WASHINGTON - As sirens blared and clouds of gray smoke wafted across town from the Pentagon - signaling that the nation's capital, like New York, had been attacked by terrorists - hundreds of thousands of people poured out of downtown yesterday in an eerie midmorning exodus.
With all federal buildings evacuated and most other businesses, museums and restaurants shut down, scores of employees and tourists jammed onto the sidewalks and parks, some shaken, some tearful, some in disbelief.
"I think we're at war," said Neil Hare, a lawyer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who works near the White House. He planned to walk to his parents' house in Rockville rather than to his own home near the State Department. "I'm running. This is probably ground zero, and I don't want to be anywhere near here."
Hare, who quit smoking four months ago, stopped to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights for his long trek to Maryland in his business suit and dress shoes.
"Nicorette gum isn't going to do it for me today," he said.
Many struggled to remain calm and figure out how to get home and contact family members.
"I can't reach him," wailed one woman whose husband works at the Pentagon, which suffered a devastating blow from a hijacked plane. "I called over there, and all I could hear was chaos in the background."
By midmorning, several streets, including those near the White House, and parts of the subway system had been closed, and traffic clogged the streets.
Firetrucks and ambulances tried to snake through, their sirens joining with honking horns and the roar of rescue helicopters and F-16 fighter jets patrolling the blue skies above Washington to create a scene that many said seemed unreal, like Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds.
"I hope I'm still asleep," said Darryl Day, a banker.
Adding to the sense of unease, police carrying submachine guns patrolled in front of the White House, and bomb-sniffing dogs were stationed near the World Bank and other federal buildings.
Police combed through trash bins in the subway stations. All day, they stood guard with shotguns along a four-block perimeter around the White House.
Lines at pay phones
For many, cell phones proved useless, and lines formed at pay phones.
"This is starting to be quite frightening," said Phil Hall, a forester from Oregon on assignment to the Interior Department. Hall had been staying at a hotel near the Pentagon and did not know where to go.
"We have a lot of security that's more narrowly focused - electronic keys for every door, even a password to get into the restroom - but something of this scale is hard to grasp," he said. "Now, all of a sudden, you don't know where to go, you don't know where to hide."
Hall said he tried to call his wife at home before he evacuated the Interior building, but the phone lines were dead. "I really wish I could have talked to her before I left," he said.
Many wondered how an attack of such magnitude could have caught the United States by surprise. Others said they felt it was inevitable in a dangerous world.
"This has been a long time coming," said Candace French, an Annapolis resident who was flagging down any car with a Maryland tag for a ride back home. "We have had our eyes opened now."
After the attack on the Pentagon, and as the news reports from New York became grimmer, false rumors about bombs and plane crashes and explosions in Washington kept tourists and workers in a state of anxious confusion.
Fear swept through crowds whenever a plane - one of the fighter jets that circled the skies all day - was heard overhead.
One federal police officer, trying to shoo pedestrians from an area near the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, yelled, "Cross the street and go west - a plane is headed this way!"
No plane materialized, but his alarm cleared the area.
First trip to Washington
New Jersey residents Susan and Arthur DeBruycker celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary with their first-ever trip to Washington, were in line for a White House tour when they heard about the attacks in New York, and then the Pentagon.
"The people in line in front of us started to run, so we ran," said Susan DeBruycker, a hairstylist.
Before they left their offices, most employees had spent the morning gathered around televisions. At a fitness club, men and women stopped their workouts and stood silently to watch.
"When I saw the building collapse," Shelly Clark said, "about half of us collapsed with it."
Parking garages all over town were overflowing by 11 a.m., with dozens lined up to retrieve their cars. Abby Michaels and her boyfriend, Justin Calvo, stood close, stroking each other's shoulders as they waited for their car.
"I called her at work, and she said she was going home and we just wanted to be together," said Calvo, who recently returned from a year of study in Jerusalem. "I came back to the U.S. to get away from all this. This is more panicky than anything that happened there because of the magnitude."
Some headed to bars or waited for traffic to thin before leaving.
The Monocle restaurant near the Senate offices provided a haven for some of the 20,000 displaced denizens of Capitol Hill who had been ordered to evacuate the Capitol complex. The kitchen staff was sent home, but the bar and restrooms remained open.
Among those passing time there was Jo Anne B. Barnhart, President Bush's nominee to head the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration. She had taken a cab to Capitol Hill from her home in Northern Virginia to prepare for a Senate hearing on her nomination. By early afternoon, she was considering making the six-mile trip home by foot.
Some couldn't wait to get out of the city. Suzanne Granville and Amy Chapman left their office at the AFL-CIO, a block from the White House, picked up their children from day care and walked them home in strollers. Chapman had one mile to go, Granville four.
"I was in my office, and I saw all this black smoke coming from the direction of the day care center," Chapman said. "And a co-worker who also had a child in day care said let's go, and we left."
Like Granville and Chapman, many in Washington were consumed with concerns of getting home and making sure family members were safe, and only beginning to take in the enormity of what had happened.
"The worst thing is, I don't know how you can prevent something like this," said Claudia Piras, an economist who had just picked up her daughter at day care. "That's the scary part. It's hard to explain to her the scale of what's going on, why everyone is going home."
Convoy of military vehicles
By midday, almost everyone, it appeared, had gone home, and the city was strangely free of the usual congestion. Instead of rush-hour commuters, a convoy of military vehicles traversed parts of downtown as evening approached.
Charles Warren, a lawyer who has lived in Washington since 1940, said the day was reminiscent of Pearl Harbor.
"This is probably the most dramatic thing the U.S. has been involved in as a world power since then," he said. "I think we go on fearlessly and perhaps naively - until something happens."
Sun staff writers Thomas Healy and Karen Hosler contributed to this article.