Sept. 11, 2001 – or now known to many as just 9/11 – is a date which will be remembered long after most of us reading this are gone. The worst terrorist attack to strike the United States occurred when two hijacked commercial passenger jetliners crashed into the upper floors of New York City’s World Trade Center. The resultant fire and collapse of the twin 1,350-foot-tall towers decimated the 16-acre site. Numerous buildings in the complex or located nearby were destroyed or suffered catastrophic damage.
The initial FDNY response at the change of tours brought numerous units to the scene. As the fires escalated and the buildings collapsed, requests were made for a nearly 25-alarm response from all over the city. First reports estimated 10,000 civilians were killed or missing. There were early reports that nearly 400 firefighters had been killed. Personnel who were just going off duty rode on responding apparatus, and many off-duty firefighters reported directly to the scene. It was some time before an accurate count of 343 firefighters killed or missing could be tabulated.
American Airlines Flight 11 took off at 7:59 A.M. carrying 92 people from Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles. At 8:14 A.M., United Airlines Flight 175 left Boston for Los Angeles with 65 people aboard. Flight 11, a 767 jet, crashed into the north side of 1 World Trade Center (the north tower) at 8:45. At 9:03, Flight 175, a Boeing 767 jet, slammed into the south side of 2 World Trade Center (the south tower). The second jet reportedly was flying at least 100 knots faster than the first jet to strike the World Trade Center.
Minutes after the attack in New York City, the Pentagon, located in Arlington County, VA, became a target. American Airlines Flight 77, a jetliner carrying 64 people from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, slammed into an outside section of the huge military complex. This attack was also the work of hijackers aboard a passenger aircraft. A fourth hijacked jet, United Airlines Flight 93, that departed Newark, NJ, bound for San Francisco, crashed in Shanksville, PA, about 80 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Apparently, passengers tried to overtake the hijackers and in the struggle the Boeing 757 with 45 people aboard crashed into a field. There were no survivors from any of the four jets.
The World Trade Center Complex
Construction of the World Trade Center began in the late 1960s and was completed in the early 1970s. The cost was $1.5 billion. It took more than 200,000 tons of steel and 425,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the structures. The site included buildings 1 and 2, the twin office towers. Building 1, the north tower, was the first tower to be completed. Each tower had 104 elevators. A television antenna rose hundreds of feet above the north tower.
The complex also included building 3, a 22-story, 818-room Marriott Hotel that opened in 1981. This was the first hotel to open in lower Manhattan below Canal Street since 1836. Buildings 4 and 5 were nine-story office buildings. Building 6 was the eight-story U.S. Customs House.
Building 7, a 47-story high-rise office building, was newest structure in the complex and it housed the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) on the 23rd floor. OEM is charged with coordinating incidents of any type that involves multi-agency response. Its charter includes responsibility for hazard and threat identification, pre-planning, multi-agency training and response drills, and long-range recommendations regarding the city’s capacity to deal with emergency conditions and potential incidents. The OEM was evacuated and reassembled at another location to contend with the ongoing incident.
The City of New York is protected by the FDNY, which was founded in 1865. The city is made up of five geographic areas called boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. The FDNY receives alarms from civilians at five separate fire alarm offices, one located in each borough. Calls are answered generally by three means: telephone; 4,546 telegraph alarm boxes on the street; or 10,000 ERS (Emergency Reporting System) units that let a civilian on the street talk directly to a police or fire alarm dispatcher and specify the type of emergency.
The fire department is organized into nine divisions, 49 battalions, the Safety Operating Battalion, the Special Operations Battalion, 203 engine companies, 143 ladder companies, five rescue companies, seven squad companies, three fireboats, a hazardous materials unit and many other specialized units. There are a total of 479 units in the FDNY. The department also operates the Emergency Medical Service.
In 2001, the FDNY had 11,112 uniformed personnel. More than 2,100 firefighters are on duty during each shift, operating from over 220 firehouses. Firefighters work two day shifts from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., are off for two days, then work two night shifts from 6 P.M. to 9 A.M. The FDNY protects over 8 million people in a 321-square-mile area. The average response time is 4:43 minutes citywide. Last year, the FDNY responded to 57,443 fires, 328,034 emergencies, 51,544 false alarms and 3,157 serious fires, totaling 437,021 alarms.
