The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001, resulting in the loss of 2,819 lives, was the most horrific and diabolical crime ever committed on U.S. soil.

On that day, the Fire Department of New York took on the most difficult response in the history of the fire service. At no time in world history has a fire department ever been called on to respond to a single incident of such magnitude as the attack on the World Trade Center.

In their efforts to save civilian lives at risk in the Trade Center, 343 firefighters and many other emergency personnel died. It was a 90-minute operation that ended in catastrophe. On that day, the unthinkable happened.

Photo 1

From the start, FDNY commanders focused operations on rescuing trapped occupants and assisting in the evacuation. Officers and firefighters alike were well aware of the stairwell evacuations in 1993 and the staffing required to accomplish them. They knew this incident was far worse, but they didn’t know by how much. There was no precedent for a total collapse of a high-rise building.

Some chief officers on the scene warned about the possibility of collapse. Most talk among the chiefs focused on the possibility of localized or partial collapse. No one had any idea at what point that might occur. Again, there was no precedent for the unthinkable. It was for too many a losing race against time. But few on the scene knew it until it was too late.

It was a tragedy of epic proportions.


Voices of 9/11

Always Remembered, Always Revered

Fire Engineering‘s Report on the WTC Disaster Part 1 | Part 2

The 110-story Twin Towers, built in the late 1960s, were radically different in structural design from conventional skyscrapers constructed up to that time. Since the 19th century, skyscrapers had been constructed with a skeleton of interior columns that supported the structure. The Towers, however, were constructed such that the outer walls—closely spaced vertical columns (59 columns on each face, spaced three feet, four inches apart) girdled by massive horizontal spandrels, tying the columns together—carried the buildings’ vertical loads and provided the entire resistance to the wind. The only interior columns were in the core area, which contained the elevators and stairwells.

The floor sections consisted of lightweight, open-web steel trusses that spanned the core to the outer wall. The cylindrical, hollow steel truss members were between 11/2 and 15/8 inches in diameter. Truss spans were from 50 to 65 feet long without vertical support. The floors consisted of four-inch-thick lightweight concrete on a 11/2-inch, 22-gauge noncomposite steel deck.

Photo 2

The combination of exterior load-bearing columns and long-span floor trusses allowed for almost an acre of open space on every floor of the 207-foot-square towers. As with many modern high-rise buildings that followed to today, such construction translates to better occupant views and, therefore, at least theoretically, higher real estate value.

The towers’ exterior walls were designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. Initial engineering calculations in building design for structural resistance included the impact of a small jet plane. However, the calculations did not include the dispersion or ignition effects of jet fuel.

The impact of the planes damaged the exterior load-bearing walls of the structures as well as several floors and the core area (elevators and stairs). The first plane crashed through Floors 93 to 98 of the North Tower but did not destroy the load- bearing columns near the corner of the building. The second plane, hitting much lower at Floors 78 to 83 of the South Tower, damaged load-bearing columns near the corner of the building.

Engineering assessments suggest that the impact points and heights had an important bearing on time to collapse. The engineering community also is in general agreement that the load-bearing vertical structural components performed extremely well and, perhaps, would have continued to stand for an unspecified time beyond the actual collapse times had it not been for the fact that subsequent fires after impact attacked the lightweight trusses to the point that their bolted connections to the columns failed, resulting in the progressive, catastrophic collapses.

Photo 3

For many, the Twin Towers were a symbol of American enterprise, freedom, and ingenuity. But from the perspective of fire protection and life safety, the history surrounding the construction and management of the Twin Towers was problematic. It is particularly galling, in light of what happened, that the Twin Towers are widely recognized as a political vanity project. The economic feasibility in building so high was, at best, dubious; and some contend that certain safety tradeoffs were the result.

Then there are other issues that cloud the situation. Many have asked and are asking, Should the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey (PA)—a quasi-governmental agency with enormous political leverage whose primary function is to protect and maintain ports in the New York metropolitan area—have been in the high-rise construction and real estate business? The buildings decidedly did not completely conform to local high-rise codes, nor did New York City have jurisdiction. Automatic fire sprinklers were not originally installed in the structures. The PA spent millions of dollars in court to argue that the towers did not conform to proper fire-resistive practices—that is, the cementitious fire-resistive coating required to be on its steel structural members was either subpar or, in some places, nonexistent. The Port Authority permitted the installation of 7 WTC’s huge diesel fuel tanks in the interior, sitting directly under transfer beams and trusses.

However, that is not to say that the towers were substandard in every aspect of the local fire and building codes. For one, the New York City code called for two stairways in each of the towers. The towers contained three, although this is a dubious distinction, given the enormous occupancy load of the buildings. In addition, stairwell configuration was such that occupants had to transfer from one stair shaft to another, complicating egress. Stairwell B ran from Floor 110 to the B-6 subbasement level. Stairwells A and C ran from Floor 110 to the lobby mezzanine, from which point occupants had to take an escalator to ground level or exit onto the plaza area of the complex. Each stairway had a standpipe, fire doors, and lighting provided through emergency generators. In addition, the generators supplied power for communications equipment, elevators, corridor lighting, and fire pumps.

