American emergency services are starting to pull survivors from the rubble of the World Trade Centre, with some trapped people calling police from their cellphones.
"It is unimaginable, devastating, unspeakable carnage," said Scott O'Grady, a firefighter. "To say it looks like a war zone and to tell you about bodies lying in the street and blood and steel beams blocking roads would not begin to describe what it's like. It's horrible."
New York was the hardest hit target in Tuesday's coordinated assault on American government and finance, which grounded the nation's commercial aircraft and led President George W. Bush to place the military on its highest state of alert.
The final death toll may not be known for weeks. The four planes had 266 people aboard. Authorities said between 100 and 800 people were believed dead at the Pentagon. Thousands of people worked at the trade centre, and many were inside when it collapsed.
"Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror," Bush said.
In New York, firefighter Rudy Weindler spent nearly 12 hours trying to find survivors and only found four - a pregnant woman sitting on a curb and three others in the rubble of a building in the trade centre complex.
"I lost count of all the dead people I saw," Weindler said. "It is absolutely worse than you could ever imagine."
The planes were each on cross-continental routes, and thus carrying a heavy load of flammable fuel. They struck the buildings high up and on the corners, stymieing firefighters' ability to contain the ensuing blaze and blocking escape for some tenants.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said hospitals had treated 1,100 injured by Tuesday night. But apparently most of the victims remained buried, and ground zero was inaccessible for hours after the disaster due to the fire, smoke, wreckage and searing heat.
"There are so many other buildings that are partially destroyed and near collapse," said Weindler. "There are a lot of fires still burning."
When asked how many of his comrades he thought had fallen, he broke into tears and could not speak.
Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen estimated that more than 300 firefighters were missing. "Many of them are gone," he said.
Three top fire department officials were among those who died. One of them, Ray Downey, chief of special operations command, led a team of New York firefighters to Oklahoma City in 1995 after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Dozens of police officers were also feared missing.
The mayor said police had received cell phone calls from people trapped in the debris.
"There are people that are still alive," he said. "We'll be trying to recover as many people as possible and trying to clean up the horrible mess made by this."
Cranes 36 metres tall and bulldozers were brought in to clear the streets. Rescue workers were armed with pickaxes and shovels.
Overnight, at least one body was pulled from the rubble and taken to a makeshift morgue set up in a nearby Brooks Brothers store.
"I must have come across body parts by the thousands," said Angelo Otchy, a mortgage broker who came in with a National Guard unit from Dover, New Jersey, to help dig through the debris.
City paramedic Louis Garcia said: "There's two feet of soot everywhere, and a lot of the vehicles are running over bodies because they are all over the place. There were people running up to us who were totally burned ? no hair, no eyebrows."
Parag Papki went to five hospitals looking for his brother, Ganesh Ladkat, who worked on the 104th floor of the trade centre. He was sent to a centre set up to account for the missing.
"They asked me what was he wearing, any body marks, stuff like that," Papki said after filling out a form. "Since afternoon, I am searching."
Normally 50,000 people work in the twin towers, but the first attack came when many workers were not yet in their offices. Officials estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 people were in the buildings when the first plane crashed. Many fled, rushing down dozens of flights of stairs before the second jet hit and the towers collapsed.
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