In many ways, the tower looked like a giant smoke stack out of which smoke escaped via a crack rather than the top. It was a similar scene some had witnessed nine years earlier when several terrorists had blown up a truck bomb in one of its lower sections. Yet so surreal was this scene on Sept. 11, 2001, no science fiction, even the recently released Independence Day film, could have duplicated the ill feeling it created in onlookers.
Many of those who stared had halted in min-transit, commuters on their way to the very place out of which the smoke billowed. Several in the crowds tapped out phone numbers on their cellular phones, calling their offices or their homes, seeking people over whom they worried or might be worried over them.
"I can't believe what I'm seeing," said a visibly shaken Robert Morgan from Hoboken that day. "It's like a movie. My aunt is in that building. My God!"
Then, a second explosion sounded from across the river and a ball of flame bubbled out the side of the South Tower as the second plane struck.
"What is going on here? What is going on here?" yelled Barbara Sabado, another resident of Hoboken. "I've never seen anything like this. It's Armageddon. It's the worst thing I've ever seen."
Hundreds more people arrived, many carting radios from which they soon learned the details of the attack, not just on the World Trade Center, but on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. as well. Rumors circulated about additional planes still being in the air elsewhere. One such plane, some learned, had just crashed in a wooded section of Pennsylvania. Some heads jerked up as U.S. fighter jets roared above them in pursuit of some invisible enemy.
"We're at war!" a man yelled. "What are they going to hit next?"
Shortly after 10 a.m. the South tower crumbled, leaving a tower of smoke and dust in its place, as vivid an image as the mushroom cloud many had learned to fear as children or that odd Y shape of the exploding Challenger Shuttle space craft many had seen on TV in 1986.
People screamed. People cried. Some dropped to their knees. Some retched violently enough to vomit. Many hugged each other and prayed. Several impromtu scircles formed on the lawn at Pier A as friends, neighbors and strangers grabbed each others' hands.
"The only thing that I could think to do was pray, pray for the victims and their families," said Natalie Wilson of West New York. "We also have to pray for all those people who are here in this park and parks like this, who know people that work in those buildings."
At 10:28 a.m., the North tower fell, and a similar reaction rippled through the crowd.
"There is no way you can ever prepare to see such an amazing building tumble to the grouns," said Juan Gomez, a resident of Hudson County. "We're sitting here only miles away and we are witnessing thousands of lives coming to an end right before our eyes. We are all going to be changed forever. That's for sure."
No one in the Secaucus Office of Emergency Management expected to really have to response to a terrorist act -- despite the fact that on Sept. 18, Hudson County was going to hold a drill, a mock exercise that would simulate the threat of a terrorist attack on the Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus and the various municipal courts throughout the county.
Most of those who stumbled shocked into the office Paterson Plank Road had deep down believed they would be responding to more mundane disasters, such as hurricanes or snowstorms. Indeed, Secaucus and other municipal and county OEM members had done just that, helping find shelter for people stranded as result of blizzards, and even helping people who had suffered the ill effects of two train crashes.
But on Sept. 11, each man who came into the office knew this was a real attack, that four planes had been hijacked, two had struck the two towers of the world trade center, a third had struck the Pentagon, and a fourth had crashed in Pennsylvania. Even as the members geared up for the emergency, they looked out the window and saw F-16 fighter planes streaking across the sky, in pursuit of God knows what.
Reports on the TV didn't help, talking about other planes and other possible targets. Information, even through official communication channels didn't always present the big picture.
The lack of knowledge, also haunted each person's private life. Joe Griffo, a volunteer, had numerous family members in the area of the World Trade Center, one of whom worked in the building and who had not reported in over the first few hours.
"We just don't know what happened to her," he said, as he picked up his radio and prepared to do his job as part of the Secaucus team.
Mike Gonnelli, Supervisor of the Department of Public Works, also a member of the OEM, thought about his cousin, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center. Early reports said the entire office had been destroyed.
"We found out later he had called in sick," said Gonnelli's wife Linda. "He had flown out to Denver to see the New York Giants game."
Mayor Dennis Elwell, the technical head of the OEM, had just driven back from Newark Airport after seeing his wife and daughter off on a plane to Florida. One of the four planes used in the attack, he later learned, had been hijacked from Newark, and he had no way of knowing if his family was on that plane.
"Later, they called when they landed in Florida," he said.
Adding irony to the situation, Elwell's wife drove home a day later with the mother of Michael Tanner -- one of the people who died in the North Tower. Six people from Secaucus died in the disaster that day.
As they watched the TV set several seasoned firefighters and police officers began to cry. Perhaps they -- who had seen disaster close hand before -- knew exactly the breath of the human tragedy they were witnessing on TV.
Yet no imagination could fully provide people on the Jersey Side with the acute sense of terror that people on the Manhattan side felt as legions of unsuspecting officers workers -- already in transit under or over the Hudson River at the time of the attack -- arrived to find the world dramatically changed when they arrived.
Not everything fell apart at first. Indeed, some people arrived in Manhattan to an eerie quiet, a sharp contrst from the usual flood of people up from the World Trade Center PATH platforms.
Several commuters later talked about the uncanny scene they encountered when they came off the train. They could smell smoke even as they popped out onto the marble halls deep below ground level. Several assumed a track fire raged somewhere and they hurried up the escalators to the next level to avoid what would likely become a hectic scene.
None knew that no more trains would be following theirs. That a heroic woman employee of the New York/New Jersey Port Authority had already redirected away from the World Trade Center to safer stations on the Jersey side.
The several levels of mezzanine -- usually thronged with hurried commuters and echoing of their harried footsteps -- seemed remarkably empty, their footsteps alone echoing ahead of them like a foreshadowing of danger. The smell of smoke grew stronger as they rose out of the basement, not weaker, dispelling for some the track fire theory and hinting of something more serious ahead.
Many of this group found uniformed people up top, stern-faced professional whose grim expressions increased the passengers' concerns. The police directed the commuters out of the building towards the exit on the southeastern side, and away from the huge open-air square between the two towers.
Injured people moaned on the floor. A few more distant people ran screaming, although passengers from below did not yet know why. But they did see a floor littered with spilled coffee cups, women's shoes, even briefcases.
Outside, heavy clouds of smoke filled their lungs as debris fell over them like black snow. Large items also crashed, jolted loose by the impact and explosion high above. Looking up, these people saw the black smoke pouring out of the North Tower. Here, they were close enough to see the hole through which the first plane passed. But they could not stop and gawk. Police kept them moving, herding them into the larger mass evacuation away from the site.
This group did not get far before a second roar filled the stone canyons of the Wall Street area and they looked up to see the South Tower sway as flame burst out its north side with the strike of the second plane.
People panicked and ran, most pushing and shoving so that it was difficult not to trip over each other or debris in the street. Billowing smoke -- that only forecast the later collapses of the towers -- roared through the street behind them. They ran and ran until the could not run any more, but did not yet realize that the horror had only begun.