Evacuating People with Disabilities

Evacuating People with Disabilities

This article was written in collaboration with Bill Scott, founder and president of Abilities Unlimited. Inc., a disabilities issues consulting firm, and Marianne Cashatt, a longtime disabilities awareness and public relations consultant.

In the confusion and alarm of a terrorist bombing, how does a deaf person interpret emergency instructions? How does a 250-lb. man with quadriplegia whose wheelchair weighs 100 pounds get down the stairs? How do people with such medical conditions as asthma, heart problems, and a history of blackouts cope with the enormous stress of an emergency evacuation through a smokefilled environment?

Representatives of the National Task Force on Life Safety and Persons with Disabilities and the City of New York Fire Department, with the resource assistance of the Port Authority of NY and NJ, interviewed 27 people with disabilities who were evacuated from the World Trade Center complex after the bombing, as part of a postincident evaluation. Of those interviewed, 14 had mobility impairments, three had impairments of sight or hearing, three were pregnant, two had cardiovascular problems, and seven had respiratory problems.


On average, the 27 interviewees with disabilities took 3 34 hours to complete evacuation. Evacuation times ranged from under one hour to more than nine hours. A person on the 19th floor, who has left hemiplegia and wears a leg brace and uses a cane, reported an evacuation time of under one hour. When interviewed, he explained that he made it down to the 5th floor via stairs and then began to experience leg cramps and dizziness. He was carried down the rest of the way.

Five people reported evacuation times of between 40 and 90 minutes. A deaf person on the 71st floor reported he first was alerted to the emergency when his computer lost power. He did not hear or feel the explosion but observed coworkers’ reactions. He learned from a deaf coworker that there was smoke and evacuated via stairs.

A man in a wheelchair with a bilateral above-the-knee amputation reported the longest evacuation time: more than nine hours to get down from the 70th floor. He reported that he chose not to evacuate —based on his concern over the issue of liability and his coworkers’ lack of experience—but rather to wait for emergency personnel. His manager and a few coworkers remained with him. As the smoke grew denser, they retreated farther back into the offices. They waited one hour and tried calling Port Authority police, but the lines were busy. At 4:30 p.m., a scout patrol arrived and called for help on a handheld radio. The first police officer arrived two hours later. At approximately 8:30 p.m., police and emergency personnel arrived and carried him down to the 43rd floor staging area. They rested there and then carried him the rest of the way. An emergency responder carried the wheelchair down separately so once at the bottom the man could, in his own words, “resume his mobility.”

Four interviewees reported evacuation times ranging from five to nine hours. One man on the 69th floor, a wheelchair user with quadriplegia. estimated his evacuation time at a little more than six hours. He reported his experience: “Everyone evacuated except my manager and the fire warden. We went to an executive office where there was no smoke and waited for about 45 minutes. Then we went into the stairway, where I commandeered three men coming down the stairs who carried me and my wheelchair [combined weight, 350 pounds] to the 48th or 49th floor. The smoke got worse and the heat increased as we descended, and then the lights went out permanently. The stair landings were very narrow and seemed to switch from one stairwell to another. We got down to the 43rd floor, and I was transferred to a stretcher and carried the rest of the way out. It took approximately 15 people taking turns to carry me down. It was a very slow process. But I heard no one complain about the delay due to my evacuation.”


  • Breathing difficulties. Neither the emergency personnel nor the people with respiratory difficulties considered what emergency procedures should be in place to deal with problems of pulmonary function disorders. Seven people interviewed described respiratory difficulties, explaining that the onset of symptoms can be triggered by stress, exercise, dust and smoke, or any combination.

One person reported the following experience: “i have severe asthma. I was very fearful about going down stairs into smoke. My asthma was aggravated by respiratory conditions, not stress. 1 shared my medication w ith other asthmatics. I was not sure that 1 would be able to survive the ordeal. The emergency medical division did not have any of the medications 1 needed; asthma was not treated as a life-threatening disability.”

One interviewee said: “I have severe asthma and chronic bronchitis. I left my medication in the office. 1 got nervous and upset as my asthma w orsened while descending through the smoke-filled stairway. I was directed to the 43rd floor, where other people with disabilities were located. 1 also exited the stair at a floor where the air was better; the windows had been broken. Someone shared an inhalator with me.”

Another person related the following: “I have difficulty breathing due to pneumonia I had in 1991. I cannot walk fast and did not request any assistance. I encountered heavy smoke in the 50-plus stairways. I was instructed to take a wet cloth and cover my nose. On the 13th floor, I felt air and saw light. I may have been better off staying in my original location.”

The American College of Chest Physicians and the American Association of Respiratory Care can assist in developing emergency medical procedures for people with breathing disorders for inclusion in the emergency management plan.

Confusion on the stairs. Lack of familiarity with the stairs caused a number of problems. One person noted that she stumbled at the stair landings in the darkness, in part because the handrails did not continue the full length of the stair flight. Other complaints involved not being aware of the following: the existence of interior convenience stairs; no reentry from the stairway for security reasons (the locked doors frightened many people); and “crossover” or extended landings, which, given the poor-visibility conditions, made people fear they might be trapped (some crossovers extended 50 feet and required going through a door).

One person reportedly counted out loud the number of steps as people were using them to evacuate. This let visually impaired people know’ what to expect and was said to have a calming effect on them. This is also how it was discovered that the flights of stairs had inconsistent numbers of steps, adding to the confusion of some with disabilities. (We later went into one of the stair towers to see what was being described. At our point of entry, there was a flight with 11 steps followed by flights with six, eight, seven, nine, and five steps: followed by a crossover measuring approximately 20 feet separated from the next flight by a door; followed by flights of six steps, 13 steps, and so on.)

Some people kept one hand on the handrail for guidance and support and the other hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them for support and to avoid stepping on that person’s heels.

  • Poor visibility. When the lights went out, one deaf person could not receive instructions during the stair evacuation. In the dark, he was unable to lip-read or use sign language. He reported that if he had had a small flashlight he could have illuminated a speaking person’s face and lips, enabling him to “see” what the person was saying. He also has begun teaching sign language to his coworkers and has suggested emergency personnel recognize basic signing.

Overall, coping behavior seemed quite remarkable in the face of having to evacuate down flights of stairs that no one had seen before and at times in total darkness and in the presence of smoke.

  • Wait for help to arrive. In hindsight, many people interviewed admitted that if they had had some reassurance from qualified individuals (police, firefighters, WTC security) that help was on the way, they would not have evacuated within minutes of the blast but would have waited for emergency personnel to assist in their evacuation. However, in the absence of communications by authorities, they gladly accepted assistance—from colleagues and even from complete strangers—in evacuating. These caring groups of people who assisted the
  • disabled protected their “charges” until they were safely evacuated and moved away from the building.
  • Not part of emergency plan. Prior to the incident, some of the people interviewed said that in the interest of privacy or because they felt they did not need special assistance, they had opted not to identify themselves to be among those listed as disabled in the emergency management plan.
  • Phoning home. Some of the interviewees were able to call home and give news of their safety. This alleviated the anxiety of friends and relatives as well as of the evacuees themselves. It also may have reduced the traffic of incoming calls and may even have prevented some distraught families from going to the WTC in person

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