NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters)–President George W. Bush committed the United States to a "monumental struggle of good versus evil" on Wednesday–as rescuers searched for survivors and investigators pursued those behind the worst attack on the country since Pearl Harbor.
As the nation struggled to move back to a semblance of normal life and politicians cry for vengeance–Americans braced themselves for a death toll expected to climb well into the thousands as rescuers dug deeper into the giant pile of rubble–all that remained of the two mighty World Trade Center towers that were the pride of New York’s financial district.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the FBI had followed up on hundreds of leads and conducted searches in different parts of the country.
In Boston–heavily armed police and FBI agents swarmed a downtown hotel in what appeared to be a search following the attacks. FBI officials in Washington said they could not confirm whether there had been any arrests.
Police in Providence–Rhode Island–later stopped an Amtrak train from Boston–where two of the hijacked flights originated–and took three passengers into custody–a state police officer told Reuters. No other details were immediately available. Knife-wielding hijackers commandeered four planes on Tuesday–two from Boston’s Logan Airport. Those two aircraft were flown into New York’s World Trade Center–toppling the two highest structures in the city. A third seriously damaged the Pentagon–while a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said on Wednesday the preliminary death toll was 45 but the figure would rise into the thousands as bodies were found.
"The best estimate we can make–relying on the Port Authority and just everybody else that has experience with this–is there will be a few thousand people left in each building," he said–referring to the two massive twin towers of the World Trade Center where 40,000 people worked.
Giuliani said three people had been rescued from the debris and he was hopeful more survivors would be found. At least 202 firefighters were still missing and another 259 uniformed service members had not been accounted for–he said.
A list of tenants of the buildings destroyed in the World Trade Center read like a "Who’s Who" of international finance–underlining Manhattan’s key role in global markets.
In northern Virginia–Fire Chief Edward Plaugher–in charge of fighting the fire at the Pentagon–said the death toll at the US military headquarters could range from 100 to 800 people–although other officials expressed hope that the figure would be nearer the low end of that range.
Bush–facing the defining moment of his eight-month presidency–called the attacks "acts of war."
"This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil but good will prevail," the president said–after meeting his top security aides in the White House Cabinet room.
"This battle will take time and resolve–but make no mistake about it–we will win."
Americans reacted with controlled fury and a burst of patriotism as the full dimensions of the devastation and the human toll began to emerge. The country was still far from functioning normally with airports and financial markets shut down and many schools closed.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said US air space would reopen later on Wednesday on a limited basis–but continued the ban on regular service at least one more day.
Passengers stranded when their planes were grounded would be allowed to complete their journeys. Mineta said new security measures at airports would include a ban on curb-side check-in and thorough search and security checks of all airplanes and airports before passengers are allowed to board.
The first clues began to emerge about the identities of the perpetrators–pointing toward a possible Middle Eastern and Islamic connection.
Boston newspapers reported authorities there had identified five Arab men as suspects and had seized a rental car containing Arabic-language flight training manuals at the city’s Logan International Airport–where two of the hijacked planes originated.
Investigators found a copy of the Koran–a videotape on how to fly commercial jets and a fuel consumption calculator in a pair of bags meant for American Airlines Flight 11–which crashed into the World Trade Center–the Boston Globe said.
The Boston Herald said the suspects entered the United States from Canada. Two of the men were brothers whose passports were traced to the United Arab Emirates–and one was a trained pilot.
The discovery–if verified–would be the latest piece of evidence pointing investigators toward Islamic extremists.
Senior US officials have said initial evidence points to the organization of Osama bin Laden–the Saudi-born dissident now living in Afghanistan who is blamed for bombing two US Embassies in East Africa and other anti-American attacks.
A White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said there was credible evidence one of the hijacked planes was headed for the White House but it veered away and hit the Pentagon instead.
"There was real and credible information that the White House and Air Force One were targets of terrorist attacks and that the plane that hit the Pentagon was headed for the White House," she said.
She said the information was in part responsible for delaying President George W. Bush’s return to Washington aboard Air Force One from a routine trip to Florida. He made stops in Louisiana and Nebraska before returning to Washington on Tuesday evening.
"It was certainly a factor in determining the president’s itinerary," Buchan said. Bush has been criticized for not returning to Washington sooner at a moment of national crisis. Buchan said she had no information on the mission of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania–such as whether that plane could have been intended to ram Air Force One.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Wednesday the United States was planning to undertake a global effort involving not only NATO but Muslim states as well to fight "terrorism" following attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
He said he and President Bush and other members of the national security team had discussed plans "to undertake a worldwide effort to build a coalition against all forms of terrorism."
Speaking at a news conference–he said he would be in contact with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and the Jordanian and Egyptian governmen’s.
"Our spirits will not be broken–the resilience of this society will not be broken–we will find out who is responsible for this and they will pay for it," Powell said.
NATO invoked a mutual defense clause for the first time in its history on Wednesday–opening the way for a possible collective military response to Tuesday’s attacks on the United States.
"The (NATO) Council agreed that if it is determined that this was an attack directed from abroad against the United States–it shall be regarded as an action covered by Article V of the Washington Treaty–which states that an attack against one ally is an attack against them all," Secretary-General George Robertson told a news conference.
The article commits each of the 19 member nations to take "such action as it deems necessary–including the use of armed force–to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."
Asked whether this meant NATO would take joint action–Robertson said: "The country attacked has to make the decisions–it has to be the one that asks for help…The US is still assessing the evidence available. They are the ones to make that judgment."
US agents–meanwhile–served warran’s on homes and searched businesses in south Florida–and issued alerts for two cars in connection with the attacks.
FBI agents interviewed a former employee of a Florida flight school who may have housed two of the suspects in his home for a short time and seized files and a computer from the school–the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported.
Media attention focused on a man named Mohammed Atta–who according to various reports was apparently listed on the flight manifest of one of the hijacked planes.
The 2,000 mile US-Mexican border was in gridlock at major crossing points on Wednesday as Mexican commuters tried to carry on business in the United States despite heightened security.
As a cloud of dust still hung over New York City–rescue workers reported signs of life in the rubble–including at least one person sending out calls on a cell phone.
The world’s financial center resembled a desolate war zone–the streets of lower Manhattan coated in gray ash and a thick trail of brown smoke pouring into the sky from where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.
Arizona Sen. John McCain described the national mood as one of "controlled fury."
The two houses of Congress passed a resolution declaring a national day of mourning and promising to commit resources to "eradicate terrorism." The European Union vowed solidarity with the United States.
A Pakistani newspaper said bin Laden had denied blame. "The terrorist act is the action of some American group. I have nothing to do with it," it quoted him as saying.
The world’s leading investment banks and brokerages said they were still trying to account for their New York-based employees. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. was the financial complex’s largest tenant. Brokerage Cantor Fitzgerald had offices on four of the top 10 floors of 1 World Trade Center.
Stock markets stabilized and shares in some European bourses rallied despite fears that the attack would prompt a global recession.