Photo 4

Fifteen fire pumps in each building fed the standpipe and automatic sprinkler systems. Each building was also equipped with seven water storage tanks that could supply water to the system prior to activation of the fire pumps to sustain initial firefighting operations. The standpipes were arranged in three zones. Therefore, a loss of one standpipe did not mean the loss of firefighting water throughout the building, though it could conceivably mean long hose stretches for firefighters. Two firefighters operating in the South Tower on 9-11 made it up to the lowest crash floor, the 78th floor, and reported fires burning there. Had the building not collapsed, it is conceivable, at least in theory, that the fire department could have mounted a fire attack from a standpipe connection up to the fire floor.

The elevators in the buildings contained recall and firefighter service features as called for in the code. A detector-activated automatic elevator “override” system commanded all elevators serving or affected by a fire area to immediately return to the ground or their sky lobby. Firefighters could operate the elevators manually under the direction of an FDNY officer. On 9-11, elevators in the North Tower were quickly determined to be nonoperational because the recall feature was not working—they were not returning to the lobby for firefighter use.

Public address speakers were installed in the corridors to provide tenants and visitors with instructions and updated information in an emergency. The system was operated from the Operations Control Center, staffed 24 hours a day. Eyewitness accounts indicate that these speakers were used at least twice on 9-11. They were used in the South Tower immediately following the first plane crash into the North Tower to direct occupants to remain in their offices and not evacuate. They were also used by North Tower lobby commanders in an attempt to exhort people on upper floors not to jump to their deaths, that the fire department was on its way.

Photo 5

After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority added reflective paint and arrows to stairways, added evacuation chairs, and implemented regularly scheduled evacuation drills. No doubt, these additions—in particular, the evacuation chairs and drills—helped evacuees on 9-11.

So many factors combined to result in the 343 firefighter deaths on 9-11. The most fundamental and prominent are readily apparent.

•The breathtakingly high towers were able to sustain the impact of a 767 jet plane but not the ensuing fires, denying firefighters that critical period of time needed to save all of the savable.

•The radio system, under the prevailing conditions, made critical fire department communications difficult to impossible. Vital messages and orders were lost or went unheard.

•Elevators were unusable for fire department operations in both towers, removing a critical—and swift—means of access and egress.

•Interagency communications and a coordinated, interagency command structure were practically absent at a time when they were most needed.

•Because of communications problems—both at the department and citywide levels—vital intelligence was not available to the incident commanders.

Photo 6

•The magnitude of the incident, the size and construction of the buildings, and the numbers and locations of civilians needing immediate assistance overtaxed and overwhelmed the most response-ready fire department in the world.

Comprehensive analysis of this tragedy has been circuitous and piecemeal. The critical components of the fateful 90-minute period on September 11 are identifiable, and there are calls for change. But politics are part of the reform equation. And politics are never easy. Even as the recovery operation is completed and, as of this writing, we commemorate the first anniversary of the event, the politics surrounding 9-11 appear still to be as thick, layered, entangled, and difficult to penetrate as they were six months ago. As the change process must occur through political channels, so, too, do political channels at times frustrate common sense and urgency.

Photo 7

However, one undeniable truth emerged on 9-11, and it continues to ring true: The firefighters and other emergency personnel who responded to the World Trade Center were courageous, heroic, and professional.

That truth is evident in the testimony of civilians who survived the incident. It was evident in the number of lives saved in the evacuation effort. It was evident in the calm but determined faces and voices of every firefighter, officer, and commander on the scene. The FDNY officers and firefighters performed their duties because it was their righteous calling to do so, and they did so with professionalism and courage. They saved lives. At the moments when it counted most, the membership of FDNY shined with valor. And no tragedy or terrorist or unpredictable collapse will ever change that.

There is, of course, another truth: If the fire service does not learn from this incident and take whatever steps may be necessary to fortify itself based on those lessons, it will invite a tragic repetition of history. As earthshaking as 9-11 was, and still is, the fire service must not ignore opportunities to learn what it must learn. To do otherwise would be to dishonor the memory of almost 3,000 World Trade Center victims. It is with that calling that Fire Engineering devotes its September and October issues to a report on and analysis of the World Trade Center Disaster.

At first, one might feel uncomfortable in translating the 9-11 events and FDNY response into common terms that most other fire departments could appreciate. After all, the events of 9-11, at least for a few hours, overwhelmed the largest and possibly best prepared fire department the world has ever seen. Nevertheless, the fundamental implications of September 11 are no different for a smaller department than for FDNY. Although New York City is a high-profile target for terrorists (and no doubt, there are “big city” lessons to be learned), the threat of terrorism is not exclusive to big cities, and any fire department that has a false sense of security in that regard is courting disaster. Moreover, history has shown—terrorism or not—that big incidents do happen in little places.

