The blast produced a crater stretching over 150 feet through five floors on the 26th of February 1993
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NEW YORK — It had to be an accident.
Though hard to imagine now, that was the prevailing theory moments after an explosion rocked the World Trade Center around noon on a chilly Feb. 26, 1993.
The truth — that a cell of Islamic extremists had engineered a car-bomb attack that killed six people, injured more than 1,000 and caused more than a half-billion dollars in damage — "was incomprehensible at the time," recalled FBI agent John Anticev.
On the eve of the 20-year anniversary of the bombing, Anticev and other current and former law enforcement officials involved in the case reflected on an event that taught them tough lessons about a dire threat from jihadists. That threat, now seared into the city's psyche because of the Sept. 11 attacks, felt vague and remote two decades ago.
"In those days, terrorism wasn't the first reaction," said former federal prosecutor David Kelley.
The scale of the attack was the first dramatic demonstration that "terrorism is theater and New York is the biggest stage," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
A two-time commissioner, Kelly was serving his first stint when the initial report that came in to police that day that there was an apparent transformer explosion at the trade center.
Kelly raced to the scene, where the bomb planted in a parked Ryder van had left a crater half the size of a football field in the trade center garage. For the first time since it opened in 1973, the trade center stood in the darkness that night.
"I remember seeing this tremendous sea of first-responder vehicles ... and smoke was coming out," Kelly said.
The commissioner gathered with other police and federal officials in a nearby hotel conference room to assess the damage. The meeting didn't last long because an engineer warned "the floor could collapse at any time," Kelly said.
A day later, after a utility mishap was ruled out, authorities "started to come to the conclusion it was bomb," Kelly said.
Anticev and other FBI agents were initially assigned to pursue rumors that the twin towers may have been attacked in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Serbia. But the probe took a dramatic turn after investigators found a vehicle identification number on a piece of the blown-up van.
Investigators later learned that the renter of the van wanted to get his deposit back after reporting it stolen — a break that sounded too good to be true.
"I was betting he wouldn't show up," said Kelley.
The renter, Mohammed Salameh, indeed appeared to demand his deposit about a week after the blast.
When Anticev heard Salameh's name, "I really almost started to cry," the agent recalled.
His dismay was well-earned. He had long been watching Salameh and other radical Muslims in the FBI's investigation of the assassination of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane at a Manhattan hotel.
The FBI knew the men had practiced together shooting guns and assembling pipe bombs. But in the summer of 1992, investigators lost an informant who possibly could have warned of the more ambitious plot, Anticev said.
A pipe-bomb attack "was as big a plot as we thought they were capable of," he said.
In hindsight, Anticev believes agents were "too Western" in their attempts to neutralize the budding terrorists before they struck.
He described using tough interrogation tactics that would have spooked ordinary criminals — obtaining subpoenas and bringing them in for questioning in rooms where they purposely displayed surveillance photos of them on the wall.
"We thought they would be chilled by that experience," he said. "But it was like water off a duck's back. That did not scare them at all. They just did it anyway. ... That was a big lesson."
Kelly believes because the suspects were quickly rounded up, in some circles they "were written off as this inept group of zealots," Kelly said. "It was not seen was not seen as the global conspiracy it turned out to be."
The probe of the attack led to convictions of Salameh and three other men and the later the capture Ramzi Yousef, the leader of the attack. Investigators learned that the highly educated Yousef had tried to detonate the car bomb in way that would cause countless casualties by toppling one of the towers into the other and bringing them down like giant dominos, and watch with disappointment from the banks of the Hudson River in New Jersey when it didn't happen.
Yousef is the nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even after Yousef was found guilty in a Manhattan courtroom and put away for life, "we really didn't know what was ahead," said Kelley, who was part of the prosecution team. "This was before everybody was on to bin Laden."
Police Commissioner Kelly remembered that in 1993, while surveying the destruction in the underground garage, an engineer told him that the buildings would never come down.
"On Sept. 11," Kelly said, "the thought of that came back to me."
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.
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Linda Takvor GarbarinoSunday, February 24, 2013 7:36:12 AMre video clip #10:15 what's Hit or Miss's business. I would love a complete history on that business throughout the NYS area. Anyone can email it to me, or better yet post it for all to see.
Linda Takvor GarbarinoSaturday, March 02, 2013 4:36:17 PMYes the 1993 World Trade Center bombing taught us many lessons.
The first lesson I learned from that incident was to trust my own first instincts first and foremost.
My first thought was "Transformers designed and installed by professionals who care about humanity do NOT explode and instill that much damage."
My second thought was there is no way the Trade Center's foundation can be brought back to its original impervious design.
My third thought was ,"Of course meant there was more to come." Why did I think this? I thought this simply because when people such as the terrorists that planned this attack start a campaign they do not just send one message.
My forth thought was "Is this just a camouflage for something else bigger that is occurring right now that we did not know about?" And, in a way it was, the whole World Trade Center, both the physical buildings and the world's financial security was no longer tempered. Once something has been breeched it is forever marred.
My fifth thought was, "How does NYC and the World deal with the wounds of something like this?" Yes, we pick up the pieces and start again just like they will.
So I along with a small number of other foresighted people went about picking up all the pieces of the terrorist's jigsaw puzzle that seemed to have never ending interconnecting pieces and bits of pieces. I actually joined the Navy.
The fortitude to pursue this task was the knowledge that the terrorist organization behind this attack was now marred and also breeched and no longer tempered. Their organization was going to boast and regroup to protect itself. This I believed because it is just human nature regardless of the fact that a human might be good or have an evil self righteous nature.
From what I found out, saw, and experienced, with in the next few hours, days, weeks, months, years and now decades I knew these terrorists had a very evil self righteous nature. Are they the legions of the devil? They do not think so, they say we in America are?
Do the evil, self righteous and dishonest people think the devil won over Adam, Eve, Jesus or Mohammed? The devil is in the same boat that all human's are. Even worse, the devil was condemned to earth's hollows. Those who think harmful and destructive actions and thoughts will teach lessons or help them gain control should realize they are weakening their own foundation as well.
Here is what I know. Americans are strong, neighborly and caring. Americans want their fellow Americans to succeed. Americans know if their fellow Americans succeed it will bring them more success. Americans care about the entire world. Americans would like the entire world to be just as strong, neighborly and caring as they can be. Here is what else I know all true Americans pledge to the fact that will strive to be smart, proud and caring human beings.
Here is a world trade trillion dollar question: Are you truly proud of YOUR own human nature?