When the dust started to clear hours after the collapse of towers No. 1 and No.2 of the World Trade Center, it was apparent that the Fire Department of New York was in serious trouble.
Three hundred and forty-three members were dead or missing, the top commanders including Chief of Department Peter Ganci Jr., First Deputy Commissioner William Feehan, and Assistant Chiefs Gerard Barbara and Donald Burns were dead. To make matters worse, practically all of the on-duty personnel assigned to the department’s rescue and squad companies were missing as well, including their commander Battalion Chief Ray Downey.
In addition, the collapses showered millions of tons of debris down on two fifth alarm assignments of FDNY apparatus and equipment. While others worked on the suppression and rescue aspects of the disaster, the enormous task of getting the department back on its wheels fell to the men and women of the Fleet and Technical Services Division, headed by Assistant Commissioner Tom McDonald.
The department had 98 pieces of apparatus destroyed. These included
19 Pumpers including squad/pumper units
18 Ladders and tower ladders
2 Rescue units (No. 1 and 2)
1 Tactical rescue support unit
2 High Rise support units
1 Satellite Unit (LDH hose wagon)
2 Rescue support units (second sections of Squad 1 and Rescue 5)
2 Fleet Maintenance field service units
16 GMC Suburbans, Fire and EMS
McDonald’s first move was to activate the department’s fleet of 500 series engines. These rigs are kept packed with hose and tools and are serviced and tested twice a year, the same as first-line engines. Immediately supplementing this reserve fleet were 10 pumpers and five ladders assigned to the Fire Training Academy, that were brought into the shops, loaded with equipment and sent out into the field. Finally, the department has spare apparatus that are used as loaners when a company’s regular apparatus is in the shops. These were brought in, outfitted with equipment by tool room personnel, and assigned to companies.
As damaged rigs were driven or towed into the shops, they were washed down with 1-3/4” lines attached to hydrants and triaged by shop personnel. Those that could be fixed rapidly, for example those needing replacement windshields, were turned around by shop personnel who worked 24-hours a day to get rigs back on the street.
Drivers were sent to the salvage yard to retrieve apparatus ready to be auctioned off, and after reinstallation of radio and firefighting equipment, these were rapidly put into service as well.
Remarkably, within four days, all companies (except Engine 10 and Ladder 10 whose quarters were rendered inaccessible by collapse debris) were back in full operation.
Vendors were contacted and they shipped hose, hydraulic tools, saws, hand tools and other miscellaneous equipment, usually loading trucks and driving straight to New York.
Sometimes problems arose that required improvising. For example, the FDNY uses couplings on their 3-1/2” hose that has 3” threads. While coupling manufacturers geared up to make these items, the shops sent personnel down to the World Trade center site to cut couplings off of damaged, unserviceable hose for reuse.
Offers came in from around the country offering the department apparatus and equipment. It was decided early on that the department had the resources to operate for a long enough period to allow the delivery of units meeting their specifications, so these offers were politely declined. The disadvantages of attempting to train personnel to operate units with different pump panel layouts, having bodies that could not accommodate the standard FDNY hose loads and having the shops deal with servicing units with non-standard parts far outweighed the need for rapid arrival of new units.
In one afternoon, Commissioner McDonald placed orders for close to $30-million worth of apparatus.