Even a cursory study of fire service history reveals that many of the failures on 9-11 are endemic to the fire service. Rarely has the fire service seen an operational line-of-duty death wherein the incident command system, communications, accountability, intelligence gathering and risk analysis, span of control, and contingency planning were not at issue. Of course, the scale and incomprehensibility of the World Trade Center tragedy, as well as the added dimension of large-scale terrorism, place 9-11 in a category of its own. However, fire departments far and wide must see the implications beyond the size and scope of the tragedy.

Terrorism is pervasive, and methods of terrorism, brought to a new and nightmarish level on 9-11, will require more of fire departments across America and the world. There cannot be an excuse for fire departments’ failing to plan for terrorist and large-scale incidents. No fire department in America should ignore the possibility of an incident that could tax its resources beyond traditional thinking.

Photo 8 by Abraham Schwimmer

Likewise, we must ask all firefighters, and fire department managers in particular, in light of 9-11 and under the continuing threat of terrorism, the following:

•Is there such a thing as being “overly conservative” at a major incident, in terms of personnel deployment?

Can the fire service afford gaps in what should otherwise be a seamless interagency network that integrates “outside” agencies?

Photo 9 courtesy of FEMA

Can the fire service afford to be less than aggressive in terms of taking political measures to control systems and reduce hazards in the built environment? After all, after the planes hit and the fires burned, it was (simply put) buildings under gravity that killed our firefighters.

In the same vein, we must ask ourselves, Is it unreasonable to expect our officers to enter life-and-death battles at extraordinary incidents without the technological means for gathering critical intelligence? Or the means to communicate with personnel executing a strategy? Or the means to track and account for personnel at risk?

With terrorism so prevalent and widespread, can we rest knowing there are fire departments whose members are not trained for a large-scale mutual-aid response? Whose leadership does not know what resources will be available to it, and when? That cannot muster first-line rescue and haz-mat response capabilities and have a backup plan—with backup specialized units—for an unthinkable turn of events?

•We must ask ourselves, one year after that terrible day, if there is such a thing as “unthinkable” any more. There is not. But there are a thousand glaring questions the fire service must ask itself and answer.

The benefit of hindsight allows for such simplification. The response to 9-11 was extraordinarily complex, yet there is no escaping the fact that, behind the minute-by-minute horror that unfolded before our eyes, there are very basic propositions from which the fire service must push forward. These are the same issues that have torn the fire service throughout history, but—because of politics, economics, or negligence—have never been declawed.

To one degree or another, those issues were part of 9-11. And to one degree or another, they were part of countless firefighter line-of-duty deaths over the past 200 years.

At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, the first hijacked plane slammed through Floors 93 to 98 of the North Tower with a force equal to 240 tons of TNT.

Observing the impact of the aircraft into the North Tower from a dozen blocks away while at another incident, first-due FDNY Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer immediately called for a second alarm. While en route, he called for third alarm units at 8:48. He designated West and Vesey streets as the staging area.

He arrived at the lobby of the North Tower at 8:50 a.m. and established the incident command post. There were severely burned civilians in the lobby. Chief Pfeifer initiated rescue and evacuation operations. Within four minutes, Deputy Chief Peter Hayden arrived and assumed command, followed later by Assistant Chief Joseph Callan.

The magnitude of the incident overwhelmed the FDNY Dispatch Center, flooded with thousands of calls. Some off-duty firefighters self-deployed. Much was made in the press about this and the fact that, since the incident occurred at change of tour, many companies arrived heavy or, in some cases, with double the normal complement of personnel. This very human reaction was by no means limited to the firefighters. FDNY EMS units converged on downtown Manhattan en masse, leaving, according to one EMS chief interviewed by the press, inadequate coverage for 400 citywide medical calls during the WTC response. The chief of Port Authority Police reported that the city’s bridges, tunnels, and ports were left inadequately protected because of those officers’ responding to the World Trade Center.

At 9:00 a.m., while en route, Chief of Department Peter Ganci upgraded the response to a fifth-alarm assignment, instructing these incoming units to report to the staging area established on West and Vesey streets. With the call for a fifth alarm, 33 units, including engine companies, truck companies, rescue companies, squad companies, a hazardous materials unit, chiefs of every rank, and various support units (including the department’s field communications, mask service, and high-rise units)—more than 200 personnel in all—would be on scene. The exact number of FDNY personnel who responded to the World Trade Center probably will never be known, but published reports indicate 39 companies were operating in the North Tower at the time the South Tower collapsed.

