BY PETER HAYDEN
From my office in Lower Manhattan, I heard the plane fly low overhead. I knew it was low, and I knew it was large. The crash shook the entire area. We didn’t know the type of plane, but we knew it was a large commercial plane and there had to be a lot of jet fuel involved.
I arrived a few minutes after Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer. He briefed me on conditions, and I assumed command of the incident.
Early on we attempted to determine if there were working elevators in the building. Port Authority building personnel and our FDNY unit designated as the elevator control team worked to determine if any elevators were operational. The building intercom system was used to communicate with occupants who might be trapped in elevators. There were at least 12 cars with people trapped on various floors. The highest elevator with trapped occupants I’m aware of was on the 71st floor. Port Authority reported that there were no operational elevators. Later on, we found that one elevator operated to the 16th floor; I’m not sure if it was used. Also later on, an elevator door opened and people came out, calmly, and exited the building.
Within minutes of our arrival, we tested the communications system. Two battalion chiefs were designated to determine if the building’s repeater system was working. The test result was negative. We also tried to use Battalion 1’s car repeater, but the vehicle was damaged from debris, and the people jumping to their deaths from the upper floors created a very unsafe situation for anyone working outside. So we were limited to the fire department portable radio command and tactical channels that operated in the 150 MHz range. We used the primary command channel and one tactical channel in the North Tower. Later on, South Tower command used a secondary command channel and another tactical channel. The fire safety directors in the North Tower attempted to determine whether the internal public address system was operational. I do not believe it was, or it was of no consequence.
So we were at a distinct disadvantage. Elevator inoperability, plus communications difficulties, plus several floors involved in heavy fire required that we focus our strategy on search and rescue and evacuation operations, using the stairwells as our access. Our assignments were given based on numerous reports of burned people, reports of people in wheelchairs—to rescue distressed victims. Absent specific distress calls, we assigned battalion chiefs over a range of four to five floors with companies to search those floors.
We did not assign any engine companies to attack the fire. Some companies took up hoseloads, but we had multiple floors on fire very high up. We thought the standpipe and sprinkler systems probably were destroyed at those levels. Our focus was not on firefighting.
I assigned a battalion chief to be in charge of firefighter accountability at the three stairwell locations and record all units going up into the towers.
We knew that radio communications over the tactical channel would be difficult in the tower. As in the bombing in 1993, runners were used to relay critical messages between officers when it was possible to do so.
Assistant Chief Joseph Callan, citywide tour commander, relieved me as the incident commander on his arrival. However, I continued to function in the North Tower as the operations officer. Early into the operation, the command post was moved across the street on West Street. But the North Tower operations post was maintained in the lobby.
It was obvious that we were having a problem with incoming units either not knowing or not reporting to the staging area that had been set up near the command post on West Street; they reported instead directly to the forward operations lobby command in the North Tower. Once they arrived in the North Tower lobby, they were given assignments—they weren’t going past Lobby Command without assignment. After the second crash, it’s possible that units who were supposed to report to the South Tower deployed into the North Tower, but I don’t recall any units that had been sent to the South Tower reporting to the North Tower. We didn’t have more units than we wanted in the North Tower.
Prior to the second plane crash, I personally gave the order to Port Authority personnel to evacuate the South Tower. I assumed that a large number of occupants were evacuating that tower because of the previous attack in 1993. We were told that the evacuation was in progress in World Trade Center buildings 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Thousands of people were evacuating the North Tower in the minutes following the crash. We tried to keep the lobby as clear as possible during evacuation. Port Authority personnel were operating at the mezzanine level at the bottom of the stair tower that terminated at that level, directing evacuees down to the street. It was determined that the main entrance point at ground level on West Street was not a good place to bring people out, given the hazards there, so FDNY and Port Authority personnel directed them out through less hazardous avenues.
