The second plane removed all doubt that this was an accident. I took my response car from home to Lower Manhattan and walked north to the World Trade Center. I arrived at Albany and West streets, one block south of the South Tower, at about 9:45 a.m. I stopped to give directions to some incoming fire units.

I arrived at the south crosswalk across West Street, where I had a view of both the south and west sides of the South Tower, when I looked up and saw a tremendous amount of material project horizontally from about the roof line. It appeared to be an explosion.

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At the time, I was on the radio with Chief Peter Ganci, and I asked him if he wanted me to come to the command post on West Street. He said yes, but I didn’t get past the south crosswalk before the collapse. I realized that I saw the initial compression from the collapse.

I was with two other fire officers. We ran west on Albany Street as it began to collapse, far enough so that the World Financial Center (WFC) building would shield us. A black cloud pushed us down the street, and a storm of papers followed it. I dove alongside a car on the north side of Albany Street and lay there waiting to see if we would live or die.

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My first thought when the first collapse happened was that we could have lost 100 firefighters. It was later I realized I was way off. I just wouldn’t allow myself to think of 300.

Firefighters were injured in the immediate area. We got them together with some EMS personnel to get them treated. I reestablished contact with Chief Ganci and directed some noninjured firefighters to perform a surface search of the collapse debris of what had been the South Tower. Some of the firefighters had ideas as to where people had been.

Chief Ganci ordered me to head north to West and Vesey streets. Burning vehicles were visible everywhere in a tremendous black cloud of dust that had settled over the area. I was familiar with some of the buildings on West Street. I knew that 2 World Financial Center had an entrance that would lead me through the Winter Garden building and out 3 WFC, close to the command post. I was in the Financial Center building when I heard the second collapse. I never heard Chief Ganci’s voice again.

After a time—I don’t know how long—I moved back out on West Street, where some personnel informed me that the command post had been moved up to West and Chambers streets, a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. I went there. I didn’t know who else was alive; I didn’t know how many senior staff chiefs were left. I made it to West and Chambers to find Chief Joseph Callan, Chief Al Turi, and Chief Frank Fellini, who was functioning at that point as the incident commander. They informed me that Chief Ganci had been killed, Chief Sal Cassano had been taken to the hospital, and Chief Dan Nigro was missing. Fellini turned command over to me, and I designated him as the operations officer and sent him back down to the site and arranged for him to communicate with me for whatever he needed.

I think, when looking at the early stages of postcollapse command, we have to realize that any of us who were there at the time of the collapses were most likely operating at some level of shock. Basically, the staff chiefs that we had were either dead or in shock, other than the few who arrived after the collapse. A couple of years ago, there were more staff chiefs. In this instance, ideally, a new platoon of staff chiefs would have been available to come up to us on the scene and say, “Brief us and we’re taking over.” So the demands on us were extraordinary. Our whole program escalation of command is based on the chief at the next level coming to an incident and looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes, not having been involved in the current strategy and not having been directly affected by conditions—in a case like this, hopefully, this chief would be more ready to take an objective look, to reassess, to redeploy, and to reinforce. But we didn’t have the number of people we needed at that level in the department that day.

The north walkway had collapsed onto the street. It was a major impediment to operations. West Street was the key, and the bridge was blocking it. The debris partitioned off the campus into several separate areas. There’s been a lot of talk about chaos, and certainly conditions were chaotic; but in each of these separate areas, the senior members had assumed command and, sometimes using runners to communicate, reestablished one operation under one command structure. At one point early on, Dispatch made the assumption from radio traffic that four separate command posts were operating independently, but I corrected that.

I set up a staging area just north of the command post with Battalion Chief Joe Nardone in charge. We put together strike teams of officers and firefighters that would report in to operations for duty.

By this time, other city agencies had begun to regroup and mobilize their efforts as well, and we were getting tremendous assistance from them, including lots of heavy equipment in a short time to clear the north bridge that was making it difficult to move resources in and out of the site.

