Scared investors sent stocks plummeting as Wall Street ended its longest shutdown since the Great Depression and resumed trading today for the first time since last week's terrorist attack. The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 629 points, dropping below 9,000 for the first time in more than 2 1/2 years, before regaining some ground.
At 1 p.m., the Dow was off 545.53 at 9,059.98. The Nasdaq composite index declined 92.03 to 1,603.35, while the S&P 500 dropped 44.21 to 1,048.33.
Before trading began, the New York Stock Exchange observed two minutes of silence followed by the singing of "God Bless America."
The initial heavy selling was widely expected in a market already fragile because of poor corporate profits and outlooks. And since the attacks, which shut the nation's stock market for four days, the major airlines have announced cutbacks and reduced schedules, adding to investors' nervousness about the future.
But the Federal Reserve, hoping to boost the economy and the market's confidence, cut interest rates by a half-point -- the eighth rate cut so far this year -- an hour before trading began.
The nation's financial leaders had called on investors to treat the market's reopening as a buying opportunity instead of a reason to sell.
One of the country's best-known investors, Warren Buffett, said Sunday on the CBS program "60 Minutes," "I won't be selling anything."
"If prices would fall significantly,
there's some things I might buy," said Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and The Buffalo News.
"But . . . it's not a different country economically than it was a week ago."
New York Stock Exchange chairman Richard A. Grasso was sanguine about the volatility after the opening bell: "Today's market is not important. It's the market a year from now, two years from now."
The Dow fell in 50- and 100-point bursts as its 30 components opened for trading. When American Express, the last stock to open, began trading, the Dow's loss crossed the 600-point mark.
The opening bell was rung by members of the Police and Fire departments along with representatives of other agencies involved in the rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center disaster site.
"Let us celebrate these wonderful men and women," Grasso said, calling them "our heroes." He was surrounded by federal, state and local officials on a balcony overlooking the exchange floor.
Outside, a huge American flag was draped across the NYSE's famed columns.
The four-day market closing was the longest for the NYSE since March 1933 when the government shuttered the exchange for more than a week for a banking holiday during the Depression.
Businesses spent the weekend cleaning up the debris littering the financial district. Utility workers laid and rewired thousands of cables to restore telecommunications and power, while the city prepared the subway system for its first real use in nearly a week.
But challenges remain.
Although the larger investment houses have relocated their operations in backup locations outside the financial district, others struggled to get their offices up and running.
Shares of AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines, plummeted $12.50, or 42 percent, to $17.20 in early trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares of UAL Corp., the parent of United, dropped $12.62, or 40 percent, to $18.20 on the NYSE, where Delta plunged $17.15, or 46 percent, to $20.10 a share.
US Airways Group shares were down $5.13, or 44 percent to $6.49, while those of Southwest Airlines slipped $5.78, or 31 percent, to $11.74 -- both on the NYSE.
Northwest Airlines fell $7.07 to $12.55 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Travelocity.com, an Internet travel agency, dropped $10.36, or 47 percent, to $11.66 on Nasdaq while its rival Expedia was down $10.28, or 28 percent, at $25.97.
Major carriers have lost some $1 billion in the past week as a result of reduced demand from fearful travelers, extensive losses from a two-day aviation shutdown after the attacks and higher expenses from tough new security requirements.
American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United have announced severe scheduling cutbacks. Delta expects to fly 75 percent of its normal schedule, while American, Continental, Northwest and United plan to operate at 80 percent of their normal schedules.
The industry was already struggling under a large debt burden and rising costs of labor and fuel, as revenues from business fliers dropped alongside the nation's economic performance.