Operations in Tower 1

Operations in Tower 1

I was at FDNY Headquarters in the borough of Brooklyn when the World Trade Center (WTC) explosion occurred. I was notified of a second alarm at the WTC and that there had been some type of explosion. Usually, a report of an explosion in a high-rise indicates an electrical problem such as a large short or a transformer explosion. After notification of a rapid escalation to a third alarm, I responded with Deputy Chief Edward Dennehy.

As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into lower Manhattan, a fourth alarm was transmitted, along with an additional alarm for Tower 1. The fire department radio traffic told me something big and unusual was taking place —this wasn’t the “run-of-themill” high-rise fire.

1 approached the WTC and drove past the entrance ramp to the loading zone/parking garage under the building. Smoke was issuing from the opening, and firefighters were removing people from the area and stretching lines into the lower levels.

As 1 crossed West Street to the command post, 1 could see smoke drifting around and over Tower 1. I also could see people evacuating, tower windows being broken by the occupants, and a lot of confusion on the street. 1 reported to Deputy Assistant Chief Kenneth Cerreta at the command post, but I declined to assume the role of incident commander because 1 knew Chief of Department Anthony Fusco would be arriving soon and would be in command. 1 concentrated instead on Tower 1 and in finding solutions to the problems we had there.

Firefighters remove a victim of smoke inhalation from the plaza/mezzanine level. Two of the three stairways in each tower ended on that level, but with a heavy smoke condition occupants had difficulty finding the exits to the exterior plaza. Forcible entry was required on at least one of these plaza doors in Tower I.

(Photo by Robert Knobloch.)

I was not prepared for the scene that greeted me when I entered the lobby: The smoke condition was so black and thick that visibility, even with a flashlight, was no more than three feet. The lobby was filled with people trying to evacuate. Fire, police, Port Authority, and EMS personnel had formed a human chain to funnel the people out of the stairw ay to the exit. Deputy Chief Dennehy and Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto were trying to establish a sub-command post near the entrance to gain control over responding units.

After a quick reconnaissance of the lobby, I determined that I had to stop the smoke from being drawn into Tower 1, if possible. 1 took a company and went to the exposure #4 side, next to the Vista Hotel, where I knew there was a passageway connecting the tower and the hotel. I hoped that somebody hadn’t closed the doors and that was the reason smoke was getting in.

We soon found that not to be the case: The explosion had blow n a hole through the floor in an area of the Vista Hotel adjoining Tower 1 and had blown out a number of large plateglass windows that were designed to act as a barrier between the two buildings. We would not be able to stop the movement of smoke. 1 knew that Tower 1, because of the stack effect, would act as a chimney for the fire down in the lower levels and that doors opening onto the stairway and smoke travel through elevator shafts would allow tenant spaces to become contaminated.

On our way back to the entrance, one of our members suggested that we remove the front windows. Normally in a high-rise fire 1 wouldn’t break out the windows, but in this case I felt that removing them would allow some fresh air into the lobby and stairways and might change the smoke patterns, keeping the smoke from being drawn into the tower, so I approved that action.

I proceeded to the lobby command post and told the chiefs that the smoke could not be stopped and we would have to search the entire building—all 110 floors and 99 elevators. The explosion blew many elevator doors off their tracks and severed electrical cables, bringing all elevator service to a stop and trapping anyone in an elevator at that time.

At this point, the people exiting from the stairway were choking from the smoke and complaining that there were no communications or lights. Reports from the evacuees indicated that smoke was heavy up to at least the 20th floor, possibly beyond that.

We would have to rely primarily on firefighters to communicate with occupants. The WTC’s central fire command station was located on the B-l level. The single control room had worked fairly well over the years, but when the blast knocked the control room out of service, the drawbacks of having only one control room for the entire complex were brought to the forefront. With the control room inoperative, communication between command and the floors became impossible. The Port Authority’s portable radio system could not be used, since it operated on a relay system that passed through the control room. The only communication with upper floors was via civilian radio or telephone system —or emergency workers. Telephones were a problem because those on a private telephone switching station operate on power from the building.

1 left the building and reported my findings to Chief Fusco, now in command of the incident. I requested 30 to 40 units as soon as possible, then went to assume command of the Tower 1 sector.

As I was leaving the command post, someone directed my attention to the walkway between the Tower 1 mezzanine and the Vista Hotel patio, specifically to a Tower 1 door located at that level. He said people were banging on the door and couldn’t get it open.