Just minutes after the second collapse, I met with representatives from the city’s Office of Emergency Management and requested that they make the calls necessary for federal disaster assistance teams. I didn’t know about the incident management teams (IMTs)—federal incident overhead teams of about 30 members from the Department of Forestry, used mostly for wildland fire campaigns, who understand the planning needs for a long-term operation. Once they arrived, the IMT people led us through our planning session and interagency meetings and brought with them a template for our incident action plans. Some people in the fire service might consider it heresy; but, from my perspective, the most valuable assistance we got was from those people. The federally mobilized operational people did a great job, but an urban fire department—and you can go back through our history from the 1960s to the 1980s, when we experienced such a tremendous fire activity and fire losses—typically measures the duration of its incidents in hours, or maybe a couple of days. To a great extent, the incident commander retains the typical functions of the incident command system instead of their being formally designated and staffed for a long time. Generally, your planning is the fireground standard operating procedures, size-up, and actions the subordinate chief decides at the scene. This was completely different. At any rate, the IMT is as absolutely committed to the planning function as the firefighter is to his operations function. I told one of the representatives that if someone had said prior to 9-11 that we would have this magnitude of a disaster and that the forest service would bail us out, I would have said, “You’re nuts.” And we have FEMA to thank for pointing us in that direction.

Besides supplemental agency resources, communications, operational command sectors, task force deployment, and site resource transport, we had other pressing issues that dictated our strategy. These included establishing a formal and detailed collapse rescue plan, medical operations, firefighting operations, and the stability of adjacent or peripheral structures. This was much more than a large search and rescue operation.

Of primary importance early on in the operation was the structural condition of 7 World Trade Center. Assistant Chief Frank Fellini had been approached by several chiefs who were concerned about its stability. It had been heavily damaged in the collapse and was well-involved in fire. Chief Fellini had looked at it and described to us some damage to its south side; he felt that structural components of the building had been comprised.

So when Chief Dan Nigro arrived at the command post, he convened a meeting of staff chiefs, and this was a major subject of the meeting. We were all in accord about the danger of 7 WTC, and we all agreed that it was not too conservative of a decision to establish a collapse zone for that building, move the firefighters out of the collapse area, and maintain that strategy.

Clearing the collapse zone was not easy. We had firefighters, police officers, and other rescue personnel in that area who knew that their own people were buried in that debris, and a good part of the debris field was in the collapse zone. Their brothers’ being in there added to the emotional factor in directing and controlling the situation. So while ultimately we were successful in keeping the integrity of the collapse zone, it was a difficult thing to do.

Any time you have Maydays, the emotional aspect of the firefighters increases tremendously. You can address this issue with disciplined officers and communications. But with so many people on the scene with broken companies, with people not in a normal-size group, with firefighters working in a complex debris field, it made communications and understanding more difficult. Instead of communicating to 10, 15, or 20 company officers, we had a much more disjointed group to which we had to communicate critical information, information that some may not have felt was immediately necessary.

My first reaction to the 7 WTC collapse was to the noise. I could see that it happened. I contacted chiefs by radio and verified that we had a sufficiently large collapse zone. They took a survey to verify that all members were outside and safe, and then we sought answers as to whether the collapse had damaged any other structures to the extent that we would have to plan for additional collapses. That, of course, did not happen.

The firefighting effort was tremendous. For quite some time, the only source of firefighting water came from fireboats on the Hudson River’s west side. Hopefully a lesson was learned that day; we’re now in the process of contracting for two new fireboats. Until this happened, many people did not believe that we needed a marine division (and some even recommended we address the problems by putting a pumper on a barge).

I find it difficult to put this all together even now. So much of it runs together. Perhaps some people are very critical about the lack of detail after the fact, but I continue to meet chiefs, officers, and firefighters who tell me of conversations that we had on that day and of directions I gave on that day, and directions many others gave—and these are guys I’ve known personally for 20 years. So in spite of this terrible incident, we operated after the collapse with organization and professionalism.

For the first several days, we operated with staff chiefs in rotation as incident commander. I believe it was on Friday of the first week, September 15, that I met with Chief Nigro to talk about the need for a broader, bigger, more formal command structure. At that point, he took me out of the rotation and designated me as the incident commander. The rotating chiefs became the operations officers, and we started handling this differently than a major fire. We also recommended that an appropriately sized detail be committed to the Trade Center.

