On Friday, February 26, 1993, at 12:18 pm, a small cell of terrorists, with links to a local radical mosque and broader Islamist terror networks, detonated approximately 1,200 pounds of explosives in a rental van in the underground parking garage at the World Trade Center (WTC), below the Vista Hotel (3 WTC). The terrorists fled the area after setting the bomb to explode. The explosion created a five-story crater in the sub-grade levels of the towers and undermined the floor of the adjoining hotel.
The towers were relatively full when the bombing occurred, as wintery conditions may have kept many inside during the normal lunch hour. The explosion knocked out electrical power to the hotel, and significant areas within the North and South Towers (1 WTC and 2 WTC, respectively), affecting the operation of elevators, emergency communication, ventilation systems, and lighting. Emergency power generators were also damaged by the blast, and shut down after 20 minutes.
Most non-cable television stations in the greater New York area were blacked out, as the transmitters atop the North Tower lost power. Hundreds of WTC tenants and visitors were trapped in elevators, and thousands of others in 1 WTC and 2 WTC began to evacuate without guidance from first responders on the scene.
Within minutes, the North Tower lobby filled with thick black smoke. Elevator shafts and stairways were vertical conduits for the smoke, which quickly began to waft from the basement levels up both towers and the Vista Hotel. Some WTC tenants began a one-step-at-a-time evacuation down dark and smoky stairwells with improvised light sources such as cigarette lighters or mini-flashlights. Others were impeded by increasing smoke in the stairwells and forced to wait in conditions severe enough in some areas for tenants to break and hang out of windows. The complex’s telephone lines were working, and reports of those trapped in the buildings soon overloaded the City’s 9-1-1 system, preventing some calls from getting through. Over 100 visitors to the Observation Deck, many of whom were young children, were instructed to evacuate from the 107th Floor via the stairs. Another 72 schoolchildren and teachers were rescued from an elevator, after being trapped for hours.
The blast was initially thought to be a transformer explosion, but once the damage was seen, it was apparent that it was a bomb. Local, state, and federal agencies responded to the incident and contributed to what was then the largest coordinated rescue effort in New York City history. Within an hour, power for the entire WTC complex was shut down because of safety risks to firefighters working near water sources, leaving the buildings and its occupants in the dark.
Some Port Authority personnel with specialized knowledge of the building remained in the towers to assist with the evacuation and rescue. Firefighters climbed the stairs to lead people down, eventually reaching the towers’ top floors in some cases. NYPD helicopters transported rescue personnel to the roof, to assist in stairway evacuations of tenants on the upper floors. The general evacuation of WTC tenants down the stairs took more than four hours. Rescuers checked all 210 elevator cars – freeing trapped people from 45 of them – and searched each floor in the three buildings, more than eight million square feet of space. Later that evening, 28 people with medical conditions, including one woman in labor, were escorted to the roof by NYPD and airlifted to an Emergency Medical Services staging area, in controversial rappel and touch-down maneuvers.
The terrorist attack on the WTC killed six people: four members of the Port Authority’s World Trade Department, including a pregnant woman; a Windows on the World employee; and a visitor to the complex. Over a thousand people were injured, including 88 firefighters, 35 police officers, and one EMS worker. In total, approximately 50,000 people evacuated from the WTC complex. Many suffered psychological effects, some lasting to this day.