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Three decades since first World Trade Center terror attack, six victims will be honored

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Three decades since first World Trade Center terror attack, six victims will be honored

NEW YORK — The World Trade Center mantra — “Never forget” — began eight years before 9/11, on a dreary winter’s afternoon in lower Manhattan.

It was 12:18 p.m. on Feb. 26, 1993, when a rental van packed by terrorist plotters with 1,200 pounds of explosives detonated in a parking garage beneath one of the twin towers, killing six people and offering a harbinger of darker things to come.

On Sunday, a memorial service at ground zero will mark the 30th anniversary of the first attack on the 110-story buildings, with its details still fresh to those who were there.

Carla Bonacci, now assistant director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s major capital projects, was just across the street when the bomb went off that afternoon.

“I don’t think we’ll ever forget it,” recalled Bonacci. “People started pouring out, glass everywhere on the plaza. Smoke and soot everywhere, and eventually sirens and noise everywhere.”

The attack literally shook the twin towers from top to bottom and rattled the neighborhood to its subterranean core, carving a hole six stories deep and half the size of a football field in the garage beneath the North Tower and the adjacent Vista International Hotel.

Then-New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly remembers going into the pit to see the devastating scope of the damage: “That was an eye-opener. I was surprised more people weren’t killed … It was a huge hole, cars everywhere, part of cars, everything smoking.”

And he recalls the initial report of the bombing: Utility explosion at the World Trade Center with injuries.

The powerful blast left a tourist dining in the 107th floor Windows on the World restaurant staring in disbelief as a bowl of soup rattled on the table before his eyes. More than 1,000 people were injured in the aftermath of the blast, with many suffering from smoke inhalation.

It took until nearly midnight to empty trapped employees from the two buildings after the power went out, with the workers navigating the darkened stairs to the street.

This year’s annual anniversary of the terrorist attack will be observed with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum holding a 12:15 p.m. service on the plaza outside where the towers stood, followed by a 2 p.m. Mass held by the Port Authority at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church.

A Sunday moment of silence will be followed with a bell rung by the FDNY, followed by performances of “Amazing Grace” and the National Anthem.

“I don’t think we’ll ever forget it, or the people we lost,” said Bonacci of the three-decade old attack. “It’s our duty and responsibility to remember.”

The second attack actually destroyed a memorial created for the 1993 victims. Their names are now inscribed on a panel at the twin reflecting pools created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack: John DiGiovanni, Robert Kirkpatrick, Stephen Knapp, Wilfredo Mercado, Port Authority mechanic William Macko and mom-to-be Monica Rodriguez Smith.

The city’s resilience, so evident after 9/11, was just as indelibly visible after the first attack: Shortly after darkness settled over a shaken city, Trade Center officials made sure the building lights were shining in the skyline above Manhattan.

Academy Award nominated producer Marc Smerling, who did a recent “Operation: Tradebomb” podcast tied to the 1993 attack, recounted the back story of chief plotter Ramzi Yousef.

The suspect used an alias to board a Pakistan-bound flight on the day of the bombing and was arrested in the same country just two weeks short of its second anniversary. Yousef — a hood over his head — was flown by authorities in a helicopter above the 110-story towers.

Authorities then removed the covering to let him see the buildings still standing.

“They would not be if (we) had enough money,” replied Yousef. The 2001 attack with two commercial airliners was then masterminded by his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohamed.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how inextricably these two crimes are connected and committed by two family members,” said Smerling of the diabolical terrorists. “They had the imagination to think of these plots when nobody had ever done it before.”

The 1993 investigation was fast and furious, with investigators recovering a vehicle identification number on a piece of the blown-up van. It was was quickly traced to plotter Mohammed Salameh, who rented the vehicle.

Salameh was arrested after returning to the Jersey City rental office to retrieve his $400 deposit on the van — tangible proof of Yousef’s claim. The driver, along with three of his co-defendants, were convicted in March 1994.

Kelly remembered sitting in the bomb-ravaged basement 30 years ago, speaking with a building engineer who was trapped in an Trade Center elevator until forcing his way out using only a key. And he’ll never forget what the man told him.

“He said, ‘This building will never come down, are you kidding me?’” said Kelly, who lived Downtown near the towers. “And I saw the building go down in 2001. The guy said it would never come down.”

©2023 New York Daily News. Visit nydailynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published February 25, 2023, 6:48 PM.

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