The second plane hit. We continued in search and evacuation mode. We still had a steady flow of people coming down the stairs the entire time, and we were still getting reports of trapped people. As long as that was happening, as long as we were getting distress calls, we were going to continue to operate. We had reports that our personnel had made it up into the North Tower as high as the 60th floor. Some members from Ladder Company 3 made it up to the 55th floor. They were with a lot of burned people and were trying to get them down the stairs. They didn’t make it out.
The possibility of collapse was discussed, but I don’t think anyone envisioned total collapse. We envisioned partial collapse of upper floors, not a cataclysmic collapse. I was very conscious of the flow of victims the entire time I operated inside the North Tower. At no time during the event did I receive any indication that we had done all we could do in terms of rescue and removal. There were some reports that prior to the collapse, the number of evacuees from the building had dwindled to a “trickle.” That was not my experience. Certainly, fewer people were coming from the stairwells in the lobby and the mezzanine than when I first got there, but many people still were being brought down at the time of the collapse of the South Tower.
Soon after, a representative from the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) ar-rived at Lobby Command with an unconfirmed report of another plane coming in. We made a decision at that time to call the firefighters back down. We transmitted that message over the portable radio, but transmissions were ineffective and sporadic. It was only a few minutes before we determined the report was false—it was one of our own military planes—so we continued with the evacuation operation.
The building shook about 45 minutes into the operation. The glass in the large lobby windows broke out. None of us in the North Tower lobby realized at the time that the South Tower had collapsed. We weren’t sure what had happened, but we knew it was a significant event. We ordered all firefighters to evacuate the building.
Father Mychal Judge was with us in the lobby, praying. He died in the North lobby during the collapse of the South Tower. We carried him out of the building and turned him over to members of FDNY EMS and others, who took him to a nearby church and laid his body on the altar.
Outside, it was total darkness. Firefighters were dead on the street. We realized the South Tower had fallen. I went to West and Vesey, where I met a number of officers who were regrouping. Assistant Chief Sal Cassano and I conferred about the evacuation of the North Tower. At the time we weren’t sure if everyone had heard the evacuation order, so we kept making radio calls to evacuate while we walked to the incident command post farther down on West Street.
I never made it to the command post before the North Tower collapsed. I knew what it was immediately. I crawled underneath a pumper. Somehow, I survived.
I was with Chief Cassano. It was time to regroup: Our command post had been destroyed; we realized we had lost many of our command staff and we didn’t know how many others, but we knew it was many.
We sectored the site in quarters based mostly on the geographic boundaries of the collapse—in particular, the north-south separation caused by the collapse of the north footbridge. I operated at that time near Liberty and West streets, from which I had a very good view of north, south, and the Marriott. Firefighters on recall and others who had been at the site but were not injured reported in; we grouped them into search and rescue teams. A lot of fires were burning, including a fourth alarm on 90 West, a 40-story building of heavy, “old-type” high-rise construction that was, at the time, vacant and under renovation. It had a lot of openings, so fire from the collapse readily exposed it. The officers and firefighters did a great job of containing the fires and preventing them from jumping the street. By 12:30 p.m., we had established a water supply by drafting from the fireboat Harvey out of the Hudson River. There were car fires, fires in the piles, and just up the block a fire in the Bankers Trust Building, a large high-rise, that we initially intended to confine but eventually extinguished.
Our surface searches proved negative; we did not find any firefighters alive. We concentrated on the area near the South Tower, where many firefighters had staged. Operations were difficult and hazardous. We were concerned about additional collapses, and we had no engineers to make assessments. The Marriott looked like it was going to collapse further. 7 World Trade Center looked like it was going to collapse.
Fortunately, we did not sustain additional serious injuries despite aggressive operations. We gained control of the postcollapse search and rescue effort readily and quickly. We didn’t have unit integrity because many of the firefighters had been killed and the recall situation didn’t present us with preintegrated units in many cases. We had communications problems at this stage—we need better equipment—but each sector was well-organized and operating with experienced members in a very short time.
We had a few hundred firefighters within the Liberty and West command sector. Span of control of one company officer to four or five firefighters and one battalion chief per five companies was maintained.
