BY WILLIAM C. PETERS
Personnel working in the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department (FDJC) headquarters were eyewitnesses to the horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) twin towers on 9-11. Jersey City is located on the western bank of the Hudson River, immediately across from New York City and is directly connected to lower Manhattan by the Holland Tunnel and to the base of the WTC by the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) subway tunnel. Most people are not aware that Jersey City is closer physically to the borough of Manhattan than the four other New York City boroughs.
JERSEY CITY: A TERRORIST ATTRACTION
The FDJC has a standing mutual-aid agreement with New York City and fully expected to be called to help in the WTC disaster.
Authorities that day believed that more acts of terrorism could occur in New York City and Jersey City, because of our close proximity. Several factors make Jersey City a potential target for terrorists.
•It is the base facility for many financial institutions in the United States. Its waterfront includes more than 50 high-rise buildings, which are the back-room operations for many Wall Street firms.
•Jersey City’s proximity to New York City.
•Jersey City has a history of terrorist activities. It was the home of the main perpetrator of the bombing of the WTC in 1993. In fact, the bomb used in 1993 was constructed in Jersey City. Terrorists have been identified as living in the city.
DEPARTMENT ACTIVITIES ON 9-11
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the unimaginable scene of disaster was clearly visible from fire headquarters. Realizing the seriousness of the events that were unfolding, Fire Chief Frederick G. Eggers instituted a departmentwide recall of all fire department personnel to protect the residents of Jersey City and to aid New York City. The recall was highly successful; many members reported to their duty stations on learning of the attack from television and radio.
All the department’s apparatus were assigned a minimum of one captain and four firefighters instead of the usual three firefighters and one captain. FDJC has 16 engine companies, nine ladder companies, one heavy rescue company, one combination mask service unit/safety officer, four battalion chiefs, and one deputy chief on duty. Personnel were assigned to specialized units (hazardous-materials and decon/rehab units). These units do not have dedicated staffing but are staffed by companies in the station when the units are needed.
The deputy chief and all chief officers were assigned a firefighter/technician to assist with administering the incident command system so the chiefs could concentrate on fire/rescue problems. The deputy chief usually has an aide; the battalion chiefs do not.
STATE OF EMERGENCY DECLARED
Approximately 30 minutes after the start of the attack, Jersey City Mayor Glen Cunningham declared a state of emergency in Jersey City and ordered the activation of the city’s emergency operations center.
As recalled personnel arrived at the fire stations, the department shifted to task force operations, as outlined in the standard operating practice manual.
A task force is defined as ” … a combination of resources with communications capability under the supervision of a task force commander. [The commander has varied functions and is assigned to cover a wide range of situations. Task forces, when practical, shall be stationed at one location and respond as a single entity.]”
Each task force was assigned a minimum of two engine companies, one ladder company, and a battalion chief to serve as the task force commander. Task force operations are better suited to a major emergency situation: Multiple units are required to accomplish each assigned task, and direct supervision is provided.
Ultimately, nine task forces were operating.
CAUGHT IN THE TOWER COLLAPSE
Approximately 15 minutes after the first plane struck the WTC, the Port Authority Police contacted the FDJC dispatch office and requested that the Mask Service Unit (MSU) respond to the site to supply breathing air and spare cylinders for firefighters and police.
The MSU and Battalion 3 staged at Vesey and West streets and set up to fill breathing air cylinders.
Shortly after their arrival, the apparatus and personnel were caught in the collapse of the South Tower, in which FDJC civilian dispatcher Joseph Lovero was killed and the MSU apparatus was damaged. All responders fled for their lives.
After the collapse, they returned and set up a makeshift decontamination station using hoselines to shower the victims as they made their way out of the WTC site.
Approximately one hour after the two towers collapsed, FDJC received a request for gloves, dust masks, and medical supplies. All available supplies were sent, along with a battalion chief to coordinate aid at the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) command post.
Approximately three hours after the collapse, the Jersey City battalion chief at the command post relayed a request from the FDNY incident commander for a strike team consisting of our heavy rescue company, our squad company, a ladder company, two engine companies, and a chief officer.
