BY MICHAEL A. TERPAK
On the morning of September 11, members of the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department (FDJC) became involved in three major operations directly related to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). Since Jersey City is the closest and largest city to New York’s lower Manhattan, the FDJC initially sent a mutual-aid assignment to the WTC at the official request of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey emergency services. Within minutes of the towers’ collapses, Jersey City’s waterfront became a large triage, treatment, and transportation site for many injured civilians, firefighters, and police officers who sought help from the water’s edge of Lower Manhattan. Within hours of the collapses, the FDJC was aggressively involved with the Port Authority and the Jersey City Police Department Emergency Service units in an underground rescue attempt to the WTC through the PATH train tunnels that extended under the Hudson River.
The WTC was located on the southern tip of the Manhattan Island. After the towers’ collapses, many sought help along Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront. Numerous watercraft that use the harbor daily (e.g., fireboats, ferries, tugboats, and personal watercraft) provided assistance, pulling up to the southwest tip of Manhattan, taking on the injured from the shore and those who had jumped into the water. They transported them to the closest safe haven, which was directly across the river in Jersey City.
As events quickly unfolded, Jersey City fire officials called in all off-duty members. To handle the increasing number of tasks, fire department resources were initially reorganized into nine task forces, including a special operations task force for the PATH train tunnel rescue attempt, a mutual-aid task force, two hazardous material decon sites at the Exchange Place piers and Liberty State Park along the waterfront, and a complement of command and communications staff to handle the increasing workload within the city. I was the chief officer assigned to coordinate the fire department resources operating along Jersey City’s waterfront.
Jersey City’s Exchange Place piers were the closest and quickly became the busiest triage site along the New Jersey waterfront. About 2,000 patients were processed there. A second, larger triage site was established at Liberty State Park (just south of the piers) for what was initially anticipated to be tens of thousands of injured. Located at the southern end of Jersey City, the Liberty State Park triage site developed into a massive operation with local, state, and federal officials preparing for the worst. Although still in close proximity to lower Manhattan, but farther south than the Exchange Place piers, the park was the more logical place for staging the numerous emergency vehicles and aircraft summoned to the area. As the resources were assembled and organized from the different agencies, Liberty State Park gradually developed into a command and control center for the state’s efforts.
As state officials organized resources in the park, Jersey City’s EMS and fire departments were busy decontaminating, triaging, and treating the injured at Exchange Place. Their quick organization and efforts at this site proved to be the most beneficial since the Exchange Place piers would remain the primary triage and supply site throughout the incident. As large and extensive as the Liberty State Park operation became, it received only a few of the thousands of injured brought to Jersey City. The reasons for this were that the Exchange Place piers were closer to Manhattan and, therefore, a shorter boat ride for the injured; they could accommodate boats requiring a deeper draft than the Liberty State Park piers (designed primarily to accommodate jet watercraft and other shallow-draft vessels); and the large numbers of injured anticipated did not materialize. The removal of the thousands from New York to New Jersey occurred in the incident’s first few hours.
(1) The injured arriving at the Exchange Place piers in Jersey City. The South Tower had already collapsed. (Photos by Ron Jeffers).
These piers eventually became the primary spot for FDJC operations. Boatloads of injured were arriving directly from Lower Manhattan, and the Exchange Place PATH train station was the staging area for the WTC train tunnel rescue effort. The train tunnel extended directly under the Hudson River to the lower concourse of the World Trade Center. We focused a significant portion of our energies here.
The Exchange Place operations required a number of resources to handle the numerous tasks: (1) Assist Jersey City EMS in triaging, treating, and transporting thousands of individuals; (2) a hazardous-materials decontamination site on the pier for civilians, police officers, and firefighters as they were removed from the incoming boats; (3) the PATH train tunnel rescue effort; and (4) designation of a victim-tracking coordinator for incoming Fire Department of New York (FDNY) personnel.
The FDJC took on the last responsibility of specifically identifying and tracking any FDNY members who arrived in Jersey City. We talked to injured firefighters face-to-face; determined their names, company designations, badge numbers, and other personal identification; and provided FDNY with a list of their members in New Jersey and the hospitals to which they were transported. Victims went to various area hospitals, and the most critical patients went to Jersey City Medical Center. An FDJC member hand-delivered this information to the FDNY command post. This information proved extremely valuable, especially during the first few hours of the incident as FDNY attempted to account for missing personnel.
OPERATIONS WIND DOWN
(2) Triage begins on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
As the day went on, the numbers of the incoming injured decreased, and we used the boats to bring to Manhattan ice, drinks, and food for personnel working at Ground Zero. Later, the boats were also sent to the other Manhattan staging sites accessible only by water. Fire and police department personnel staffed this operation initially; later, civilian volunteers took over this effort.
A number of Jersey City firefighters were assigned as liaisons to the families of FDNY firefighters in the city’s hospitals. On September 11, this involved setting up meals and designating Jersey City fire stations at which the families could gather and rest. This later included rooms and lounges within the Jersey City Medical Center, where many of the more seriously injured were being treated. As the days and the weeks wore on, the FDJC also assisted FDNY in transporting family members to and from the hospitals.
(3) FDJC personnel assist FDNY EMTs.
Frustration. As heavily involved as we were with events of September 11, many of us wanted to do more. Many firefighters were recalled and assigned to handle the normal daily fire/rescue activity. Many were frustrated at not being able to participate in the WTC-related efforts.
Freelancing. This proved to be a major problem. A few hours into the operation, Jersey City fire dispatchers relayed an FDNY request specifically asking for help to prevent any additional firefighters from entering Manhattan from New Jersey. We assured them that no one was entering from the access points we controlled, but our control was limited. Even with the limited access areas we controlled, this was at times difficult to monitor. Firefighters from different cities and states tried to board the triage/supply boats. It was difficult to look these individuals in the face and turn them back, but it was extremely important for us to understand the magnitude of the WTC operations and to assist New York with its accountability by maintaining as much control as possible on our side of the Hudson River.
(4) FDNY firefighters being treated in Jersey City.
It is critical that we learn from the events of September 11 so we can better prepare for the next major event. From operational and support activities to overall management, we must continually review, evaluate, and revise our procedures to improve our actions in the future. We must constantly address this part of our business.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Jersey City Fire Dispatcher Joe Lovero, who lost his life at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
MICHAEL A. TERPAK is a 26-year veteran of the fire service, serving the past 21 years with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, where he is battalion chief with the 2nd Battalion. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire safety administration from the New Jersey City University. Terpak lectures frequently on fire service topics and tutors firefighters and fire officers preparing for promotional exams. He is the author of Fireground Size-Up (Fire Engineering, 2002).