I operated as sector commander for the first 48 hours. Within this time we had formed an FDNY USAR task force that consisted of 1,250 members. Chief Frank Cruthers was designated the incident commander, and I was designated as his executive.
For the first several days, we were concerned with the stability of surrounding buildings, but engineer assessments were coordinated and accomplished. Engineers assessed voids before we allowed firefighters to enter. We positioned a safety officer at every void search and completed hundreds of void searches without serious injuries.
We searched all buildings within the perimeter of the site. All buildings were marked as the searches were completed. It took more than a week to finish secondary searches of all buildings within a specifically defined site perimeter.
It was a monumental effort involving a tremendous number of agencies. All elements of the incident command system—operations, logistics, planning, finance, and so on—came into play. It was something that this city had never seen. We had twice daily interagency meetings with as many as 60 different agencies. In the morning, we reviewed the accomplishments of the past 24 hours, established an action plan for the next 24 hours, and reviewed safety procedures. At 5 p.m., the agencies would reconvene to establish the pretext for the next day’s plan and coordinate what was necessary.
The logistics portion was enormous. Deputy Chief Charles Blaich handled this from our end. Battalion Chief Pfeifer handled the planning section, which also was enormous, only a piece of which included providing the documentation for every victim recovery.
I took over from Chief Cruthers as the overall incident commander for the World Trade Center recovery effort in mid-October 2001 and operated in that capacity until mid-March 2002.
At any fire, you have to conduct a risk assessment. Unfortunately, now—in the modern fire service—part of that assessment has to be for terrorism. A commander has to ask himself, Has the damage been done by a plane, a bomb? What are the size and volume of fire and, if it’s a high-rise, should we be in there? It’s a difficult risk assessment.
We have to give clear and specific roles and responsibilities to the upper-level fire department people; in large-scale or complex operations, that has to be done in conjunction with the deployment of the Fire Operations Center (the notification desk at Headquarters, from which major operations could be run in the future; it is not set up to do so yet).
We need to expand the ICS and develop interoperability with all other agencies that will respond with us to a major incident. The OEM is the coordinating agency; if we need another agency to assist at a command level, we need to run that through OEM. All the major agencies should have a representative at the command post. One of the themes to come out of this incident is greater communication among agencies. At this incident, a number of agencies did not send representatives to the incident command post. Our radios do not let us communicate with other agencies—they are point-to-point. Currently, any communications with other agencies must be face-to-face. It’s recognized by all city agencies involved that there is a great need for better communications.
We lost our command boards in the collapse. The fire department is researching existing technology for electronic command boards with redundancy and memory and the ability to transmit information to the Fire Operations Center. It needs to track assignments and assist in personnel accountability. We’re looking at a number of software programs. We’re looking at some prototypes. And we have solid recommendations for expanding and improving the Fire Operations Center—to enhance the technology; include a live video feed from the center to the field; and other recommendations, including the officers and personnel to staff it.
We’re going to put something out to our officers on the importance of riding only with on-duty personnel. We are going to stress that at division-level conferences. We want to be careful about how we approach this, but it needs to be done for accountability.
I think there has to be a reevaluation of these types of buildings. The engineers patted themselves on the back with regard to their calculating the towers’ ability to withstand a plane crash, but they did not consider that jet fuel would be a big factor. They protected the core of the building with gypsum board; so naturally the impact destroyed the integrity of the core and the stairs, preventing people above the fire from exiting.
The codes we have now account for evacuation of only a few floors above and below the fire. We need to consider full and total evacuation into the building equation. It took almost two hours to evacuate the World Trade Center in 1993. All that has to be reevaluated by the building industry.
And firefighters need to communicate within these high-rise buildings. I think every fire department and city around the country should be looking at their repeater systems and their ability to communicate in large buildings.
