' Mr Clinton said in his weekly national radio address. The President expressed sympathy for the victims of the explosion and their families, saying: 'You are in the thoughts and prayers of my family.' Details of what happened are still sketchy. Despite the hundreds of police and firemen who were taking part in the rescue, exact figures were slow to emerge.

Last night the number of dead was at least five - four of them Port Authority workers - while rescue workers were still searching for two men believed to be buried under the rubble. The two missing workers were believed to be somewhere in what was left of the parking garage. Teams of city police, Port Authority police and firefighters were 'turning over every piece of concrete' to find them, the Fire Department spokesman Frank McCabe said.

At least a further 1,000 people were injured, mostly only slightly, through breathing in thick smoke rising from two fires which broke out after the explosion. When firemen broke into one elevator, they found 10 people unconscious, most of whom would not have survived much longer.

In a modern skyscraper, the exit stairs have their own power source, and the air pressure is kept slightly higher than in the rest of the building to prevent smoke entering it. But the World Trade Centre is a quarter of a century old: people trying to escape complained that they could not see because the main and auxiliary power systems had been knocked out by the blast.

Denise Bosco, a secretary, was on the 82nd floor when the bomb went off. 'The whole building shook,' she said. 'The lights flashed on and off, the computers went down. Then, instantly, there was smoke. I was terrifed. People panicked. They started pushing and shouting to get out. Some of them were throwing up. I said, 'Oh, dear God, what is it? Is it my time? Is this the way?' '

It is believed that the source of the explosion was a car crammed with explosives. But what was the target and the motive? The most obvious explanation is that the World Trade Centre had been chosen for its own celebrity. But the twin towers house numerous organisations which might have provided more specific targets. For instance, the US Secret Service, which guards the President, has its New York headquarters in the building. Most of its cars were destroyed, including the bullet- proof car in which the President normally rides when he is in the city. President Clinton last used the car when he visited the UN on Monday.

There was some speculation that the bomb may have been a failed assassination attempt - planted in one of the presidential cars, but detonated much too late. This theory appeared to have been discounted yesterday by the joint FBI and New York Police Department investigation team.

For the maintenance, engineering and motor mechanics working close to the blast, the first moments were terrifying. Fred Ferby, a young motor mechanic, said: 'I panicked and ran up two floors. I was trying to find my way out when I heard people crying. I went back to help them. I could see two men under the rubble. I climbed over a desk to get to them, but then the lights went out. I was terrified.'

Those who stayed in their offices began to break windows to escape the fumes. On television and radio later, firemen appealed to them to desist because it would draw the smoke up. But the trapped people complained that at first nobody told them what was happening, although the phone system was still operating. Local television was also at first unable to provide information to New Yorkers because all except one of the New York stations have their antennae on top of the World Trade Centre Tower.

Of the 19 telephone callers claiming responsibility for the blast, none was placed before the explosion. The first call was made one hour and 17 minutes after the bomb. The US has edged towards support for the Bosnian Muslims with the announcement of food airdrops to besieged villages, but in practice ex-president Bush and President Clinton have been very cautious about becoming more deeply involved in Bosnia. During the 1980s, the US privately believed that many of the attacks on US embassies and personnel were orchestrated, if not directly arranged, by Iran. This was part of the subterranean war fought for more than a decade after the Iranians had taken the US diplomats hostage in Tehran in 1980. But this feud is now in abeyance, with the US hostages in Beirut released. It is unlikely it would have recurred.

Palestinians may blame the US for Israel's deportation of 400 of their people to the Israeli-Lebanese border, but there were no preliminary attacks indicating that a bomb attack was contemplated. Another possible motive for the bomb blast is that Friday was the second anniversary of the Iraqi army being evicted from Kuwait by US and allied forces.

(Photographs, map and graphic omitted)