Chief Ganci arrived just before the second plane hit the South Tower. He moved the incident command post from the North Tower lobby across to West Street, at the mouth of a garage for the World Financial Center. This location afforded some protection from falling debris (and, soon, from jumpers) for commanders and companies reporting in. However, it provided a very limited view of the buildings. Operations commanders continued to operate from the North Tower lobby.

Occupants were evacuating the North Tower through the stairs on the arrival of FDNY.

Commanders recognized early on that extinguishing multiple floors fully involved in fire so high up in the building was next to impossible. That, combined with scores of reports coming in for trapped occupants and others needing assistance, led them very early on to rescue and evacuation as their primary strategy. Incoming units were given orders to support this strategy. And although some first-arriving engine companies brought hose loads into the building, commanders never called for an attack on the fires. As then operations chief and now FDNY Chief of Department Daniel Nigro says, “There is a fire in the building. The firefighter brings his tools.”

Some of the reports of trapped civilians were gathered through intercom contact between building personnel and occupants stuck in elevators. There were at least 10 elevators stuck with multiple occupant loads.

Within a short time, fire companies and building personnel determined that elevators were inoperable. The only means of access and egress would be the stairs.

Units responding to the site had to dodge falling debris. Not long after command was set up initially in the tower lobby, desperate occupants began jumping from the upper floors, adding to the risks. As per an eyewitness account, a falling jumper killed one firefighter. Reportedly, at least 10 people were killed by falling debris or people jumping from upper floors.

Span of control typical for FDNY was maintained—generally, one battalion chief for every five or six company officers and one company officer for every company unit. Battalion chiefs were ordered to control operations over a span of several floors.

Operations in the North Tower were complicated by many factors. First, because elevators were out of service, removals and rescues were delayed because firefighters faced an arduous and time-consuming march up the stairs. The width of two of the stairwells—44 inches—complicated matters because it did not facilitate simultaneous upward and downward progress—that is to say, fleeing civilians had to stop moving while firefighters moved up the stairs. Civilians testified to the psychological benefits of seeing firefighters seizing the moment, yet the width of the 44-inch-wide stairs was an operational difficulty.

The highest level reached by a firefighter in the North Tower is believed to have been the 65th floor. The firefighter, believed to be a member of Ladder Company 3, radioed, at an unspecified time, that a partial collapse had occurred on one of the floors in the 60s. Eyewitness accounts place multiple firefighters between the 40th and 50th floors, but the bulk of the firefighting contingent never made it past the 35th floor. About 45 minutes into the operation, several firefighters on the 20th floor, carrying standpipe packs up the stairs, reported chest pains.

For those in command of the operation, ongoing size-up and reconnaissance were limited. FDNY simply did not possess the technology or communications to develop minute-by-minute snapshots of changing building conditions. Vital information, therefore, was not available to the chiefs sending companies up into the building. People watching the incident on television from their homes, in some respects, had more information than the commanders on whose shoulders rested the fate of thousands of people.

The incident was building, minute by minute, second by second. Companies were arriving at a rapid pace and were sent up the stairs to work. Twenty-six of the department’s 32 staff chiefs and executive staff were on the scene.

At 9:29 a.m., Chief Ganci ordered a full recall of all off-duty FDNY personnel. This was the first total recall of FDNY personnel in more than 30 years. Recalled personnel, without the benefit of instructions, either went directly to the scene, to their own fire station, to the closest fire station, or to recall staging areas such as the one set up at Shea Stadium in the borough of Queens.

Early on, the city’s Office of Emergency Management, housed in 7 World Trade Center (which collapsed later in the day), was evacuated, crippling the city’s interagency system. There was no backup location for OEM. Although OEM representatives at the North Tower lobby command post were in direct contact with FDNY commanders, OEM could not relay critical information from other agencies. That information included reports from police helicopters predicting the imminent collapse of the South Tower 10 minutes before it occurred and the imminent collapse of the North Tower 21 minutes before it occurred. Police heard the transmission; the fire department did not. There were no police representatives at the FDNY command post.

But perhaps the most painful complication of all was that FDNY could not adequately communicate with its own members. Early on, it was determined through testing that the built-in repeater system in the North Tower was not working for FDNY. Mobile repeaters and “standpipe phones” did not work, either. So commanders switched to common command and tactical fire department radio frequencies. These radio channel frequencies work well for tenement fires but not for high-rise operations (or for below-grade operations).

•Commanders say that the ensuing communications were “sporadic.” That appears to be an understatement. In the North Tower lobby, commanders were roving the lobby to pick up transmissions from units up above. It was catch as catch can. Some communications got through; others did not. So commanders were not receiving regular progress reports from operating units. As a result, they could not track companies or their progress up above.

Of course, the ability of companies in the towers to receive communications from command was equally random. At 9:30 a.m., commanders in the lobby received a report of a third inbound plane and ordered an immediate evacuation. But they never received messages from the companies in reply. (The “third plane” report was soon determined to be erroneous, and operations continued.)