When the WTC was designed, 1 don’t think anyone envisioned that someday 25,000 occupants would have to evacuate using only the stairways. Tower 1 was designed with only three evacuation stairways; onlyone of these runs the full length of the building to the lobby level. The other two stairways end at the mezzanine in the lobby of Tower 1, the exterior plaza level of the WTC. A walkway connects the Tower 1 mezzanine with the Vista Hotel’s outside patio. Most occupants of the WTC had never entered the stairways before the incident; if the stairs were used, it was only for a floor or two. The stairs are not used as a regular means of egress.

The glass partition wall between Tower 1 and the Vista Hotel (looking toward the Vista) was destroyed by the blast, filling the lobby with smoke.

(Photos courtesy of Port Authority Risk Management.)

I ordered a truck company to the Tower 1 door leading to the walkway patio to force open the door. A tower ladder was parked nearby, and 1 ordered a member to raise the bucket up to the patio in case we needed it to assist evacuees. When the door was forced open, we found people piled up against it. Some were unconscious due to the smoke. They had come down the stairways that ended on the mezzanine level. Because of the heavysmoke, they couldn’t find the exits after they got to the mezzanine.

After the lobby windows were broken out, the smoke condition in the lobby and mezzanine improved considerably. It was then that 1 discovered some lights were still working. They stayed operational for only a short time, until the emergency generators went out and, with them, the lighting.

As companies reported in to Tower 1 sector command, they were given five-floor sectors to search and were directed to take a specific stairway to those floors so we could provide relatively uniform coverage to each of the three evacuation routes. The searching firefighters, as expected, had to force numerous doors both from the stairways and on the floors.

I directed Battalion Chief Picciotto to assist at the command post in coordinating assignments. By the time our operation was in full swing, we had two deputies, each covering half of the tower; five battalion chiefs responsible for 20 floors; and approximately eight to 10 units operating per 20 floors.

Damaged elevator doors and enclosures on the B-2 level presented a vertical channel for smoke spread into Tower 1.

(Photo courtesy of Port Authority Risk Management.)

A representative from Port Authority engineering reported to the sector command post and informed me that he had a number of elevator mechanics available to climb the stairs to the machinery rooms on floors -tH and 74, where they could release the brakes on the cars and bring them up to the sky lobby to be checked. I detailed a truck company to accompany the elevator personnel to search the elevators.

All units started from floor one and had to climb the stairs to whatever floors they had been assigned. At a rate of one minute per flight of stairs, it would take an hour to reach the 60th floor. But during such an emergcncy. with people using common stairways to evacuate, it really takes closer to two or three minutes per floor. We had to allow approximately two to three hours for a climb to the 60th floor. Chiefs on the stairs reported progress/status and the conditions they found through a relay system; my portable radio was good up to about i.4 floors, so I stationed a deputy chief at that position to relay information from above down to me. 1 received periodic updates from messengers with MI)T printouts of the calls from occupants of upper floors. I sent these messengers back to the command post w ith requests for additional units and progress reports.

Firefighters vented windows of the Tower 1 lobby, relieving the heavy smoke condition in the lobby and allowing some fresh air into the building.

(Photo at left by Robert Knobloch; photo at right courtesy of Port Authority Risk Management.)

All afternoon, I was receiving reports of people trapped or in need of help. All these reports were investigated. People on the lower floors could be helped fairly easily, but it is very disheartening to get a message about people needing help because of a heart condition or disability when you know that nobody can reach them for a couple of hours. Nevertheless, emergency personnel accounted for all those who needed extra help. In some cases, nonambulatory civilians or civilians w ith health problems were carried down the stairs to ground level from upper floors. EMS (stair) chairs and regular office chairs were used in many carries. Furthermore, late-arriving engine companies were requested to bring resuscitators to upper floors.

The operation in Tower 1 was a massive search and evacuation effort. High-rise firefighting often calls for a defend-in-place strategy whereby occupants are sheltered in safe areas of the building while the fire is extinguished and essential building systems/services are restored, if necessary’. In this case, however, because occupants felt the explosion, followed a few minutes later by smoke throughout the building, almost everyone started to self-evacuate. The fire department made the decision to order a complete evacuation anyway, due to the nature of the incident and the unlikelihood that building electrical pow er and fire protection systems would become operational in a suitable period of time.

