It was a stunning act of terror, an assault on the World Trade Center that shook New York City. The long wake of its memory still slices through those who were there and the families of those who died.
That was 1993.
Roughly eight years before the twin towers were destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks, the buildings were badly damaged on a snowy afternoon by a truck bomb in a basement garage that killed six people.
On Saturday, Omar Abdel Rahman — a blind cleric whose fiery speech exhorted anti-American violence and galvanized those who executed the attack, according to prosecutors — died at 78 in a federal prison in North Carolina. He was serving a life sentence for plotting a series of assaults never carried out: bombs to be set in tunnels and buildings in an attack designed to bring New York to its knees.
In the city, news of his death, from complications of diabetes and coronary artery disease, has caused many who experienced the bombing, whether as rescuers, government officials or witnesses, to recall the smoke and the gaping crater. They have also been led to consider something more existential: a February afternoon when, in an instant, the city experienced a sensation now all too familiar but then quite new — vulnerability.
“Those who went through the ’93 experience remember it as the beginning of the loss of innocence,” said Anthony E. Shorris, then the first deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
After the blast, Mr. Shorris spent a month inside the six-story crater in the garage beneath the World Trade Center plaza as teams shored it up and the police dug for bodies.
“Remembering a time when we didn’t think things like this could happen, and now we think about it all the time,” Mr. Shorris, now the deputy mayor of New York City, said.
He paused. “All the time.”
The explosion, on Feb. 26, 1993, injured about 1,000 people and could be heard on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The percussion was felt, some said, even farther north than Harlem. But New Yorkers thought of vehicle bombings as something that happened elsewhere. At first, the city sought more innocent explanations.
Stanley Brezenoff, then the executive director of the Port Authority, which owned the World Trade Center property and had offices on the 65th floor, said: “People walked out of their offices and looked at each other. ‘Did something happen? Did a generator go out? Was there some kind of a storm that we weren’t aware of?’” He made the call to evacuate, and staff members carried a colleague in a wheelchair down more than 20 flights.
“I don’t think we stopped to reflect on the enormity of what happened,” said Mr. Brezenoff, now the interim head of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. The Port Authority launched an all-out effort to repair the stricken tower, reopening it in a month.
“A lot of the response was, ‘They can’t do that to us,’” Mr. Brezenoff said. “It sounds almost quaint now.”
Raymond W. Kelly, who was then at the start of the first of his two stints as police commissioner, said, “In terms of modern terrorism, the threat was there, but I don’t think it was seen as a threat to this country.”
The sense was, he said, “it was going on in other places.”
It took about a day to definitively determine the blast was terrorism, and even then, the city was unsure who its enemies were, Mr. Kelly said. Speculation about their origin included the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East.
The office of the governor at the time, Mario M. Cuomo, was on the 57th floor of 2 World Trade Center. After the boom, no one there panicked, mostly because it “never occurred to us that it would be a bomb,” said Deborah Sale, who was chief of staff to Stan Lundine, then the lieutenant governor.
Using their limited knowledge from infrequent fire drills and holding on to handrails, employees gingerly crept down the stairs, Ms. Sale said. “There was no power at all, and it was pitch black,” she said, recalling that she had used a scarf to cover her nose and mouth in the smoky stairwell.
The new reality of terrorism led to changes in the towers themselves. Afterward, emergency lights were installed, and screenings were added for people entering the building.
Norman Steisel, who was first deputy mayor at the time, said the safety improvements saved lives on Sept. 11. “Those buildings were evacuated pretty quickly,” he said, referring to the floors below where the planes had hit. “Just imagine if more and more people were trapped downstairs.”
In 1995, Mr. Abdel Rahman was convicted, along with nine others, on charges of seditious conspiracy in Federal District Court in Manhattan for a plot to bomb landmarks and infrastructure hubs, although the plans were never carried out. While prosecutors asserted he had been involved in the 1993 attack, six other men were convicted after the vehicle identification number from a rental van linked to the perpetrators was found in the rubble.
Mr. Kelly said he believed the conspirators’ web of connections to groups like Al Qaeda had not been fully mined, even though data was discovered linking some to a somewhat obscure leader. His name was Osama bin Laden.
“It should have been a huge wake-up call for the federal government and the city, and it wasn’t,” he said. “And we paid the price on Sept. 11.”
Although Mr. Abdel Rahman’s name has over time become linked in many minds to the 1993 attack, it has not for Lynne F. Stewart, his defense lawyer in his 1995 trial. She believes he is innocent. Ms. Stewart was convicted in 2005 of smuggling messages on behalf of the imprisoned sheikh and sentenced to a decade in prison, which she began serving about seven years ago. She was released in 2014 when a judge reduced her sentence after a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
Speaking from her hospital bed in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan a few days after the sheikh’s death, Ms. Stewart expressed the view that Mr. Abdel Rahman’s fiery rhetoric was a matter of free speech, a belief shared by many in the Arab world.
The New York Times