Reports indicate that, due largely to poor radio communications, numerous firefighters in the North Tower did not appreciate the gravity of the situation, even when the South Tower collapsed, though they most definitely felt the concussion. While at least some officers definitely heard the repeated orders to evacuate, it is likely that few officers in the North Tower knew that the South Tower had collapsed, because, in fact, the chiefs working the lobby command post themselves did not know it. Operations commanders knew that something extraordinary had occurred because the first collapse made the North Tower lobby untenable. As such, they gave the order repeatedly for firefighters to evacuate the North Tower. Some in the tower heard it; many others did not.

Difficulties in radio communications in high-rise buildings have long been at issue in New York and the fire service. In fact, the radio system did not work adequately in the 1993 bombing; and when he arrived at the command post on 9-11, Assistant Chief Donald Burns, who commanded North Tower operations in 1993, reminded chiefs of that difficulty. Why FDNY did not have a workable, redundant communications system on 9-11—more than eight years later—is beyond the purpose of this article, though it is, frankly, indicting. Despite continual field experience and warnings underscoring the communications difficulties in high-rise buildings and the World Trade Center in particular, it appears certain that a number of firefighters in the North Tower died because urgent messages transmitted over fire department radios went unheard.

FDNY was also feeling the effects of staging difficulties. Some incoming units missed the staging areas altogether. Some did not hear the directions from Dispatch. Some deployed to the Marriott Hotel or the other tower without ever making it to a staging area. But the effects were the same: The Field Communications Unit had difficulty tracking companies, and some companies deployed to the towers without receiving a debriefing.

At 9:47 a.m., with three simultaneous, major operations ongoing in the North Tower, the South Tower, and the Marriott Hotel, Chief Ganci, anticipating an extended operation and the need for relief, called for a third fifth-alarm assignment and ordered these units to be staged at West and Vesey.

For those in the North Tower, the collapse of the South Tower was critical in ways beyond the obvious. The huge pane windows in the North Tower lobby already had broken out when the first plane hit. When the South Tower collapsed, a cloud of black dust and debris pushed through the lobby, killing Father Mychal Judge, FDNY chaplain, and forcing operations command to disband its command post, reorient itself, and find a tenable location. Some officers from the lobby command post regrouped at West and Vesey but had barely resumed operations before the North Tower collapsed. The South Tower collapse also forced Chief Ganci and his command staff to retreat temporarily back into the shelter of the World Financial Center garage. Then he ordered his chiefs to reestablish the command post north of the incident while he initiated rescue operations for the first collapse. In the chaos and devastation that ensued both collapses, the fire department essentially operated without a command structure. It took an hour after the North Tower collapsed to reestablish command.

Of course, no one knew it at the time, but following the first collapse, members inside the North Tower had about 30 minutes to escape with their lives or be swallowed by the impending second collapse. Firefighters and civilians evacuating the building reported that less than 15 minutes before the collapse of the North Tower, a large group of firefighters were taking a breather on the 19th floor, completely unaware of the impending danger.

The North Tower collapsed within 92 minutes of the first plane strike, at 10:28 a.m.

According to a two-month study conducted by USA Today, which accounted for the locations of all but 150 civilian victims of the collapses, 1,434 civilians died in the North Tower. 1,360 of those who died were on the 92nd floor (one floor below the crash line) or above, either dead from the impact, wounded, or trapped. Sixty-nine civilians were trapped on the 92nd floor. In phone calls to their loved ones, some of them said they could not access the stair towers.

No one above the 92nd floor survived. However, about 4,000 people below the 92nd floor safely evacuated. Of the thousands below the crash line, 72 civilians did not make it out. This gives rise to the logical assumption that nearly all the fleeing occupants had made it out of the building by the time of the South Tower collapse.

A New York Times report, using eyewitness accounts to track companies, concluded that 33 fire companies were still operating in the North Tower at the time of collapse. At least 121 firefighters lost their lives there.

Less is known about operations in the South Tower.

Shortly after Chief Ganci arrived, the second plane hit. The time was 9:03 a.m. At 9:12, Chief Ganci called a second fifth-alarm assignment and soon thereafter designated a staging area for these units at West and Albany streets.

Assistant Chief Burns had arrived just after the South Tower was hit. He assumed operations in the South Tower lobby, assisted by Assistant Chief Jerry Barbara.

Many units from the second fifth-alarm assignment never staged at West and Albany. This kept Chief Burns without the number of companies he felt he needed. At approximately 9:30 a.m., some 23 minutes after he established the South Tower lobby operations command, Chief Burns called an additional second-alarm assignment to the South Tower. During the wait, Deputy Chief Ray Downey, Special Operations Command, grabbed several companies from the staging area on West Street to work on the South Tower evacuation.

