“Above-Grade Tactics and Procedures for Search, Rescue, and Evacuation”

Above-Grade Tactics and Procedures for Search, Rescue, and Evacuation

Since the elevator service in the WTC was knocked out of commission almost immediately, the stairways became the main means of egress for anyone trapped in the complex.

At this point, firefighters’ primary concern was for the safe evacuation of all civilians from the towers. Since all the fire was contained in the belowgrade levels and the stack effect was causing the smoke to rise through both towers and the Vista Hotel, a large part of the operation was committed to search and evacuation. Every hall, floor, staircase, room, and elevator had to be searched—a monumental task that required tremendous coordination and literally hundreds of firefighters.


The stairways in both towers are laid out identically; three stairways are enclosed in the center core of each tower. Stairways A and C terminate at the mezzanine level and lead to the interior plaza level; stairway B terminates on the concourse or grade level. People using the B stairs had no problem exiting to the street and receiving medical attention, if necessary. However, this was not the case with civilians using the A and C stairways. As these people exited the stairs, some wound up in a balcony area off the mezzanine and had to be taken out of the building in tower ladder buckets.

Rescuers used stair chairs, stokes baskets, and office chairs to carry down victims who could not move under their own power—some as many as 60 floors. Resuscitators saved many lives at this incident.

(Photo by Steve Spak.)

Some civilians were able to make their way from the A and C stairs to a hallway that intersected with the B stairway. Unfortunately, as these additional people tried to enter the B stairway, they encountered a stairway already filled with people coming down from the interior. As the hallway got congested and civilians logjammed, anxiety started to set in. After the fire department arrived, firefighters were placed in strategic locations to guide civilians to the proper egress area. This action helped alleviate confusion and ensured that the evacuation would continue in a smooth and safe manner.

The problem was that these civilians normally come to work, enter the lobby, and take elevators to their floors, never realizing they should be aware of stairway locations in case of lire or emergency. Consequently, many of them were not familiar with the stair layouts and became disoriented.

During the initial stages, operations in the stairways themselves were at best difficult. Many civilians started to self-evacuate immediately after the explosion occurred and the building started to fill with smoke. It was a major problem for firefighters to ascend the stairs against the mass of people coming down at them. The stairways simply were not wide enough to accommodate that many civilians coming down and firefighters in full gear with tools trying to go up. Congested stairs slowed down operations; firefighters became frustrated since it literally was an uphill battle to get anywhere.

For the most part, people coming down the stairways moved in an orderly fashion. Some were more frightened than others, and some gave helpful information and informed firefighters of the locations of disabled and distressed people. Firefighters were constantly giving directions and calming civilians descending the stairs. The fire department’s main concern at this time was to concentrate on rescuing civilians who were in immediate peril. There were reports of several people with cardiac problems who would require resuscitators. In addition, a number of disabled civilians were trapped with no way to get down except to be carried. A number of pregnant women were in the building. Firefighters prioritized the removal of people with special needs based on their conditions and the areas in which they were located. One woman who was six months pregnant was carried down 20 floors in a stokes basket to the safety of the street. Another woman was taken down from the 44th floor to the triage area staffed by doctors and nurses on the 33rd floor, where she was treated.

Numerous disabled people located throughout the structure had to be dealt with immediately. According to existing codes, elevators may be considered a primary egress for physically challenged people; however, since all elevator service was knocked out for extended periods of time, disabled people were stranded on whatever floors they happened to be on when the explosion took place. Those people in need of medical attention had to be carried down the stairways— not an easy task given the situation. Two firefighters carried one wheelchair occupant down to the street from the 19th floor. Members of a ladder company took turns with the strenuous task of carrying another wheelchair user down 35 flights of stairs. Other firefighters carried down people with cardiac problems, using whatever means were readily available. People were carried down in stokes baskets and stair chairs, as well as whatever was available on the floors where the civilians were located, such as office and cafeteria chairs.

Of the numerous items pressed into service, the stokes baskets proved to be the most demanding to employ. Due to the lack of maneuverability in the stairways, only two firefighters could descend with the stokes at any given time. This made handling the stokes a fatiguing job; the firefighter at the bottom had to handle most of the weight while the firefighter at the top tried to balance the stretcher. If someone coming up the stairs knocked into one of the firefighters or the basket, or if the victim himself moved it, firefighters had an extremely difficult time keeping the stokes from tipping over. Overall, this made for very slow descents. Every several floors, the firefighters carrying the basket had to be relieved.

When the emergency lighting went out in the stairwells, many people became scared because of the darkness. Only when firefighters started to use their flashlights and talked calmly to the civilians did their fear start to subside, and the civilians once again proceeded in an orderly manner to the street. The operation became much more difficult after the lights went out because people had to slow their descent and needed constant reassurance that everything would be all right.


To ensure that no one had been overcome or trapped in the hotel and towers, methodical searches of all floors, halls, rooms, and offices had to be done. This involved the systematic floor-by-floor primary and secondary searches of several million square feet of habitable space—an extensive and time-consuming task. The firefighters used two main tools to gain entry into these rooms and offices —the traditional set of “irons,” an axe and a halligan tool. In some cases, a maul or sledgehammer would be substituted for the axe to provide extra striking power for heavier doors. The other tool used with great success was the hydraulically operated forcible entry tool (i.e., Rabbit Tool®), consisting of a hand-operated pump and a set of jaws that exert more than four tons of force. This type of tool is designed primarily for use on doors that open inward. An extremely valuable tool, it can be used over and over again without fatiguing firefighters. It is especially useful in heavy smoke conditions where it is extremely difficult and dangerous to swing an axe.

