When the Towers Fell

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
10 Ambulances
24 Sedans
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.
 
These included:
 
26 Engines, Seagrave Fire Apparatus
            19 Standard FDNY pumpers
            4 High Pressure high-rise pumpers
            3 Squad/pumpers
28 Ladder Company Apparatus, Seagrave Fire Apparatus
            5 tractor/trailer aerials
            6 75’ Aerialscope tower ladders
            17 rear mount 100’ ladders
These were in addition to the 26 rear mount and 9 tower ladders on order before the incident
 
11 E-One/Saulsbury Fire-Rescue apparatus
            5 26’ Heavy Rescue units
            2 Tactical Support units built on donated International chassis
            2 High Rise Support units built on donated Mack MC chassis
            1 Satellite LDH hose wagon built on donated Mack MC chassis
            1 walk-around Freightliner demonstrator rescue
Other units
            1 American LaFrance Eagle pumper that was a demonstrator built to FDNY specs
            and was about to be placed in service before the incident, was purchased
            1 Hackney Air Mask service unit
            13 GMC Suburbans
            16 Ford Crown Victoria sedans in addition to 24 already on order
            39 Ford Excursions in addition to 10 donated by Ford Motor Co.
 
Later on, other apparatus arrived, built to FDNY specifications by various builders, most using labor donated by these companies’ personnel.
            1 General rescue unit built on donated Mack MR chassis
            1 Luverne/Spartan pumper
            1 Ferrara pumper
 
The department was battered, but was certainly not down for the count. 
 
A number of polices and procedures were in place before the attack that helped the department get back in service rapidly.
 
The department had all apparatus on an 11-year replacement cycle, so most components such as engines, transmissions and pumps had a full range of parts available. Because replacement apparatus is ordered on a regular basis, it is much easier to standardize on components and body designs, making parts interchangeable between units. 
 
An example of this is that the department had 80 windshields in stock, more than the apparatus manufacturers.
 
Three rigs had blown diesel engines, which burned up when dust and debris plugged their air filters. These were rebuilt in the apparatus, and returned to service within a week and a half of the incident.
 
A common problem with apparatus brought in to the shops from the World Trade Center site was burned out cabs, caused by burning debris entering through open windows. While the bodies might be serviceable, the chassis was not. These units became donors for rigs suffering only impact damage.
 
Many rigs were damaged beyond repair. Two had so much damage, shop personnel could not tell what company they were assigned to. All shop personnel had to go on were serial numbers from the axles, which the manufacturer’s then traced through purchase orders and bills of materials to identify the VIN number.
 
The key to the FDNY apparatus recovery was the remarkable performance of shop personnel, augmented by members of the New England Fire Mechanics association and manufacturers’ technicians.
 
An incredible 80 pieces of FDNY apparatus were removed from the WTC scene, cleaned, repaired, tested and placed back in service with four days of the incident.
 
It’s hard to believe that only a few years before, the department successfully fought off an effort to privatize the Fleet Maintenance operation.
 
At a hastily called news conference on the evening of September 11th, Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen said with determination, “it’s a devastating thing. The department will recover, but I don’t know how.” 
 
That it recovered so rapidly is a tribute by its men and woman to those 343 members who lost their life 10 years ago. May they rest in peace.

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