Meanwhile, several chiefs had begun evacuation operations in the Marriott Hotel, adjacent and contiguous to the South Tower. They interviewed hotel staff and could not be certain that all occupants had evacuated the hotel. So companies were sent up to conduct a floor-by-floor, knocking-on-doors search and evacuation. The New York Times study placed 34 of the fallen firefighters in the Marriott Hotel at the time the South Tower collapsed, crushing the hotel.

Information is sparse concerning South Tower operations because no FDNY member has been confirmed to have survived its collapse. Requests by Fire Engineering for information from FDNY members known to be at the command post with Chief Ganci or at the South Tower early on, as well as information from on-site FDNY communications personnel believed to have firsthand knowledge about certain aspects of South Tower operations, have yet to be fulfilled.

Hindsight offers a startling numbers situation at the South Tower on 9-11. Reliable sources have estimated that there were between 5,000 and 7,000 people in each tower at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane struck. Most people in the South Tower began evacuating the building as soon as the North Tower was hit, ignoring taped Port Authority messages broadcast over the building’s intercom system to stay where they were (however, some people above the 77th floor did comply with the message and likely perished).

According to the USA Today study, in the 16-minute period between the first and second crashes, two-thirds of the thousands of occupants in the South Tower evacuated by elevators. (It took only 45 seconds for an elevator to descend from the 78th floor to ground.) If this is accurate, the large and numerous elevators in the towers moved between approximately 3,300 and 4,600 people to the bottom of the tower before the second plane hit—a remarkable success story.

Once the second plane hit the South Tower, the fate of all but 19 people (known to have escaped via the one stairwell that remained passable above the impact floors) above the 78th floor was sealed. Five hundred ninety-nine civilians were known to have died in the South Tower. Many of these victims were at the 78th floor elevator sky lobby, in the process of evacuating, when the plane hit. All of the remaining civilian occupants (between 1,000 and 1,700 people) still in the building at the time of the crash made it out safely prior to the South Tower collapse. Many of those people had safely exited by the time Chief Burns called for an additional second alarm.

It is unclear, however, as to whether or not the information regarding the voluminous elevator evacuation in the 16 minutes prior to the second plane crash was ever delivered by building personnel to FDNY. It is yet unknown (or unreported) if FDNY commanders were aware that they were dealing with far fewer occupants than they might have thought or whether this would have made any difference at all in the detail of a second fifth-alarm assignment and an additional second-alarm assignment to the tower, or to operations therein.

Remarkably, Battalion Chief Orio Palmer and Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca, operating in the South Tower, made it up to the 78th floor sky lobby, from where Chief Palmer radioed “Numerous 10-45s, Code Ones,” indicating many dead and injured people at that location. Twelve of these individuals made it out alive. One survivor was Ling Young, who was found by Fire Marshal James Devery in a stair tower on the 51st floor. Devery removed her down the stairs to the 41st floor, where they were able to take an elevator down to safety. Palmer also reported fires on the 78th floor and called for two engine companies to fight them—indicating that the zoned standpipes may have been intact at or below the point of impact.

According to the Port Authority radio tapes, at least one elevator was working after the second plane crash. It was on the 41st floor. About 15 minutes before the tower collapsed, Chief Palmer radioed an operations sector chief that a group of 10 injured occupants was descending to the 41st floor to ride that elevator down. They made it into the elevator, but it got stuck on the way down. A firefighter was with the group. He radioed the situation and that he was trying to break out of the elevator. They perished.

Five minutes before the collapse of the South Tower, a Port Authority mechanic radioed his counterpart in the North Tower that elevators were stuck; one of them was an express car that contained 19 people. It is presumed that they all died.

Engineers have calculated that the plane that hit the South Tower was traveling at an estimated 537 mph, some 300 mph beyond the design limits of the plane for that altitude and far faster than the plane that hit the North Tower. Engineers say that this difference in speed (which determines energy on impact) and the fact that the plane struck the South Tower at a lower level, at a different angle, and closer to the corner columns at least partially explains why the South Tower collapsed first. However, the fact that the building stood for 56 minutes points to failure of the lightweight trusses under fire conditions as a major collapse factor, as it was in the North Tower.

The New York Times interviews indicate that there were 46 companies or units operating in the South Tower and the Marriott Hotel. Twenty-five of these companies experienced casualties. Of the firefighters who died, 97 were placed in the South Tower and 34 in the hotel. The Times investigation could not pinpoint the locations of 78 firefighters who died on 9-11, but fire department records indicated that many of those members were assigned to the South Tower. It appears that many units may have made it to the South Tower or the Marriott Hotel or their vicinities and were not operating for very long before the unexpected tragedy of the first tower collapse occurred.

