Firefighting

BELOW-GRADE SEARCH

BY GERALD.R. TRACY

Soon after the collapse, sector commands were established at the southwest portion of the site and the east. Chief Peter Hayden established a west sector and was located in the area of West Street and Liberty Street; this would be the southwest portion of the site. Chief Thomas Haring was located on Church Street on the east.

More chiefs were needed at the collapse site to supervise the organization and safety of the tremendous search and rescue operation. I proceeded south down West Street, walking through three to four inches of gray dust and paper debris. Many firefighters who had survived both collapses and were now physically exhausted from the initial escape and what searches they could perform sat along the sidewalks and on raised retaining walls for flower gardens.

I came upon two firefighters who had responded with Squad 18, my former company, that morning; they had survived the collapse because they were attempting to procure SCBA to proceed up into the tower. They were physically and emotionally spent.

I obtained a hand-held radio from a firefighter who worked in Special Operations Command. He had barely escaped the collapse of the North Tower.

Joe Downey, the captain of Squad 18, and I set out with three more members of Squad 18 to assist in the ongoing effort of search and rescue. We made our way across the debris to West Street and Liberty Street. Chief Hayden was on top of a delivery truck with Battalion Chief William Siegel of SOC. Hayden was organizing the search efforts in this sector. We informed him that we would attempt to locate the last command post before the collapse of the North Tower. Our hope was to find Deputy Chief of Special Operations Command Ray Downey, Joe’s dad.

Working toward his last reported location, we passed apparatus in the street that had been crushed by the heavy steel of the exterior walls. Searchers were marking with traffic cones the locations of members crushed under the apparatus. Heavy equipment was needed to lift the steel and apparatus. When we came to the location of what had been the command post, other members had already found the remains of at least five members and were identifying the locations with orange cones. Ray Downey was not among them. Then we separated. Joe continued the search for his dad. I joined a team of firefighters from Brooklyn, and we began to search for and enter any voids that we could find.

We ventured out onto some cantilevered beams to access the subfloors of what was 6 World Trade Center. We entered a floor that was two levels down from street level; it was a parking garage. The floor was covered with inches of dust and no footprints. That would indicate no searchers had entered this area yet and no survivors had walked through after the collapse. With few flashlights and no search ropes, we found a stairwell and hoped to access others floors and areas. We were only able to ascend two more floors before we encountered the fractured walls of cement block and collapsed debris, which blocked our way. We then descended to the lower level. These lower floors accommodated additional parking areas, utility, storage, and maintenance worker rooms. Our efforts yielded no one alive or dead.

Since we had no search ropes, we used our voices as a means of directional sounding back to our access points. It was disturbing searching these below-grade areas, especially when we heard loud noises of what sounded like the pile shifting and settling. We climbed back out of this area and across those same cantilevered beams into the vast space of littered steel on West Street. Now many more firefighters were involved in the search.

I came across Battalion Chief Robert Turner of 46 Battalion. He suggested that we organize the search in that area. We lined up approximately 40 firefighters to begin a methodical search forward toward the pile of the North Tower and the Marriott Hotel. That effort continued into the afternoon until personnel were ordered to leave the pile because of the collapse threat of 7 WTC. By now, it was involved with fire on many floors, which was evident from the thick smoke pouring from almost every window on the south side of the building.

It took some time to get everyone’s attention because of the lack of radios and means of communicating, but we were able to have all the searchers leave the pile and stage at a safe distance from the expected collapse zone. A portion of the southwest corner of 7 WTC was gouged from the collapse of the North Tower. The building was capable of a lean-over collapse, which would have brought it down in the direction of 6 WTC and the pile of the North Tower. We did not wish to incur any more FDNY casualties—the site was dangerous enough.

The members took shelter wherever it was deemed safe. I walked back to Vesey Street south of West Street. Chief Frank Fellini, a citywide tour commander, was in command of operations at this location. Then the anticipated collapse occurred. The building fell straight down as if its foundation were removed. Another cloud of dust and debris filled the air and began to settle.

We then moved toward the intersection of West and Vesey streets, and a firefighter who responded with one of the SOC support vehicles picked up an American flag that had blown down to the street from an upper floor of 7 WTC. He climbed a street lamp at that intersection and affixed the flagpole to it. As the flag waved in the light wind, grown men began to cry.

Following the collapse of 7 WTC, I worked on establishing a water supply to the West and Vesey operations sector. A marine unit located at a bulkhead at the end of Vesey Street relayed water to Engine 40, which was two blocks from West Street. Numerous firefighters assisted in laying a five-inch supply line from Engine 40 to this sector. That task was difficult: Crushed and abandon vehicles were being removed from this area so that heavy equipment could clear the damaged and collapsed structures in the days and weeks ahead. The water pressure in the street mains was extremely low: Much of the system had been fractured when the streets caved in at least seven levels into the bowels of the complex along West Street.

It took some time, but we established a water supply. A tower ladder was set up to operate on the new pile created by the collapse of 7 WTC. Handlines were stretched in different directions to extinguish the still-burning spot fires.

More teams were needed on the piles of the two towers. Some of the teams transported “roll-ups,” our high-rise hose packs, into the Financial Center buildings. There they connected and stretched long hoselays from the standpipe systems out onto the pile to extinguish fires burning there. The task was very demanding and arduous. It was also frustrating that because many of these fires were burning so deep within the pile, all we succeeded in doing was to create steam, which mixed with the thick, acrid smoke.

Darkness fell, and emergency lighting equipment illuminated the site and cast shadows. The scene was eerie: silhouetted firefighters and other emergency workers against the backdrop of glowing fires burning and smoke drifting from the piles. A Hollywood movie set couldn’t come close to replicating the destruction.

Deputy Chief Nick Visconti asked me to join him at the collapse pile in front of the Marriott Hotel. Search teams were locating victims’ remains, and I was to oversee the safety aspect. So many operations involving hundreds of emergency workers were being conducted simultaneously that it was becoming difficult to manage any one effort. I was in awe of the steadiness of these chiefs, who were my superiors. I knew that I was becoming physically spent and my emotions were beginning to manifest, but they kept busy with the immediate tasks in the wake of their own emotions.

GERALD R. TRACY is a battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), assigned to Brooklyn’s 38th Battalion. He was formerly the unit commander of FDNY Squad 18. He is an instructor for the department’s Captain’s Development Course and Firefighters Professional Development Program and was one of the developers of the Back to Basics training course. He lectures extensively on various topics, including strategy and tactics in high-rise structures, multiple dwellings, hotels, and private dwellings. He was a lead instructor for the FDIC 2000 H.O.T. evolution “Engine Company Operations: Standpipes.”