Lolita Jackson was at her 72nd floor desk in the World Trade Center, feeling like she was working on top of the world. Then came the boom, and smoke began to curl in from the elevator shaft.
Unsure of what was happening, she joined thousands of other office workers on a side trip down a dark, smoky staircase, arriving at the scene of a terror attack.
It was not September 11, 2001. This was February 26, 1993, when a deadly bomb killed six people, one of them pregnant, and injured more than 1,000 – being a harbinger of terror at the twin towers.
Jackson hopes Sunday’s 30th anniversary will serve as a reminder that, even though decades have passed since the seismic acts of terrorism in the most populous city in the United States, no one, anywhere, can say that the threat of mass violence is over.
She knows more personally than most: On 9/11, she had to flee from the south tower of the trade center again.
“I’m living proof that it can happen to you, and it will happen to you twice.”
Relatives of victims, survivors, dignitaries and others are to gather at the trade center on Sunday for a ceremony that will include the reading of the names of the six people killed in the 1993 bombing, one of whom was pregnant. Commemorative rituals also include a Mass on Sunday at a church near the trade center and a panel discussion on Monday at the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
The midday blast, which started in a rental van parked in an underground garage, signaled an Islamic extremist’s desire to destroy the two towers of the trade centre. But public memory of the attack was largely subsumed after 9/11. Even the fountain that commemorated the bombing on September 11 was crushed.
But for some survivors and relatives of the victims, the ’93 attack still echoes as an unheeded warning, a loss that feels forgotten and a lesson that still needs to be learned.
“The ’93 World Trade Center bombing was the trigger for the 9/11 attacks,” said Andrew Colabella, cousin of bombing victim John DiGiovanni. Colabella considers the earlier attack more of a “blip,” rather than a siren, in the history of international terrorism.
“These two historical events that happened should be encouraged in our hearts and minds, to think united and be united,” said Colabella. Now a town council member in Westport, Connecticut, he regularly attends ground zero commemorations for both the bombings and 9/11, to honor the cousin he lost as a toddler but can still picture .
DiGiovanni was at the trade center as a visiting salesman. All his fellow victims worked in the complex. They were Robert Kirkpatrick, Stephen A. Knapp, William Macko, Wilfredo Mercado and Monica Rodriguez Smith, who were to start maternity leave the next day.
The names of the six victims are now inscribed on one of the 9/11 memorial pools, and their photos and a room at the 9/11 museum are dedicated to discussing the ’93 explosion.
“Every part of our effort has included the ’93 bombing as part of the story we’re telling,” said Museum Director Clifford Chanin.
The explosive was planted by a Muslim extremist who sought to punish the United States for its Middle East policies, particularly Washington’s support for Israel, according to federal prosecutors.
Six people were convicted and jailed, including the accused ringleader Ramzi Yousef. A seventh suspect in the bombing remains on the FBI’s most wanted list.
Yousef hoped the bomb would collapse both towers by crashing one into the other, according to the FBI. The idea of looting the skyscrapers lived on: A message found on the laptop of another convicted conspirator warned that “next time it will be very precise, and the World Trade Center will still 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 hit the buildings.
Although the towers suffered the bombing of ’93, it laid out power, backup generators and the public announcement system. Thousands of people picked their way down the stairs; others were rescued from stopped elevators and the destroyed garage. Some workers kicked windows for air, a group of 120 kindergarteners were temporarily stranded on an observation deck and police helicopters flew to rooftops to pick up two dozen people.
The government agency that runs the trade center apologized to relatives of the victims on the 25th anniversary, saying the complex and the country were not prepared for the attack.
After the bombing, the shopping center banned underground parking and installed security cameras and vehicle barriers. Stairwells received battery powered lights and reflective tape. Office tenants stepped up fire drills and the complex issued worker identification cards for entry.
On September 11, 2001, Jackson was back in her office, on the 70th floor by then. When flames started shooting out of the tower next door, her company ordered an immediate evacuation.
Now she’s wondering if the people who were born after the two attacks – twice – seem to be “like folklore”. She warns against complacency.
“You’re just working for a cup of coffee,” she said, “and you might have to run for your life.”