In the first three operations on 9-11, more than 200 fire units—including 121 engine companies and 62 ladder companies—responded to the World Trade Center. This represented more than half of all units, citywide. However, FDNY managed to maintain citywide fire coverage. Although fire calls on 9-11 were approximately the same as on the same day in the year 2000, response times only minimally increased. During this period, FDNY was operating under a reduced initial unit response. Fire companies from West-chester and Nassau counties were called in by FDNY to assist in covering stations. However, coverage for special operations requiring the response of technical units such as the haz-mat, rescue, and squad companies was very limited because those companies—with the exception of one of the seven squads—had responded to the World Trade Center.

The firefighters who lost their lives on 9-11 richly deserved heroes’ farewells. But those firefighters left to deal with the devastation from the worst building collapses in history were heroes in their own right. They showed that FDNY—and the fire service—was badly wounded and bleeding but not taken out. In spite of everything, they refused to be destroyed. And they were an inspiration, symbols of hope, for a shaken city and a shaken nation.

Following the North Tower collapse, FDNY officers and firefighters regrouped and began rescue operations. Chiefs and their members were traumatized. The command staff was decimated. No one knew how many firefighters they had lost. But they set about finding them right away.

A command post was established a few blocks from the incident, on West and Chambers streets. Operations command was set up at West and Vesey streets. Sectors evolved naturally by way of the collapse geography. Experienced chiefs took command of these sectors. Chiefs took command of units conducting searches. Resources were procured. Officers established minimum safety and accountability procedures. A natural system evolved out of the chaos, the beginning of the longest and most extensive rescue and recovery operation ever known. True leadership and experience and training shined through that day.

The exhaustive searches yielded many finds. Sadly, only the members of Ladder Company 6, a battalion chief, and a few others who miraculously survived in the B stairway of the North Tower were found alive. Chief Ganci and Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan, the 71-year-old former chief of department, were found within the first two hours on West Street, less than 50 yards from their command post. When the South Tower collapsed, Chief Ganci ordered his subordinate officers to walk north up West Street and set up a new command post some blocks beyond the World Trade Center. Chief Ganci and Commissioner Feehan walked south down West Street to take command of rescue operations for the collapsed tower. They never made it.

That speaks volumes for the character of those men and others who went with them, knowing full well that if one tower could collapse, a second tower also could. In terms of purely analytical discussion, it also gives those not there on 9-11 some understanding of the incredible force of a quarter-mile-high building falling down and what it might take to recover from it and move on, operationally speaking.

Fires raged in the piles and in the damaged adjacent buildings. Firefighters established a water supply by drafting out of the Hudson River. The search went on, despite the potential for secondary collapses.

Of all the adjacent buildings, 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story building to the north of the North Tower, across Vesey Street, presented the greatest threat of collapse. It hovered over the debris field on which hundreds of firefighters searched. It was heavily damaged and involved in fire. It is believed these fires occurred in part because the Port Authority, against the recommendations of the fire department, had placed aboveground tanks of diesel fuel—a 42,000-gallon tank at ground level and three 275-gallon tanks on the fifth, seventh, and eight floors—inside the building, underneath transfer beams that allowed the high-rise to be constructed above an electrical substation. Given the limited water supply and the first strategic priority, which was to search for survivors in the rubble, FDNY did not fight the fires, which were on the lower floors and burned for hours. In interviews, several FDNY officers on the scene said they were not aware of combustible liquid pool fires in the building.

Be that as it may, FDNY chief officers surveyed 7 WTC and determined that it was in danger of collapse. Chief Frank Cruthers, now the incident commander, and Chief Frank Fellini, the operations commander, both agreed that a collapse zone had to be established. That meant firefighters in the area of the North Tower had to be evacuated. This took some time to accomplish because of terrain, communications, and the fierce determination with which the firefighters were searching. At 5:30 p.m., about 20 minutes after the last firefighters evacuated the collapse zone, 7 WTC collapsed. It was the third steel-frame high-rise in history to collapse from fire—the other two had collapsed earlier that day. FDNY shrugged it off and went back to work to begin a long, continuous night of searching for brothers and other lost people on the longest day in the history of the fire service.

For all the media coverage, for all the gripping and touching stories we’ve heard and read, there is much we will never know about that terrible day, and issues will be debated forever. The curse of a retrospective analysis of any tragedy always is the same—the “What ifs.” What if the commanders at this incident had better intelligence about the condition of the buildings? What if the radios had worked better? What if Port Authority was not beyond the force of local codes? What if the steel columns and lightweight trusses were better protected with fire-resistive materials, or there were no trusses in the first place? What if the planes had hit one way and not the other? What if FDNY had known that the majority of occupants in the South Tower had already evacuated by the time they arrived; would it have made a difference? What if, what if U ad infinitum.