The entire complex itself had more than 4,000 doors, many of which were locked and had to be forced. As is the case for most offices in the metropolitan area, security and safety concerns dictated that most companies leave their doors open on the inside but locked on the outside. When many civilians exited their offices and started to self-cvacuate, their doors all locked behind them. As the firefighters came upon each office, they had no way of knowing if victims were inside these offices; each office had to be checked. It is FDNY’s policy to conduct two searches of each area —a primary search and a secondary search. The primary search is conducted as soon as conditions allow, usually by the first-in ladder company. Performed while the fire is still in progress and in heavy smoke conditions, primary search is a search for life. The second type of search, secondary search, normally is done when fire conditions have abated somewhat. It is a much more thorough search, designed to make absolutely sure no one is trapped or overcome. This search generally is performed by another company for ease of operations.

The towers were erected with a central core system design—that is, the elevators and stairways are in the center of the building on all floors. This led to some logistical problems. After the installation of the core system, an open compartment area almost one acre in size was left. Also, each area was laid out differently according to the needs of the tenants on each floor, both situations made for slow progress in the searches. In addition, many business offices had interior rooms, many with locked doors. Firefighters had to gain entry to every one of these areas to ensure no one was in jeopardy or needed medical assistance. One ladder company that searched numerous floors throughout the day forced more than 100 doors —a labor-intensive and time-consuming operation.


The most important aspect of any fire situation is communications. Good communications is what makes the job work smoothly and efficiently, since conditions in emergency circumstances change constantly. The WTC disaster was no exception. If anything, communications were even more important than usual, due to the size and complexity of the operation.

The portable radios FDNY currently has in use are of the VHF type. They come in a leather case with an adjustable harness, complete with an extension piece that allows firefighters to carry the speaker microphone up higher and in front of the right shoulder. A five-inch, rubber-encased helical antenna makes adjustment to the body easier and affords greater comfort to the wearer. There are two knobs located on the top of the portable radio itself. One is a selector switch that permits the use of six separate channels; the other is an adjustment knob for squelch, which helps tune out interference. To reduce damage and protect the portable radio from smoke, heat, and adverse weather conditions, the unit is worn under the turnout coat.

Six portable-radio channels arcavailable for firefighter use. Channel 1 is the universal portable radio channel—that is, it is used by all boroughs. The other channels firefighters use share frequencies that the mobile field units use to communicate with the Manhattan Dispatchers Office, file use of these channels requires authorization at each particular incident.


Four main channels are used for major incidents like the WTC disaster; they also can be implemented for other situations. Two of the four are tactical channels and two are command channels; they can he used in any combination, depending on the situation. Channel 1 is the primary tactical channel and the initial channel used by all units. The secondary tactical channel is used by certain units when channel 1 is heavily taxed, which was the case at this incident; the channel varies from borough to borough. The incident commander can order this channel’s use at any time.

The two remaining channels are command channels. The primary command channel is restricted to use by chief officers; it is designed to permit better operations coordination and supervision and presents the fire commander with an effective span of control. The secondary command channel is used by chief officers who need to communicate when the primary command channel is taxed. In the WTC incident, both command channels were used heavily.


Since the elevators in the twin towers are the primary means of moving between floors, many people were trapped when the bomb knocked out the buildings’ power. From a rescue standpoint, elevator operations were the most extensive and time-consuming part of the rescue attempt.

The incident involved 210 elevators, all of which had to be searched. Each tower has 99 elevators, local and express; the Vista Hotel has another dozen. The towers are broken down into three main elevator zones. Zone

1 started at the concourse level, zone

2 at the sky lobby on the 44th floor, and zone three at the sky lobby on the 78th floor. Transfers to local elevators took place at these levels. Within each zone were local and express banks. The express cars were the larger of the two types, with a capacity of 55 people; the local cars could handle considerably fewer people.

Only three elevator cars —one freight and two passenger—serviced the entire height of each tower. Although this was a novel idea in elevator design at the time the elevators were built, it was not at all helpful to firefighting forces. The following are some of the problems encountered:

  • When power was knocked out, the elevators were stalled everywhere.
  • There were no floor indicators in the lobbies to show the floors on which the elevators were stranded. This caused major delays. It was timeconsuming just to find out where the elevators were stuck before rescue attempts could be made.
  • The express elevators to the sky lobbies were located in “blind” shafts, meaning there is no access to that shaft between the entrance and exit points of that elevator. The only way to get at these cars was to breach the shaft walls.
  • Since we were dealing with a core system, with all the elevator banks constructed on top of one another, the smoke from the explosion and fire
  • found its way to the upper floors. The shock waves from the explosion blew down the doors in the subbasement shaft, giving the smoke full access to the elevator shaft. Numerous people trapped in these elevators suffered from smoke inhalation.

The rescue of trapped civilians started as soon as the firefighters entered the lobby. A Hurst ™ tool was used to force open several of the car doors, releasing numerous people. A local car hoistway door was forced open because voices inside were heard asking for help. Firefighters were a bit shocked, after forcing the door using two Rabbit Tools® and a halligan, to find no car—only two men standing on steel support beams in the shaft, both with bleeding hands. They had somehow entered the shaft from above and slid down the cables to the concourse level—an extremely dangerous operation, they were lucky they were not killed.

Many companies breached the shaft way walls to rescue trapped people with conventional tools. The Hurst tool, Rabbit Tool®, and conventional set of irons all were used to open the elevator doors. One company forced a door on the 47th floor and nine semiconscious victims fell out of the elevator like a set of dominoes, into the waiting arms of the rescuers. Firefighters opened another elevator on the 44th floor and found 10 unconscious victims. Happily, all these people recovered from their ordeal. As the operation progressed, elevator mechanics in the building helped fire department personnel. They were able to manually move some of the cars to a higher or lower termination point, depending on the counterweight. Their help was invaluable, and it made the operation move along quickly and more efficiently.

No posts to display