Journalists are accustomed to covering the news from a professional distance. That was impossible, however, on Sept. 11, when PEOPLE's New York City and Washington, D.C., editorial staffers—along with everyone else in their stunned cities—found themselves at the heart of a terrorist attack. The impact hit us all. Deputy New York bureau chief Elizabeth McNeil, who lives just 12 blocks from the World Trade Center, was walking to work when she heard the first hijacked plane fly low above her, "sounding like a buzz saw," she says, and then the sound of the crash. Outside nearby Public School 234, associate editor Kim Hubbard saw the plane hit and ran inside to get her two children, whom she had just dropped off. Fannie Weinstein, one of the first correspondents to reach the Wall Street area, encountered "pandemonium," she says. "People were stunned, sitting on the curb with their hands clasped over their mouths, sobbing." Thirty minutes later, when she fell and fractured her foot, Weinstein joined the casualties at New York University Downtown Hospital.

So that day, with heavy hearts, we covered the grim news as we lived it, checking on friends and loved ones as we prepared to tell the most horrific story in our magazine's history. By 10 a.m., 23 correspondents had been assigned to find survivors and rescue workers at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and to talk to family members of the missing; 25 photographers were dispatched to record the horror. As the enormity of events began to sink in, managing editor Carol Wallace decided to devote the entire Sept. 24 issue to the attack, and by the next morning we had assembled an 87-page account of those tragic and frantic first hours.

Some of our readers have questioned why we included advertisements in that issue. It is important for you to know that these ads were scheduled weeks before the issue went to press. "Advertisers were unaware of our change in editorial content," says publisher Peter Bauer. "Because of the extraordinary conditions we were operating under, there was no time to give them the opportunity to pull their advertising. Many probably would have done so. But no one at PEOPLE intended any disrespect to the victims, our readers or our advertisers."

PEOPLE has always celebrated the human spirit and the extraordinary acts of ordinary citizens. At no time have such stories been more evident than in the days since the unimaginable occurred. And so this week, as the long healing process begins, we turn to the many who inspired us with their courageous actions: those fortunate survivors, brave family members and heroic volunteers and rescue workers. "Many of these people said they were just doing their jobs," says McNeil, "and some of them died for it." We hope the stories in this issue commemorate their actions and honor their sacrifices.