It was a lovely evening, warm but ruffled by a cool breeze, without a trace of humidity.

Candles flickered in a thousand outstretched hands and floated in the Women’s Table, setting the falling water and plaza beneath gently aglow.

The throng on Cross Campus saw none of it. Behind their closed eyes, another vision prevailed — the indelible image of a pall of ash, looming above once-towering buildings to obscure the blue late summer sky.

Though people filled the lawn from the Sterling steps to the gates of Calhoun, Cross Campus remained as silent as when it had stood empty a few hours before.

As silent as it had been since the news had come.

“This is the stuff that nightmares are made of,” said Laurie Quimby, the wife of Davenport Dean Peter Quimby.

The Yale community had a series of vigils last night, drawing thousands of students trying to cope with yesterday’s attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But many students remained stunned last night, as they had throughout a wrenching day.

Early in the afternoon, two hours after the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history, the sun was still shining. But the lawns and courtyards across campus stood empty, blanketed by an eerie silence.

Among the few who still lingered on the plazas or flagstone walks, the news seemed to have severed all capacity for communication. Old friends walked three abreast, enveloped in mental solitude, seemingly oblivious to the presence of their companions.

From a distance, they appeared to be having normal conversations.

One might have assumed they were talking about the seminars from which they had just been cut or their maddening workloads.

But when one got close enough to hear them, it became clear that there was only one subject of discussion; that the smiles reflected not mirth but incredulity.

At noon, 20 students huddled on couches in Davenport’s TV room, watching the skyscrapers on the screen collapse, time and time again. One boy had an arm draped around a girl’s bare shoulder, but eye contact seemed as impossible as conversation.

Some jaws were rigid, others slack. All the eyes were the same — numb, emotionless, riveted.

A few feet outside the door, Jon Bettin ’04 remained in the fetal position, his back to a pillar, his baseball cap pulled low over his bloodshot eyes.

He was one of the lucky ones.

“My uncle used to work at the World Trade Center but left six months ago,” he said. “I called my mom. She heard from all my relatives and they’re all O.K.”

A friend stopped by, punched him affectionately in the shoulder, checking in without looking him in the face. Quimby joined him a few minutes later.

Even the usually deafening racket of construction on Grove Street seemed to have been stilled. The incessant beeping of trucks in reverse was nearly masked by the voices of newscasters, blaring from construction radios, unifying laborers and students with a common obsession.

Two students and a custodian sat in the Silliman buttery.

Divisions of age seemingly disappeared. The older man broke the silence.

“Is this the worst thing that’s ever happened in the world?” he asked.

The horrific news was often delivered in the most mundane of settings. For Wynn Meyer ’04, it came in the Yale Bookstore.

“I went to the bookstore to try to buy books today and they said, ‘We can’t take your credit card cause the World Trade Center blew up.”

For hours afterwards, frantic students stood as if severed from their surroundings, fingering cell phones like rosaries, waiting for relief. More often than not, they couldn’t get through to family and friends.

“There have been plenty of people walking down the hall crying,” said Pablo Sandoval LAW ’03. “People are really upset here, on a personal level.”

When Sandoval heard that a plane had struck the building, he immediately thought of a college friend who worked there.

It took four hours to find out that she was still alive.

“I definitely broke down a couple of times, but eventually she called,” Sandoval said. “But it was like torture.”

Eventually, he learned his friend had been evacuated a mere 10 minutes before the building collapsed.

As the names of victims emerge over the next few days, many in the community may receive far grimmer news.

By mid-afternoon, assured their families were safe, many students were simply numbed by the scale of the catastrophe; the number of potential victims so huge as to stun them into a perverse normalcy.

A circle of 10 or so freshmen in party hats sat on Silliman’s lawn in the late afternoon, preparing to cut a birthday cake.

If the images of the building collapse struck many as surreal, the day’s events were especially shocking to those who had called lower Manhattan home.

“We live on the 13th floor of a building on Canal Street,” said Jason Farago ’05 early in the afternoon. “I spoke to my mom already and she’s fine, but the phones are down. They said it was something like an earthquake.”

Matt Longo ’02 lost not relatives but a treasured memory.

“I had my prom at Windows of the World, the top of the World Trade Tower,” Longo said. “That was my view from West Broadway and Houston.”

“The fact that 4,000 people died is terrifically sad,” Longo said, “but that a symbol of New York is gone is a tragedy. The world just comes to a stop. New York just had to always be there.”

Sitting in a dorm room at Barnard College, Ilana Garon ’03, said that the view from her building reminded her of Hiroshima. Then she received an instant message with the day’s most unusual request for information.

A friend, studying at the Biosphere in Arizona, had heard the news and wished to recite a psalm in memory of the dead and for the sake of the living.

The friend wanted Garon to send her the words.

A mere 100 blocks from the smoking wreckage, she began to type: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …”

Staff reporters Sahm Adrangi, Elyssa Folk, Bret Ladine, Jeremy Licht, Matthew Matera, Chris Michel, Louise Story and Taryn Williams contributed to this report.