Recovery Still Ongoing at WTC Site After 10 Years

It's been 10 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, and recovery has been part of the rebuilding operation virtually every day since.

There are still human remains on the site and John Norman III, deputy assistant chief (retired) who was in charge of rescue operations for FDNY at the time of the attacks, said the city has been committed to recovery since day one.

Norman gave a presentation this summer about the search, rescue and recovery operations on and after 9/11 at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.

To set the stage about the sheer magnitude of the buildings, Norman explained that each of the 110 floors in each tower were 1 acre in size. The buildings were 200 feet square. At the time of their construction, they were built to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, the largest plane in the sky at the time, but much smaller than the Boeing 767 loaded with 10,000 pounds of jet fuel. The Trade Center towers were built with a very heavy steel core in the center and a much lighter skeleton on the outside walls and each floor interconnected between the core and the exterior wall.

"Nobody ever thought the towers would collapse, nobody," Norman said. Certainly not in the short time that had lapsed.

But collapse they did at terminal velocity, or about 125 miles per hour with such force it destroyed the nearby 32-floor, 700-room Marriott hotel, Norman said.

"It was an immense building, just gone," Norman said. Consequently, the debris piles were overwhelming in size and complicated and challenging for rescue and recovery efforts. Thirty five-foot extension ladders didn't reach the tops of some of the debris piles, he said.

"You could have been a world class mountaineer and you still would have had difficulties," Norman said. Complicating the situation was the fact that all the metal and debris was red hot from the fires deep below.

The overall site was about 16 acres and debris had traveled much further, Norman said. "We had people trapped in buildings three blocks away," he said, noting that forces were already stretched thin and then the loss of 343 FDNY personnel made search and rescue that much more complicated.

Authorities were bracing for at least 10,000 victims and were trying to figure out the resources that would be necessary to continue with the operation.

Complicating the problem was the once very familiar World Trade Center was reduced to an unrecognizable maze of debris.

"I had worked in those building for years and I could not get my bearings," Norman said. Not only was there debris above the surface, there were several floors below grade too creating holes at least 30 feet deep.

And all the obstructions were heavy concrete, box-beam steel supports that were three feet thick with virtually no equipment big enough to tough the work to be done.

The digging by hand and the symbolic bucket brigade "made people feel good, but they didn't really help that much," Norman said.

"There were no training manuals that would help with what we were facing," he said.

As the remains recovery continued, firefighters working on the pile were faced with huge emotional dilemmas, like a father who saw his son's remains in the pile and begged for his retrieval, Norman said.

"Please, please don't leave him down there," Norman said of the father's pleas. "We saw that kind of thing over and over again. People were in bad, bad spots to recover buddies doing things we would have never done otherwise."

It took a while to mobilize the kind of equipment needed to do the work that was going to be done to recover victims and remains. They needed 1,000 ton cranes to lift some of the debris and there are only a few of those kinds of vehicles in the world. They were not immediately available, Norman said, noting that even if they were, it was going to take time to clear paths for them to deploy.

Air quality was an issue as well with not only smoke and debris in the atmosphere, but hazardous materials like Freon for the air conditioning systems and a toxic stew of other compounds.

"The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] started taking air quality samples but it didn't take air monitoring to tell you it was bad," Norman said. "You got a metallic taste in your mouth that just wouldn't go away."

There was difficulty deciding when it was time to move from rescue operations to recovery as well, Norman said, noting there have been incidents of people surviving up to 18 days trapped in collapses.

But the World Trade Center collapses were different in that the floors had pancaked, leaving very few survivable void spaces.

As FDNY crews worked on the pile during the rescue and recovery efforts, firefighters from around the region backfilled the stations and covered for all the other calls the department had received on a routine bases. Norman said that system worked for a while and he's grateful for the help, but there were people working in places where they had no idea where they were or the challenges they faced. It was an imperfect system, but they made it work.

"I thank you with all my heart for all you did for us during that time," Norman said. When all was said and done, more than two million tons of debris had been removed and still, there are several hundred victims where no remains have been identified or found.

"That site has to remain a national treasure," Norman said. "There are human remains there that may never be recovered.... We all went through the toughest thing to ever happen in the fire service and we made it. Working for FDNY is still the greatest job on Earth. We are going to be OK as an organization."