But in the end, the members of FDNY did what they had to do, with bravery and professionalism. They saved lives. They could do nothing else. That is what makes a tragedy a tragedy: Powerful forces overwhelm human will, both launched onto an irreversible course of action. Yes, it was a tragedy, but it was also testimony to the human spirit, resolve, and goodness.

Fire Engineering presents Volume I of its special report on the World Trade Center disaster from the eyes and hearts of those who were there. It includes testimony from many FDNY officers who responded before the first collapse or shortly thereafter and had a tremendous impact both on pre- and post-collapse operations. Volume I attempts to deal fairly strictly with first-day operations, although many who were there on September 11 had prominent responsibilities throughout all or much of the rescue and recovery effort, so some of that is presented here, too. Volume II will focus on aspects of the rescue and recovery in greater detail, present more detailed analyses of building performance, outline fire department actions in the year after 9-11 and into the future, and provide perspectives on the extraordinary political ramifications of that fateful day.

We dedicate this work to the 343 fallen firefighters on 9-11 and all those who carry on their work.—Bill Manning, Fire Engineering, August 22, 2002

Photos 1, 2, and 3 by FDNY Photo Unit
Photos 4 and 5 by Abraham Schwimmer
Photos 6 and 7 by FDNY Photo Unit


The 16-acre World Trade Center site was bounded by Vesey Street to the north, Church Street to the east, Liberty Street to the south, and West Street to the west. Seven buildings (1 WTC through 7 WTC) were situated around a five-acre plaza. The complex included also the Port Authority-Trans-Hudson (PATH) and Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) WTC stations and Concourse areas. Underneath a sizable portion of the main WTC Plaza and 1 WTC, 2 WTC, 3 WTC, and 6 WTC was a six-story subterranean structure.

The WTC complex was designed by Minoru Yamasaki and Associates of Troy, Michigan; Emery Roth and Sons of New York acted as the architect of record. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) was the original developer. Excavation of the site began in August 1966. The complex, which offered about 12 million square feet of rentable floor space, was occupied by various government and commercial tenants. The PA had transferred the entire WTC project to a private individual, under a 99-year capital lease, prior to 9-11.

The seven complex buildings included the following:

  1. WTC, the 110-story North Tower. Its first tenant took occupancy in December 1970.
  2. WTC, the 110-story South Tower. Occupancy commenced in January 1972.
  3. WTC , the 22-story Marriott Hotel (west of the South Tower).
  4. WTC, a nine-story office building.
  5. WTC, a nine-story office building.
  6. WTC, the eight-story U.S. Customs House building.
  7. WTC, a 47-story office building (north of the WTC site; it housed the New York City Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management facility).

The World Financial Center (WFC) complex, built in the early 1980s, was to the west, across West Street. To the south were the building designed by Cass Gilbert, at 90 West Street, and the Bankers Trust building at 130 Liberty Street. The 1 Liberty Plaza building was to the east and the Verizon building directly to the north.


On February 26, 1993, a 1,000-pound nitrourea bomb was detonated inside a rental van on the B2 level of the WTC parking garage, causing massive destruction that spanned seven levels, six below-grade. The L-shaped blast crater on B2 at its maximum measured 130 feet wide by 150 feet long. The blast epicenter was under the northeast corner of the Vista Hotel. FDNY ultimately responded to the incident with 84 engine companies, 60 truck companies, 28 battalion chiefs, 9 deputy chiefs, and 5 rescue companies and 26 other special units (representing nearly 45 percent of the on-duty staff of FDNY). The department units maintained a presence at the scene for 28 days.

Six people died and 1,042 were injured. Of those injured, 15 received traumatic injuries from the blast itself. Nearly 20 people complained of cardiac problems, and nearly 30 pregnant women were rescued. Eighty-eight firefighters (one requiring hospitalization), 35 police officers, and one EMS worker sustained injuries.

It is estimated that approximately 50,000 people were evacuated from the WTC complex, including nearly 25,000 from each of the two towers. Fire alarm dispatchers received more than 1,000 phone calls, most reporting victims trapped on the upper floors of the towers. Search and evacuation of the towers were finally completed some 11 hours after the incident began.

Source: Fire Engineering, Special Issue: World Trade Center Bombing, December 1993


There were three elevator zones within each tower. Each zone had its own lobby:

•Zone 1. The lobby was on the concourse level, one level below the plaza. Access was from the ground floor to Floor 44.

•Zone 2. Its sky lobby (transfer floors for other elevators to the upper floors) was on Floor 44. Access was from Floor 44 to Floor 77.

•Zone 3. Its sky lobby was on Floor 78. Access was from Floor 78 to Floor 110.

Express elevators, said to have been the fastest of their size ever built, were available from the lobby and served the 44 and 78 sky lobbies. Each had a capacity of 55 people. The system was designed to limit local runs to one-third of the building. Three local elevators operated at different levels within a single shaft. Each tower had 99 elevator cabs; 23 were express.

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