WASHINGTON — America - and indeed the world - stopped still Tuesday to watch what seemed like a horrific movie that no one ever wanted to see.
From a coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles to the chaos of a Washington street, Americans across the country entered a state of altered reality. Much as with the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy, or the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the nation screeched into slow motion as people took in a tragic intersection of life and history.
But while those shocking events were seared into the American psyche - never letting us forget exactly where we were and what we were doing when they happened - Tuesday was different.
As images of destruction flooded TV screens in homes, businesses, and schools everywhere - and it became clear that the US was under the most massive, coordinated terrorist attack in the nation's history - there was a jarring, collective realization that this is not just about history. It's about the future.
"It's the end of innocence," says Robert Goldman, an expert on international law and terrorism at American University in Washington. "The sense of security we have had has been very much broken."
The events of Sept. 11 - a day to be emblazoned in memory forevermore - halted the country in its tracks. In many big cities, workers and schoolchildren were sent home. The New York Stock Exchange suspended trading. Disneyland did not open. All departing commercial flights were grounded - for the first time in US history - and incoming international jets were sent to Canada.
Across America, mostly silent crowds stood like unwilling captives in front of television sets, numbed by what they saw.
"This really does look like the apocalypse," says Joe Stein, a construction worker in a breakfast eatery in Los Angeles, who sat glued to a CNN report on television. "This is a day when I am glad not to live in Washington or New York. But then again, we might be next."
The sheer magnitude of the strike is likely to exact a huge psychological toll, but experts say the biggest impact will come from a fear of the unknown - a worry that we have not yet seen the worst.
"Terrorism is posing an insideous threat to the United States. This is war in the shadows," says Yona Alexander of the Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at the Arlington, Va.-based Potomac Institute. "It is not a question of 'if' but of 'when' the terrorists will use biological, chemical, and nuclear capabilities."
In Boston's business district, cellphones were engaged everywhere as people rushed to evacuate the Hancock and Prudential towers. "This is worse than Pearl Harbor," says Kiran, a Morgan Stanley Witter employee, ashen-faced. "Our offices [in New York] are completely gone," he said, worrying about colleagues who were undergoing training there.
Closer to the strike, in Washington, anxiety filled the voices of government employees evacuating their buildings and struggling to find a way home. "Terrorists want you to live in fear, and this will definitely do that," says Larry Nix, who, facing subway shut-downs, planned to walk four miles to his home in Lanham. "This is beyond anything you can think of."
For many in Washington and New York, the morning devolved into frantic calls to worried relatives, efforts to get home, and especially to pick up and reassure children.
"I'm trying to be composed. I'm trying to be safe and just get to my kids," says Lisa Holland, waiting exasperated in a D.C. traffic jam as she headed to pick up her three children in Fort Washington, Md. "It makes you want to cry," she says of the destruction.
Indeed, as many schools closed around the country, parents grappled not only with their own shock, but also with what to tell their youngsters.
"Mommy, it looks just like Pearl Harbor on TV," said an 11-year-old boy before leaving for school in Los Angeles. "Is this Pearl Harbor all over again?"
In Philadelphia, parents were urged to talk with their children about their fears. "I just put them in front of the television watching cartoons," says a Maryland mom.
Yet amid the confusion and despair, Americans began responding to the crisis, with prayer as well as concrete actions to help victims of the strike.
At a blood bank near Boulder, Colo., Carol Krueger, an artist, stood in a line of more than 100 people - senior citizens, young women in college, and parents with toddlers - who turned out to donate blood. "This is the only thing I actually can do," she said.
Reported by staff writers Mark Sappenfield in San Francisco, Stephen Humphries and Kim Campbell in Boston, Gloria Goodale in Los Angeles, and contributors Craig Savoye in St. Louis and Bob Struckman in Boulder, Colo.