By David Espo
WASHINGTON – With a sense of urgency on every front, the government deployed agents to the nation’s awakening airports Thursday to help make the return to the skies safe as President Bush explored options for a sustained assault against terrorists and those who shelter them.
The Defense Department said it appeared about 190 people had died in the attack on the Pentagon. That preliminary estimate included victims both in the building and in the hijacked airliner that plowed into the structure.
Search teams had recovered about 70 bodies by morning, said Jerry Roussillon, deputy fire and rescue chief for Fairfax County, Va. “We’re making inroads into the impact area foot by foot now,” he said. The teams were pulled back from the rubble by a bomb threat made by telephone near dawn, but the threat apparently came to nothing and work resumed.
The reopening of the U.S. air space was bringing one slice of everyday life back to a country frozen in horror since Tuesday’s terrorist attacks.
But flying promised to be anything but normal; Attorney General John Ashcroft sent U.S. marshals and other agents to airports and airliners to usher in a new era of security.
Bush started work in the Oval Office at 7:10 a.m. Thursday with another round of calls to world leaders as part of his effort to build a multinational coalition. Leaders of Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia and NATO “have all said they will stand together with the United States to combat terrorism,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
He would not say what exactly Bush asked of his counterparts. The president had also talked to a half dozen leaders Wednesday.
Congressional leaders spoke of a strong and sustained – if unspecified – response to terrorism.
“I believe it may take a lot of time, a lot of American treasure and perhaps some American blood,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the morning talk shows. Similar expressions of unity and conviction came from Democrats.
“This is a national crisis,” said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. He said political leaders were as unified now as they were after Congress voted to commit to the Gulf War.
Some of the options under consideration by Bush would go beyond the low-risk unmanned cruise missile strikes that have been deployed in past anti-terrorist operations, a senior administration official said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Among them: bombings from manned aircraft and the deployment of special troops on the ground.
The official said Bush has made no decision because investigators are still trying to determine with “as much certainty as possible” who masterminded the attacks and what country, if any, harbored those individuals.
Officials reaffirmed their belief that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire expatriate living in Afghanistan, is one prime suspect.
The State Department recommended that Americans abroad “maintain a low profile, vary routes and times for all required travel and treat mail and packages from unfamiliar sources with suspicion.”
The thirst for revenge was apparent in Washington.
“I think everybody is so angry they want to hit somebody,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Wednesday. “But before we hit somebody, we need to know who that is.”
There was no indication when that might happen.
Numerous officials said intelligence information pointed toward a coordinated attack masterminded by bin Laden. Despite an intensive investigation and widely televised police raids on hotels in the Boston area, Ashcroft said no arrests had been made in the attacks that left the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in ruins and the Pentagon badly damaged.
Adding insult to incalculable injury, he added, “A number of hijackers were trained as pilots in the United States.”
Ashcroft would not say Thursday whether arrests were imminent. “We are pursuing thousands of credible leads,” he said. “There’s a sense of urgency that’s understood by all of us.”
In all, terrorists commandeered four jetliners on Tuesday, flying two of them into the towering buildings in Manhattan and one into the Pentagon. The fourth – possibly aiming for the White House – crashed southeast of Pittsburgh after passengers apparently struggled with the hijackers.
There were 55 confirmed fatalities in New York, but that was only the beginning. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani indicated city officials had asked the federal government for 6,000 body bags.
Washington-area hospitals treated at least 94 people from the Pentagon, more than 10 of them in critical condition.
Congress moved quickly to vote money for Bush’s war on terrorism. Officials discussed legislation providing $20 billion, and said it could reach the House floor on Thursday.
Drafts also circulated of a separate measure authorizing the administration to undertake military action under the War Powers Act. Officials said there had been some discussion of a formal declaration of war, as well, although that seemed less likely.
Bush visited the Pentagon on Wednesday, still smouldering but suddenly bedecked by a huge American flag hanging down from the roof. “The nation mourns,” he said, “but we must go on.”
“Our country, however, will not be cowed by terrorists, by people who don’t share the same values we share.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent a morale-building message to the nation’s armed forces. Invoking the memories of past heroes – and those who behaved bravely in Tuesday’s attack – he said the nation would need more heroes in the not too distant future.
America’s NATO allies bolstered Bush’s case for military action, declaring the terrorist attacks an assault on the alliance itself. Bush sought to build a global alliance with phone calls to leaders of France, Germany, Canada, Britain and Russia; he talked twice to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“An attack on one is an attack on all,” NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said.
And the world’s wealthiest countries pledged a coordinated effort to use their central banks to prevent disruptions to the global economy.
Ashcroft and others described an extraordinary investigation. It stretched from the Canadian border, where officials suspect some of the hijackers entered the country, to Florida, where some of the participants are believed to have learned how to fly commercial jetliners before the attacks.
Locations in Massachusetts and Florida were searched for evidence. Internet service providers said they were complying readily with search warrants seeking information about an e-mail address believed connected to the attacks.
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