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Collapsed Trade Center towers still dangerous

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Debris continued crumbling Tuesday night at the scene of America's worst terrorist attack and may potentially claim thousands of lives.

By 10:30 a.m. EDT, the 1,300-foot World Trade Center towers had folded in on themselves, raining slabs of steel and cement to the streets.

Dense black smoke climbed toward the sky as ash several inches thick cloaked streets, buildings and people.

The towers accommodated at least 50,000 occupants daily.

A third structure in the seven-building complex, 47 stories tall, collapsed about 5:20 p.m. Debris from the earlier cascades of concrete from the taller buildings had damaged the building. Gas lines in the areas were affected as well.

Flames shrouded the south side of the structure for 30 minutes before it fell.

Almost 300 emergency personnel -- 78 missing police officers and 200 firefighters -- are presumed dead along with the 266 people on four hijacked airplanes that crashed in terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

The assault on the towers began at 8:45 a.m. when a hijacked commercial airplane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

As smoke and flames consumed the building's upper levels and passersby 1,000 feet below gathered to watch, a second hijacked airliner slammed into the south tower just 18 minutes later. It, too, burst into flames, shattering windows and raining debris.

'Horrible thing'

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"I have never seen such a horrible thing in my life," said Luis Marcos, director of the New York Health and Hospital Corp., who was already on the scene when the second crash occurred. "I saw about five people jumping from the building" trying to escape the damaged structure, he said.

Five hours after the towers' destruction, emergency workers stood two blocks away from the area, forced away from rescue efforts by chunks of falling cement.

William Rodriguez worked on the basement level of the north tower and was in the building when the first plane struck his building.

"We heard a loud rumble, then all of a sudden we heard another rumble like someone moving a whole lot of furniture," Rodriguez said. "And then the elevator opened and a man came into our office and all of his skin was off."

Rodriguez, who had keys to the elevators, began climbing the upper levels of the tower with a police officer to help trapped people. He saw firefighters weighted with rescue equipment catching their breath on the 39th floor.

Rodriguez escaped and said he later saw people who had jumped or fallen from the building embedded in the sidewalk. "There was a woman that looked like she had melted into the cement," he said.

Matthew Cornelius, a Port Authority employee who worked in the building, crept down 65 flights of stairs to escape, averaging about two minutes per floor.

"It was a total traffic jam in the stairwell, but everyone was calm," Cornelius said. "When we got down to the plaza level, the police officer was yelling, 'Don't look back! Don't look back!'"

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in a building near the World Trade Center after the first tower's collapse. "We were trapped in the building for about 20 minutes because of the smoke and debris," Giuliani said.

Hospitals scramble

Hospitals scramble

Hospital emergency rooms throughout the city strained to receive hundreds of people suffering from smoke inhalation and critical injuries.

Health care administrators throughout the city reported a severe blood shortage and solicited donations from the public; passersby streamed into the hospitals to answer their pleas.

A steady parade of ambulances arrived at St. Vincent's hospital near the World Trade Center, the facility that treated victims from the 1993 terrorist bombing at the center. Six people died in that attack.

Thursday afternoon, the hospital had already seen 256 patients, reporting three deaths and 25 in critical condition.

Buses arrived to bring blood donors and additional doctors and nurses pressed into emergency service. The hospital draped sheets over office chairs, creating make-shift stretchers.

Bellevue Hospital in New York reported treating 24 adult patients, including four trauma patients and a pregnant woman, by 11:30 a.m. One man was dead on arrival, officials said.

Metropolitan Hospital had received seven patients by late morning.

North General Hospital in Manhattan was "in full disaster alert, " said Lisa Alverenga, senior vice president for planning at the hospital. "We have beds available and have cleared our emergency department. We'll also be collecting blood for those who wish to donate."

Air, surface transportation closed

No one had an estimate of the crashes' human toll. "I don't even want to contemplate what the number will be," Giuliani said.

NYC's skyline billows with smoke, the WTC destroyed
NYC's skyline billows with smoke, the WTC destroyed  

Mary Margaret Walker, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the agency "dispatched search and rescue units and will begin a structural search" in the attacks' aftermath.

The Federal Aviation Administration closed all airports in the United States just before 10 a.m. and routed international flights bound for New York to Canada. Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki canceled Tuesday's scheduled election primary. Police closed all bridges and tunnels.

Thousands of somber New Yorkers, turned away from the subways, walked the streets. The public transportation system resumed service about 3 p.m.

Built on six acres of landfill, the World Trade Center complex included seven high-rise buildings, a shopping mall and a daycare center. The two largest buildings, the twin towers, collapsed.

The complex also includes a 47-story high-rise building, a 22-story structure, two nine-story buildings and an eight-story facility. Its complex is also a hub for a commuter rail station.

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