Approximately four hours into the operation, 1 stopped sending companies up the stairs, since companies already had made it to the 80th floor and could reach the top much faster than companies starting from the bottom. We already had more than 40 companies operating in Tower 1. At 1800 hours—the change of tour—the issue of relief arose. 1 decided not to relieve the units, instructing them to perform secondary searches on the way down. Some units had been in the building for more than eight hours by the time they got back to the street.

As time went on, problems developed that are inevitable in any extended operation — flashlight batteries died, radio batteries started getting weak, firefighters were getting hungry, and exhaustion was setting in. W’e decided that as soon as members reached the lobby area, they would take up and go home.

The firefighters who operated in Tower 1 accomplished remarkable things. Some climbed 110 floors to search. Some carried people down 60 or 80 floors. Members responded to about 20 maydays for people in serious trouble. They searched 99 elevators and, in the end, 25,000 people were evacuated.

When I first w’ent into the tower and saw the smoke condition, I expected to have a big problem —people collapsing and maybe even a few deaths. As time went on, conditions improved and, except for a few cases of exhaustion and chest pains that were quickly handled, the pressure on everyone lessened.

On that Friday, I believe anybody who responded went through a whole range of emotions, from fear of a large loss of life to anxiety, exhaustion, and, finally, exhilaration. It was an operation that few who were there will ever forget.


  • With barriers between belowgrade areas and Tower 1 breached,
  • stack effect in control, and the force of the explosion behind it, smoke migrated to upper floors through shafts within minutes. A crucial early action was the removal of the lobby windows, allowing some smoke to escape and that which remained inside the tower to be diluted. This “short-circuiting” made the evacuation route more clear and cut down on the quantity of smoke on the upper floors.


  • Without elevators, sending companies to upper floors in large highrise buildings is measured in hours, not minutes. Chief officers must call for and coordinate resources accordingly.
  • There is no perfect building. Having the two stairs discharge to the mezzanine lobby, rather than directly to the exterior, was a major building design flaw. With visibility at less than a few feet due to smoke, people could not find their way out once they reached the mezzanine. Exits must be continuous—safely leading people to a public way.
  • Rest and rehabilitation play a critical role in operations that place great physical demands on firefighters. Early in the operation, doctors and nurses from the Fort Authority health clinic in Tower 1 set up a space in the cafeteria on the 43rd floor for medical attention and rest and rehabilitation. This was used by civilians and emergency personnel and became an important area because it could supply
  • soft drinks and food to those who needed them.
  • One of our biggest problems was communications. All building systems went down when the command center was knocked out. For operations involving very tall buildings or belowgrade areas, consider using a relay system for communications. Preplan and build contingency plans—our effectiveness is only as good as our
Port Authority police maintain security at the Tower 1 lobby. This is essential if the sector commander is to stay focused.

(Photo by FDNY Photo Unit.)

  • ability to communicate.
  • Congested stairways made the use of stokes baskets for victim removal impractical. Fortunately, no victims required immobilization, so EMS chairs and office chairs were functional in transporting nonambulatorv/incapacitated civilians. In the future, it would be extremely beneficial to emergency personnel to have medical supplies, EMS chairs, resuscitators, etc. available at various locations throughout these large structures for possible use during an emergency.
  • Elevators represent both the primary and secondary means of egress for nonambulatory/incapacitated occupants of large high-rise buildings.
  • Moving nonambulatory occupants down the stairways was a very difficult, manpower-intensive task. We were able to evacuate approximately 15 to 20 nonambulatory civilians from Tower 1, but what would have happened if we had to accommodate 100 or more? Serious thought must be given to providing these individuals greater self-sufficiency in egressing large public buildings.
  • Sizes of the avenues of egress must be able to handle the occupant load. Evacuees were moving down the stairs as quickly as they could, but that was slow —like toll booths during rush hour in a big city. People from upper floors waited as long as an hour
  • at certain points along the way while lower-floor occupants filed out. Not until 1630 hours did the steady stream of evacuees from the stairways lighten up.
  • Duplication of search efforts was a problem —among different emergency agencies and the fire department itself. Greater attention to marking stairwell entrance doors to searched floors is important.
  • Entry into the building by nonemergency personnel and members of private concerns (such as the media) must be controlled. This aspect was handled well by Port Authority Police located at building entrances.

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