The New York City Emergency Medical Service was founded in 1970 as part of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp. The private institutions operating ambulances in the citywide system came to be known as “voluntary hospitals.” The city-owned portion of the joint system was transferred to the fire department in March 1996. Fire companies became first responders during the same year, implementing a three-tier response system involving first responder firefighters, basic life support (BLS) emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and advanced life support (ALS) paramedics.
The EMS program includes units operating from 26 municipal stations and 41 voluntary hospitals. The ambulance deployment program as of Jan. 13, 2002, provides for 584 municipal/EMS tours per day, 142 on Tour 1 (midnight to 8 A.M.) and 221 on each of the next two eight-hour tours.
ALS personnel perform 24% of those tours. The voluntary hospitals provide additional 354 tours per day, 38% of the total, of which 47% is at the ALS level. Forty-six volunteer ambulance corps in the city augment the EMS program. These volunteer BLS units may be called upon when no EMS ambulances are immediately available in a given area, or to assist at a mass-casualty incident or special event. EMS ambulances are assigned to 29 stations and outposts, the majority of which are hospitals. The city owns 434 ambulances and a contract was signed in 2001 for the delivery of 80 ambulances a year for the next five years. EMS Operations responded to 1,097,564 incidents in 2001.
The World Trade Center was the site of a 1993 terrorist bombing in which six people were killed and hundreds were injured when a large bomb exploded in an underground parking garage. It took 16 alarms of companies to extinguish the fire and evacuate the twin towers and the hotel. Electricity was knocked out and units had to walk up 110 flights above the street to check on trapped occupants. Units had to work their way six levels below the street to search the rubble after the bombing caused a partial collapse of the underground spaces.
Several multiple-alarm fires occurred in the towers, one involving an electrical fire that communicated to several floors above the original location in utility service spaces. In July 2001, Rescue 1, under the command of Captain Terry Hatton, with first alarm units responded to the top of the south tower to free a child whose leg was caught in a ride near the observation deck. Another serious incident occurred before 9/11 when an elevator car had a serious failure and Rescue Company 1 had to secure the elevator car in the shaft near the 78th floor.
9/11: The Initial Alarm
Chief Joseph Pfiefer of Battalion 1 has 20 years of service with the FDNY, including five years in the First Battalion. Pfiefer was operating at a natural gas leak with Engines 7 and 6 and Ladders 8 and 1 at Church and Lispenard streets. A video cameraman was riding in the battalion vehicle. A crew had been in the process of filming a documentary on a probationary firefighter assigned to Tower Ladder 1. Whenever the firefighter worked, the crew rode with Battalion 1, which was located in the same firehouse.
There was an odor of natural gas in the area and the gas utility Con Edison was requested. A low-flying jet roared over their heads. As everyone on the scene looked up, the jet struck the north side of the north tower of the World Trade Center, creating a huge fireball. Pfiefer responded and took the units on scene with him. Pfiefer radioed the Manhattan fire alarm dispatcher, requesting a second alarm to report to the Trade Center and 20 seconds later asking for a third alarm to stage at Vesey and West streets.
The tip of Manhattan is protected by Battalion 1, under the command of the deputy chief of the First Division. Battalion 1 is comprised of four engines and three trucks that respond from four firehouses in the oldest section of lower Manhattan.
Engine 6, “The Tigers,” are named for the “Tammany Tiger,” a symbol of “Boss” William Tweed, whose Tammany Hall politics in the late 1800s are well known in the history of the city’s corruption scandals.
The “Ten House” housing Engine 10 and Ladder 10 is across the street from the site of the south tower of the World Trade Center complex. This is one of only two firehouses of the 220 in the FDNY that house engine and ladder companies with the same numbers (Engine 52 and Ladder 52 are housed together in the Bronx).
Engine 7, Tower Ladder 1 and the 1st Battalion share a firehouse called “Stately Duane Manor” on Duane Street a few blocks the from City Hall. Tower Ladder 1 was the first ladder company in the city to receive an aerial platform in 1964. The company was routinely special-called all over the city to operate with its platform. Today, the city operates 62 tower ladders out of 143 ladder companies citywide.