A number of FDJC members are part of the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Immediately after the attack, team members were summoned and deployed to NYC to partake in the rescue and recovery efforts.
The fire station below fire headquarters, which is only two blocks from the Hudson River, was inundated with civilians, who boarded boats to flee the WTC attack and came to the Newport Boat Club. Many of these people were wandering around in shock, not knowing where they were or how they were going to get home.
When the victims began arriving, covered in soot and dirt and in need of medical attention, fire department members immediately set up decontamination, rehabilitation, and triage areas to assist them. While some members were setting up the decon line, others were providing medical attention and organizing supplies.
FDJC civilian employees helped hundreds of victims to call their loved ones to tell them they were safe. Local restaurants provided foods and beverages to aid in the effort.
Because of the number of uniformed casualties transported to the Jersey side for medical treatment, a Jersey City firefighter was assigned to the Jersey City Medical Center to account for personnel taken there. The firefighter assisted in expediting FDNY firefighters’ care and contacting family members. The department prepared a list of casualties being treated at the hospital and faxed it to FDNY. The list was updated periodically.
At approximately 1300 hours the following day, FDNY sent a request through the Jersey City Fire Dispatch Office for a task force to conduct search and rescue operations at the WTC site. Three engine companies, two ladder companies, a heavy rescue company, and two chief officers were dispatched. These units operated until approximately 1900 hours.
The PATH railway system operates trains under the Hudson River from New Jersey to Manhattan. The PATH station at Exchange Place was the boarding location for commuters traveling to the WTC. The WTC station was located on Level B-6 in the basement.
The two tunnels under the river (Tunnels E and F) were flooded at the low point under the river. The PA brought in high-volume pumps to try to remove the water so the train station under the WTC could be searched.
FDJC units were placed on standby to go through the tunnels for a rescue operation after the water was pumped out. Additional diesel pumps were brought in. They merely kept up with the incoming water. Fire department members continuously took carbon monoxide and oxygen readings to ensure the workers were operating in a safe environment.
The haz-mat team—with four-hour rebreathing apparatus, portable boats, and extrication tools—boarded a PATH work train that took them about one-third mile into the tunnel when high CO readings and smoke conditions forced evacuation. After activating the tunnel ventilation fans, a second rescue mission was attempted.
Jersey City Special Operations Chief (Battalion Chief) George Johns, who was the communications officer at the train station platform, picked up a transmission of the impending collapse of 7 World Trade Center, prompting the incident commander to have workers retreat from the tunnel until additional information was received.
Pumping continued throughout the night. The plan was to return the following morning to attempt passage. Water samples were analyzed to determine if the tunnel was taking on river or fresh water. It was found to be fresh water only—from broken water mains, plumbing connections, and firefighting activities on the New York side.
Pumping and air-monitoring operations at the PATH tunnel continued. Fire department members, along with two PATH engineers and a police officer, accessed and shut down five large-diameter valves located in the sub-basement of the Winter Garden Plaza. The valves controlled water from the damaged WTC cooling system; the water was compromising tunnel operations.
The pumping continued in hopes of accessing the WTC lower levels. On September 15, the FDJC safety officer returned to the FDNY command post at Ground Zero. He was told that one of the FEMA teams had accessed the WTC platforms from above, conducted a search, and found no one, dead or alive.
Rescue operations were ended, but fire department haz-mat personnel remained with the PATH engineers to monitor the tunnel environment while their workers continued to remove the water from the flooded tunnels.
WILLIAM C. PETERS is a 27-year veteran of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department and has served the past 15 years as apparatus supervisor, with responsibility for purchasing and maintaining the apparatus fleet. He is a voting member of the NFPA 1901 Apparatus Committee, representing apparatus users. Peters is the author of Fire Apparatus Purchasing Handbook (Fire Engineering, 1994); two chapters on apparatus in The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering, 1995); the instructional video Factory Inspections of New Fire Apparatus (Fire Engineering, 1998); and numerous apparatus-related articles. He is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering and the FDIC and lectures extensively on apparatus purchase and safety issues.