We had subdivided the site into four sectors. We tried to make it so that the separate buildings were in separate sectors. That happened very early on. Then we formalized it a little more: We designated safety officer teams who would work in that sector and be familiar with it. And we expanded that so that officers down to the company level would be assigned to the Liberty Sector, for example, and every day when they came to work they would have the same boss, the same members, the same people from other agencies. In short order, we established continuity, confidence, and some familiarity with the job site. It took several days to get that approved at the agency level. Before that, the problem was we’d get a busload of chief officers unfamiliar with the sector, so every day was opening night. We needed to stabilize the workforce.

The heavy equipment worked great with the firefighters. Initially, they had some of the same problems we had, such as too many people showing up to work. Eventually, they got a handle on it. During one of my tours of the site, one of the construction people asked me if I was the sector commander for that night. That was a good sign: He knew the chief existed, he knew the sector, and he knew that they needed to get together. It was a sign for me that things were falling into place and things were working beyond our organization and we were starting to stabilize the workforce.

On the third day of operations, Battalion Chief John Norman was promoted to chief of Special Operations Command and the rescue operations officer for the Trade Center. He reported directly to me. As the operation progressed, beyond the hazards that the collapse itself had created, we realized we had to get a handle on the hazards that were being brought to the site—such as fuel, moving vehicles, combustibles, and so forth. We detailed a fire inspector officer to make sure we weren’t creating any unnecessary fire dangers.

Coordination was critical in the rescue effort. For example, we needed to establish protocols for below-grade areas so that we would always know who was going where and for what purposes.

Another factor was the balance between rescue/recovery and extinguishment. We had persistent buried fires, and we had to switch back and forth at various locations from rescue to fire extinguishment, either because of the danger to firefighters searching voids or operating in the area or because the steam made it difficult for equipment operators to work there. Thermal imaging cameras proved beneficial to a degree, but the technology was limited in that they lacked calibration and could not show the depth of the heat source. However, they could show relative position of heat and confinement.

The entire time I operated on the scene, site security was atrocious. It improved somewhat when the military showed up, but for all of the time I was there, there was never an acceptable level of security. Although that may be critical, we would have to admit some of our own people violated that security. There are a couple of concepts developed by people who study disasters: The first is called “convergence,” which means, “if you have it, they will come”; the second is the less intellectual “arrogance of self-dispatch.” Even if you look at some other major events, you’ll see there are people from several jurisdictions who felt they had an interest there, so they just went. Arriving or leaving the command post, I would have to show credentials; but on some days, especially once the funerals started, we’d find a visiting group of firefighters in dress uniform on or around the site. We appreciated the help and the compassion shown by firefighters around the world who came to memorial services and funerals, but there were some few who apparently did not understand that this was not a tourist site.

We moved the command post from Chambers and West streets to a tent on the corner of West and Vesey, then briefly to the quarters of Engine 10/Ladder 10 just south of the site, then for the long term to Duane Street on September 18. Once we moved command to Duane Street, we began our twice-daily meetings to coordinate interagency operations; developed the daily incident action plans; and, in the evening, took suggestions and made recommendations for the next day’s plan. But even before we got the tent set up, we had meetings with the Office of Emergency Management. In a short time, we had command trailers set up for each sector.

One thing we learned was that the command staff should not be too close to the operation. Otherwise, all of the questions and the people who should be addressing the operations group will come to the overall command post, and you can’t do right by them, and you can’t get your job done. Another thing that happens is everyone who has the world’s greatest inventions will show up. You have to set up a group specifically to deal with these people because some of these items may actually work—you have to allow for that possibility. But you can’t have these people approaching the operations staff or the command staff.

While we were in the rescue mode, the highest priority was finding live people. Most of us were aware that the previous record for finding a live victim trapped in extensive debris was 14 days. So people began to prepare in their minds for the transition. And that was good. Once the decision to change to recovery mode was made, there was a much stronger emphasis on safety. We carefully explained that once in recovery mode, some activities we did yesterday could no longer be justified. Additional risk exposure without the possibility of finding live victims was just unacceptable. And that switch happened on the 17th day of operations.

Photos by Steve Spak.

Frank Cruthers is a 34-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, serving as assistant chief and citywide tour commander. He served as incident commander of the rescue and recovery efforts from September 15 to mid-October 2001. Cruthers formerly was FDNY chief of department and has served as chief of Special Operations Command, chief of the Marine Division, and chief of Fire Prevention.

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