We have to look at our operational preparedness: how we handled the fire that day, our ability to maintain citywide coverage for large events, mutual-aid agreements, communications technology, interagency coordination, command system, planning for disasters, enhancement and support of special operations units, training for all firefighters—especially special operations support functions—and family notifications. I guarantee that no fire department in the country is ready to handle the family support function for mass casualties involving firefighters. And that goes for firefighter counseling as well. I think we were a little slow to get started, but we did catch up.
Even with all that, we should remind ourselves that an estimated 20,000 people were safely evacuated from the World Trade Center complex that morning and that FDNY firefighters were responsible for many of them. n
There were numerous discussions in the lobby. The chief of safety came in. He discussed his concern about the collapse. His advice to us was to let the building just burn U get the people down and get out. We said that’s exactly what we’re planning to do. He said, “O.K., do you want to get some of the apparatus moved back?” I don’t think that was ever accomplished.
I really didn’t get involved with that because early on we realized that a number of the companies were coming in and were not reporting to any staging area we established. So we were losing some control of the companies coming in.—Deputy Chief Peter Hayden of First Division, The New York Times, July 5, 2002
Peter Hayden is a deputy assistant chief and a 34-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, serving in many capacities, including chief of safety from 1995 to 1997. He was the commander of Division 1 at the time of the World Trade Center Disaster.
There were also some communication problems later on with companies coming in, units responding to the second alarm after the other plane hit. They weren’t sure which was the North Tower and which was the South Tower. So that became confusing. Of course, off-duty members were coming in, and they were reporting directly upstairs. So at one point in time—I want to say that Chief McGovern was still in the lobby—we had to account for everybody that was going upstairs. It became a critical issue.—Deputy Chief Peter Hayden of First Division, The New York Times, July 5, 2002
We discussed the operations with Chief Downey, and that continued for a while. We were making a concerted effort to get the elevators down and answering all the distress calls. We were working with the engineers.
We were working the intercom in the lobby between the elevators, trying to get an idea what floors they were on. The engineers told us we have people on this floor, that floor, the 66th floor, the 71st floor, stuck in the elevators. We answered as many of the distress calls as we could.
We concentrated on trying to get some type of handline hardware communications. We attempted the repeater system. The repeater system was not in service U. So we were at a distinct disadvantage because we had none of the building systems to work with.—Deputy Chief Peter Hayden of First Division, The New York Times, July 5, 2002
Throughout, of course, there were communication problems. All we had to rely on was portable radio communications. Once you go up several floors in the towers there, you have poor portable radio communications, and that’s all we had. We continued with the evacuations, thousands of people coming down the stairs; answering the distress calls; assigning the companies as they came in.—Deputy Chief Peter Hayden of First Division, The New York Times, July 5, 2002
The latest report—the last report we had from anybody at all—was that there were people heading up around the 48th floor. That was several minutes prior to this collapse. So we had people as high as the 50th floor while we had communications. I think that’s about as far up as anybody got. We were calling people down on a number of occasions, but we weren’t getting—except for the lower floors—companies coming down; they weren’t coming down. They were being directed north.—Deputy Chief Peter Hayden of First Division, The New York Times, July 5, 2002
There was awareness there that certainly this was a serious operation. Certainly, the awareness was there of the possibility of collapse.—Deputy Chief Peter Hayden of First Division, The New York Times, July 5, 2002
“In the initial stages, it wasn’t chaotic. It was under control, very calm.”—Chief Peter Hayden, deputy chief of Division 1 at the time of the WTC attacks. “Before the Towers Fell, Fire Department Fought Chaos,” Jim Sawyer, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2002
When the second plane hit 2 World Trade Center (WTC), the South Tower, a second command center was set up in that lobby. The chief had already been discussing the stability of 1 WTC. “The potential and the reality of a collapse were discussed early on,” Chief Hayden said. “But we were at a level of commitment. We also received numerous distress calls. We realized we had a lot of dying and fire up there.”—“Before the Towers Fell, Fire Department Fought Chaos,” Jim Sawyer, The New York Times, Jan. 30, 2002