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‘Powder keg’ for 9/11: 1993 trade center bombing remembered

The deadly bombing killed 6 people nearly a decade before 9/11
FILE - A police officer assists a survivor of the World Trade Center terrorist bombing in New York on Feb. 26, 1993. Thirty years after terrorism first struck the World Trade Center, victims’ relatives and survivors are gathering to commemorate the deadly 1993 bombing that foreshadowed 9/11. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

Lolita Jackson was at her 72nd-floor desk in the World Trade Center, feeling like she worked at the top of the world. Then came the boom, and smoke started curling in from an elevator shaft.

Unsure what was happening, she joined thousands of other office workers on a harrowing trek down dark, smoky stairs, emerging onto the scene of a terror attack.

It wasn’t Sept. 11, 2001. This was Feb. 26, 1993, when a deadly bombing killed six people, one of them pregnant, and injured more than 1,000 — becoming a harbinger of terror at the twin towers.

Jackson hopes that Sunday’s 30th anniversary serves as a reminder that even though decades have passed since the seismic acts of terrorism in the United States’ most populous city, no one, anywhere, can say the threat of mass violence is over.

She knows that more personally than most: On 9/11, she had to flee the trade center’s south tower again.

“I’m a living testament that it can happen to you, and it can happen to you twice,” Jackson said.

Victims’ relatives, survivors, dignitaries and others gathered at the trade center Sunday for a ceremony that included the reading of the names of the six people killed. The anniversary was also being marked at a Mass Sunday at a nearby church and a panel discussion Monday at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

A bell was tolled and a moment of silence held to mark the time of the attack, 12:18 p.m., and victims’ relatives and others laid roses next to their names, which are inscribed on one of the Sept. 11 memorial pools.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were among speakers honoring the lives lost and mourning the loss of innocence in the attack’s wake.

“Today, 30 years later, we still feel the impact of that event,” said Stanley Brezenoff, who survived the bombing as then-head of the government agency that owns the World Trade Center. “The grief we hold for the ones we lost — we feel and share the hurt that the families have felt these many years. That will not change, even years into the future.”

Charlie Maikish, the executive in charge of the World Trade Center at the time, said the bombing was a “wake up call” and that safety protocols enacted in the aftermath — including evacuation drills, emergency lighting in stairwells and new fire command stations — likely saved thousands of lives on 9/11.

The noontime explosion, set off in a rented van parked in an underground garage, served notice that Islamic extremists yearned to destroy the trade center’s twin towers. But the public memory of the attack was largely subsumed after 9/11. Even the fountain that memorialized the bombing was crushed in the later attack.

But for some survivors and victims’ relatives, the 1993 attack still echoes as a warning that was unheeded, a loss that feels overlooked and a lesson that still needs learning.

“The ‘93 World Trade Center bombing was the powder keg for the 9/11 attacks,” said Andrew Colabella, a cousin of bombing victim John DiGiovanni. Colabella said he feels the earlier attack is largely remembered as “a blip,” rather than a siren, in the history of international terror.

“These two historical events that have taken place should be instilled in our hearts and minds, to think united and to be united,” Colabella said. Now a town council member in Westport, Connecticut, he regularly attends ground zero anniversary ceremonies for both the bombing and 9/11, to honor the cousin he lost as a small child but can still picture.

DiGiovanni was at the trade center as a visiting salesperson. Other victims all worked in the complex. They were Robert Kirkpatrick, Stephen A. Knapp, William Macko, Wilfredo Mercado and Monica Rodriguez Smith, who was due to start maternity leave the next day.

“Every part of our effort has considered the ‘93 bombing as a part of the story that we are telling,” museum Director Clifford Chanin said.

The explosive was planted by Muslim extremists who sought to punish the U.S. for its Middle East policies, particularly Washington’s support for Israel, according to federal prosecutors.

Six people were convicted and imprisoned, including accused ringleader Ramzi Yousef. A seventh suspect in the bombing remains on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Yousef hoped the bomb would fell the twin towers by making one collapse into the other, according to the FBI.

The idea of razing the skyscrapers endured. A message found on another convicted conspirator’s laptop warned that “next time it will be very precise, and the World Trade Center will continue to be one of our targets.”

Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would later become the self-proclaimed mastermind of 9/11, when hijacked planes were used as missiles to strike the buildings.

Although the towers endured the ‘93 bombing, it knocked out power, backup generators and the public address system. Tens of thousands of people picked their way down the stairs; others were rescued from stalled elevators and the wrecked garage. Some workers kicked out windows for air, a group of 120 kindergarteners were stranded for a time on an observation deck and police helicopters flew to rooftops to pick up two dozen people.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the trade center, apologized to the victims’ relatives on the 25th anniversary, saying the complex and the country weren’t prepared for the attack.

After the bombing, the trade center forbade underground parking and installed security cameras and vehicle barriers, and the complex issued worker ID cards for entry.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jackson was again in her office, by then on the 70th floor. When flames started shooting out of the tower next door, her company ordered an immediate evacuation.

Now she wonders whether what she experienced — twice — seems “like folklore” to people born after both attacks. She warns against complacency.

“You’re just at work getting a cup of coffee,” she said, “and you might have to run for your life.”

Jennifer Peltz, The Associated Press

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