The tragedy is likely not only to be the worst loss of life to terrorism on U.S. soil, but one of -- if not the -- largest disaster in American history. Most reports indicate it will also sadly be the saddest day for the world's emergency services with the largest single loss of life for rescue personnel on an incident.
An estimated 200 firefighters may have died and as many as 80 police officers were believed to be missing Tuesday after two planes slammed into the twin skyscrapers in lower Manhattan.
``We're going to have to bury a lot of people,'' said Mike Carter, vice president of the firefighters union. He estimated that half of the 400 firefighters who first reached the scene may be dead.
New York's Roman Catholic Cardinal Edward Egan -- who administered last rites to a dozen victims -- said the firefighters and police were ``dead in great numbers.''
Soot-covered and exhausted, some of the rescue workers embraced. Many had responded to the first blast at the north tower, only to shocked by a second explosion on the south tower less than 20 minutes later.
Up to 11,000 firefighters eventually responded to the attacks, with more arriving from outlying areas, said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, speaking from Washington, D.C.
Eight hours after the catastrophe began, hundreds of firefighters sat on the West Side Highway or leaned against their rigs, waiting for orders to go into the leveled skyscrapers and search for what they feared would be hundreds of bodies -- including many colleagues.
``This is going to hurt,'' said Jack Gerber, a 43-year-old Brooklyn firefighter. ``A lot of guys got killed today.''
He said that after the first building collapsed, surviving firefighters passed cell phones around to tell their loved ones they were alive.
Hundreds of emergency workers, firefighters and police were on the scene following the initial plane crash into one of the World Trade Center towers at about 8:45 a.m., when the nation watched in horror as the second plane crashed into the adjacent tower just 20 minutes later.
A large sports complex in Manhattan, Chelsea Piers, is being turned into a massive triage center for victims of the World Trade Center devastation.
FDNY and the city government have decided to begin bringing all victims to this site to be treated initially, then moved to hospitals by the 200 to 250 ambulances waiting at the site. The vast complex has over 100 waiting doctors and nurses and about 50 operating suites.
Victims up to this time have been going directly hospitals but to control the flow to all hospitals, this triage center has been created. Rescuers believe that once the personnel begin to search the rubble, hundreds if not thousands will need help.
International Association of Fire Fighters General President Schaitberger is on his way to New York City Tuesday, where he says the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, "very clearly will exceed by scores and scores," the most devastating deadly event in the history of the country."
It was the normal response of the firefighters to be in those buildings, doing search and rescue and fire attack, Schaitberger said. "There is only one way you can do that, you have to go in."
On CNN, amateur video taken moments after one of the collapses showed a firefighter attempting to make his way through the debris, with the sound of numerous PASS (firefighter down) alarms were going off in the background with distant cries for help, presumably from both the rescuers and those initially injured.
Schaitberger said it will be hard to determine quickly how many first responders were injured and lost because many who were on the scene responded on their own apart from those on duty. "As it relates to our profession, it is devastating."
In New York, the downtown area was cordoned off and a rescue effort was under way. National Guardsmen were sent in to help. Hundreds of volunteers and medical workers converged on triage centers, offering help and blood.
Paramedics waiting to be sent into the rubble were told that ``once the smoke clears, it's going to be massive bodies,'' according to Brian Stark, an ex-Navy paramedic who volunteered to help.
Stark said paramedics were told that ``hundreds of police and firefighters are missing'' from the ranks of those sent in to respond to the initial crash.
Before rescuers were mobilized, scenes of horror unfolded around the devastated buildings.
``Everyone was screaming, crying, running -- cops, people, firefighters, everyone,'' said Mike Smith, a fire marshal from Queens, recovering at the fountain outside a state courthouse, shortly after the second tower collapsed.
Due to the extreme nature of Tuesday's events, the IAFF has formally requested that the Department of Justice expedite the Public Safety Officers Benefit application process.
The largest loss of firefighters in a single incident, according to Firehouse.com research, happened on April 16-17, 1947 when 27 firefighters were killed following fires and ammonium nitrate explosions aboard two ships docked at Texas City, Texas.