Washington The Pentagon took a direct, devastating hit from an aircraft, and enduring symbols of American power were evacuated Tuesday as an apparent terrorist attack spread fear and chaos in the nation's capital.
President Bush ordered the nation's military to "high-alert status" and prepared an evening televised address to a shaken nation. He vowed to "hunt down and punish those responsible" for parallel attacks in Washington and in New York, where the World Trade Center collapsed into rubble with a heavy loss of life.
The president, in Florida at the time of the attacks, flew home to the White House late in the day after stops at two secure military installations far from the scene of the destruction. Aides said he convened a National Security Council meeting by teleconference from Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska, as his government struggled to respond to an attack of unprecedented proportions.
The top leaders of Congress were taken to the safety of a secure government facility 75 miles west of Washington. They left behind a city where guards armed with automatic weapons patrolled the White House grounds and military aircraft secured the skies above the Capital.
The Pentagon, the nerve center of the nation's military, burst into flames and a portion of one side of the five-sided structure collapsed when a plane ? reported hijacked and carrying a number of passengers ? struck in midmorning. Secondary explosions were reported and great billows of smoke drifted skyward from the huge building in Arlington, Va., toward the Potomac River and Washington beyond.
Rep. Ike Skelton, briefed by Pentagon officials, said, "There appear to be about 100 casualties" in the building.
"The fire was intense," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in a makeshift briefing at a gasoline station across the street. At midday, local hospitals reported receiving 40 victims of the attack, with seven patients in critical condition admitted to one facility for treatment of burns.
"The whole building shook" with the impact, said Terry Yonkers, an Air Force civilian employee at work inside the Pentagon at the time of the attack. "There was screaming and pandemonium," he said, but the evacuation ordered shortly afterward was carried out smoothly. Within hours of the attack on the Pentagon, long lines of blood donors queued up outside an area hospital. And Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the city's Catholic leader, said an unusually large number of worshippers ? between 3,000 and 4,000 ? attended Mass at the downtown cathedral as the enormity of the destruction began to sink in.
The departments of Justice, State, Treasury and Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency were evacuated ? an estimated 20,000 at the Pentagon alone.
The Capitol was evacuated, as well, sending lawmakers and aides into the surrounding streets. By late in the day, though, officials said the House and Senate would convene Wednesday. The first order of business: a resolution condemning the attacks.
The FAA ordered the entire nationwide air traffic system shut down for the first time in history.