Search and Rescue: An Overview

Search and Rescue: An Overview

Within minutes of the initial explosion and resulting fire, rescues had begun. Port Authority personnel, including police officers at the command center on the B-l level and maintenance personnel who had been having lunch on the B-2 level, received a major blast impact. A number of victims had to be removed from beneath the rubble by their fellow employees.

Firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes. By the time handlines were positioned and advanced toward the below-grade fires, rescues were taking place. As firefighters made their way down into the garage area, they were finding victims trapped under rubble piles, while other victims could be heard hollering for help. Although six people lost their lives, the potential for a much greater catastrophe was diminished by the heroic efforts of those involved in the rescue and suppression operations.

Self-evacuation of the towers had begun minutes after the explosion. Occupants of the upper floors reported that smoke entered their office spaces minutes after they felt the effects of the initial blast. The fire department command structure implemented for this operation provided for, in addition to the main command post, individual sector and subsector commands within the primary areas that required immediate search and rescue. The sector command posts were located in the Vista Hotel, Tower 1, and Tower 2. Subsector command was established at the lower levels for fire extinguishment and the rescue of Firefighter Kevin Shea.

Vista Hotel. All 829 rooms in the hotel had to be searched. After hearing and feeling the explosion, a number of occupants surprisingly remained in their rooms. Many others were found in the hallways and stairways and had to be assisted to safe locations. In addition, where master keys were not available, firefighters had to force numerous doors.

lower /. In Tower 1, where the smoke condition was the heaviest, those conducting a massive search and rescue operation were encountering a multitude of problems that had the potential for disastrous results. Each of the 110 floors had to be searched and occupants had to be assisted in evacuating. In many cases, firefighters physically removed victims to the street. Adding to these problems were 99 elevators that had to be located and searched; victims, some unconscious, were found in numerous elevators.

Tower 2. The search and rescue operation in Tower 2 was similar to that in Tower 1: All 110 floors and 99 elevators had to be searched and victims located and removed to the street. Fortunately, the smoke condition in Tower 2 was not as severe as that in Tower 1, but this didn’t reduce the problems encountered. Thousands of occupants were self-evacuating, and the search of elevators and tenant spaces was equally exhausting.

Below grade. Major firefighting and search and rescue operations were required below grade near the large blast area. The parking garage, with a total capacity of 2,000 vehicles, was about half-filled at the time of the explosion. Many cars were involved in fire, creating the additional danger of exploding gas tanks. The search effort in this area also required checking each vehicle for possible victims. Victims rescued from rubble piles reported that a number of fellow employees might be trapped in the same area; this was later confirmed by Fort Authority management. The destruction from the explosion prevented rescuers from using some stairways to the lower floors, forcing them to find alternative means of reaching victims. Usually this meant climbing over and through debris. The search and rescue operation below grade was complicated by the fact that firefighting efforts required the use of nine handlines for final fire extinguishment.

Firefighter rescue. During the rescues below grade, one of the firefighters himself became a victim. Firefighter Kevin Shea, while making his way toward the sounds of a trapped victim, fell through flooring into the crater formed by the blast. After falling more than 40 feet and being severely injured, he still was able to direct rescuers to his location. Firefighters conducted an all-out operation to reach him, and he was successfully removed from this precarious position while fire extinguishment operations were still underway.


What are the means by which such an enormous rescue operation is controlled? An expanded incident command system that ensures adequate span of control but yet is flexible and adaptable. Sectoring and subsectoring the incident were critical. The sector commanders split up their areas of responsibility into manageable parts, each under the control of an officer. For example, the commander of Tower 1 split the building in half and designated two chiefs for those areas; then he designated several officers responsible for coordinating the search and rescue operations on 10 to 20 floors. Approximately eight to 10 units were assigned to each of these areas. This type of coverage was designed to ensure that all floors would be searched in a controlled mode.

Since each floor was equivalent to an acre in size, search would be a time-consuming job. Although the majority of occupants were ambulator}7, those who were disabled, elderly, pregnant, or in need of immediate first aid required assistance that eventually reduced the number of rescuers available, creating the need for additional personnel and requiring the transmission of additional alarms. Well-coordinated communications within the command structure were required so the incident commander could keep informed of the needs of his subcommands.

Staffing was an ongoing problem throughout the operation. Tasks such as removing victims in wheelchairs from upper floors required four firefighters. Rescuers also were required to assist in evacuating occupants down the smoke-filled stairways to the street. Factors such as these required that the subcommands and the incident commander adjust and adapt the operational plan accordingly.


Locating the elevators in each of the buildings required a coordinated effort. Normally, building maintenance personnel would have been able to provide invaluable help at the very outset of the incident. Unfortunately. many maintenance personnel had been located in the area of the blast when it occurred. It would be hours before some of them were available to assist with elevator rescue operations. Even in buildings where elevator personnel were available, in some cases they still had to climb 1 10 flights to reach the uppermost sky lobby and recall some elevators—and the climb could take four hours.

The elevators serving the local floors had discharge doors that could be opened easily, and rescuers could look into the shafts for elevator locations. However, the heavy smoke condition was traveling up the shafts to the upper floors, causing additional problems for rescuers trying to locate elevators; each shaft had to be checked at every possible access opening for locations.

Locating express elevators in blind shafts presented the biggest problem. As these blind shafts pass through the floors, there is no visible indication of shaft location at each floor. Those rescuers assigned to locate elevators, lacking the assistance of building maintenance personnel, had to rely on their experience, knowledge, and training to accomplish this most difficult assignment. Even after locating a shaft, heavy smoke conditions required rescue teams to make floor-byfloor inspections into the shaft until they eventually found the elevator in a shaft. Fortunately, through rescuers’ efforts, numerous trapped occupants were saved. In one case, a firefighter located an elevator, forced open the car doors, and found It) victims lying unconscious on the car floor. All the victims were successfully resuscitated because of the rescuer’s efforts.

1’he search, rescue, and evacuation of the World Trade Center was the largest and most complex operation to which FDNY has responded. The effective implementation and utilization of the incident command system, the resources available to FDNY, and the training and professionalism of its members enabled this department and its rescuers to accomplish one of the most successful search and rescue missions in fire service history.

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