The skies above New York today were filled with smoke and paper.

When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, it didn't look like much from a distance. The towers still stood, and the city fathers made sure that the lights were on as soon as possible, even if there was nobody home.

This time, the cowards did the job right. There is today a conspicuous lack of tower over lower Manhattan -- not a scar, not from a distance. An absence. A concerto played on piano with a missing key, a painting with a missing color.

When I first heard that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, it was possible to believe that it may have been an accident. A twin-engine bomber had hit the Empire State Building in 1945. OK, it was night then, and foggy, but still...

I had just dropped my wife -- pregnant with twins and with a broken ankle -- at her office in lower Manhattan, in the court district a dozen blocks from the Trade Center. In truth, if anyone wanted to make a statement against the federal government, there are better targets that the Trade Center, and all of them I'm sorry to say are much nearer my wife's office.

When I heard the news, I ambled over to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, just a few paces from my apartment. Any New Yorker can tell you that the best view of Manhattan is from Brooklyn. The Promenade looks over the East River, with the glories of the Financial District in the foreground, the Statue of Liberty off to the left and the gothic solidity of the Brooklyn Bridge to the right.

As I approached the promenade down my tree-lined street, I saw paper in the air. I first thought they were leaflets. It was an election day in New York -- Primary Day, the first primary for municipal office after term limits kicked in, and every voter in town has been buried under a blizzard of campaign flyers from the more than 300 candidates running. If this were an ordinary day, leaflets would have been a pretty good theory.

But the North Tower of the World Trade Center was burning, flame and smoke pouring from a gash that looked to be about 60 stories up. The paper was blowing in from across the river, a mile away and 600 feet above.

Then, the unimaginable. I saw a dark airplane, a passenger jet, approach the undamaged tower from the south. I saw no insignia, heard no engines, heard nothing until a BANG. Then there was a fireball, debris shooting out of the north side of the building, presumably to the ground about 70 floors below. More smoke, and soon more paper.

People on the Promenade starting yelling, myself among them. I ran back home to call my wife, deposited just minutes earlier in a war zone, and to turn on CNN. Not long after, the south tower exploded and collapsed. I ran back outside, unable to believe what I'd heard on television, and saw hundreds of people who had gathered on the Promenade weeping, some staggering away, numbed by knowing that they had just witnessed the deaths of thousands of people.

"What happened?" I asked one of my neighbors as she walked past me. "It's gone," she said. "What do you mean, gone?" "Gone. Not there anymore. The tower's gone."

The towers, and most of lower Manhattan, were utterly obscured by smoke. One young man, in a striped shirt with a white collar and tie, began yelling "Pearl Harbor, 60 years later! Where do I sign up?" Had there been an enlistment officer handy, he'd have hit his year's quota in about 15 minutes.

A little later, the other tower came down.

My wife made it home not long after; one of her co-workers commandeered a wheelchair from I don't want to know where and pushed her across the Manhattan Bridge, the pedestrian walkway of which was still open. Strangers don't believe it, but that's what we do in New York.

It will be some time until the city -- and the nation -- gets back to its routine. We'll never get back to normal. I just pray for the dead, and the injured, and the people who help them. And I pray that my kids will be born healthy and happy, and I wish them a world where their dad can protect them against insane people who think they can redress grievances with falling airplanes and innocent lives.