Engine 4 and Tower Ladder 15, “Wall Street,” are housed in a firehouse located in a high-rise building on South Street facing the East River. The firehouse was built within the high-rise when the developer used the existing firehouse location for an outdoor plaza and swapped the space. This is one of three firehouses located within high-rise structures in Manhattan.
On the request for three alarms to the World Trade Center, four engine companies, three ladder companies, two battalion chiefs, a squad company and a rescue company under the command of a deputy chief would normally respond on the first alarm. On the working fire signal of 10-75, an additional ladder responds as the rapid intervention company, or FAST (Firefighter Assist and Search Team) truck.
On the second alarm, an additional four engine companies, two ladder companies, two battalion chiefs and several special units respond. Among these units are the field communications unit, safety battalion, marine company (fireboat), tactical support unit, special operations battalion, satellite hose unit with an additional engine company, and a recuperation and care (RAC) unit. On the third alarm, four additional engine companies, one ladder company, a battalion chief and the mask service unit respond.
Pfiefer arrived at the west-side entrance to 1 World Trade Center. Entering the tower he walked to the fire command station located in the northwest corner of the lobby. Many of the large windows in the lobby were broken, and pieces of marble in the elevator lobbies were cracked or had fallen from the impact of the jet between the 96th and the 103rd floors. Pfiefer was advised that numerous people were trapped in nearly 25 elevators, the highest was at the 71st floor. The elevators were not working. Apparently, jet fuel had poured down the elevator shafts. Some of the elevators were on fire. Signs of smoke and fire damage were visible at some elevators. Many of the elevator doors were missing.
Deputy Chief Pete Hayden of the 1st Division arrived minutes after Pfiefer. The 1st Division is responsible for everything from the lower tip of Manhattan to 34th Street. Hayden wanted to identify the problems confronting the FDNY. He asked about the elevators, identifying the attack stairs, and inquired about the status of the evacuations. He also wanted to know what assignments were given out. A Port Authority supervisor asked whether the other tower should be evacuated. Hayden told him evacuate the entire complex.
Chief of Department Peter Ganci witnessed the aftermath of the first jet to attack the towers from his office window at FDNY Headquarters in Brooklyn. Ganci responded with the Chief of Operations Daniel Nigro. While still enroute, Ganci requested two more alarms for a total of five alarms to respond to 1 World Trade Center. Smoke and fire were visible from ten floors. Ganci told Nigro, “This is going to be the worst day of our lives.”
Eight more engine companies and two more ladder companies were dispatched. The FDNY uses a computer-aided dispatch system. The computer monitors the closest engine companies and ladder companies. At this time, 20 engine companies and eight ladder companies were responding from lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Several special units were responding from the Bronx and Queens.
When the first five alarms were transmitted, many firefighters were just coming to the end of their shift. Other firefighters were scheduled to continue working by swapping shifts. Still others were just reporting for duty. When the alarm for the Trade Center was received by computer in the firehouse where companies were assigned on the alarm, in some cases extra firefighters jumped on the apparatus because of the nature of the incident. Firefighters responded from many directions to the Trade Center.
The first jet to strike the north side of Tower 1 did so in between the 96th and 103rd floors. Apparently, jet fuel started a fire that extended to several upper floors. The jet fuel flowed down onto elevators, burning several occupants. These people needed help when the elevator opened on the first floor.
Firefighters arrived and started to help civilians needing medical assistance. Other firefighters arrived and were given orders to start walking up of one the tower’s three stairways. In a high-rise fire, firefighters try to use one stairway as an evacuation stairway and the other stairway for fire attack. Firefighters from engine companies consist of four to five firefighters and under the command of a lieutenant or captain. Their assignment is to carry self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), 50-foot rolls of hose (three to a company), nozzles and tools to control the water from standpipes inside the building.
The driver of the engine company connects hose from the fire hydrant to the apparatus and supplies the building’s standpipe with additional water at great pressures to reach the upper floors. The standard engine company has a 1,000-gpm pump. Six engine companies equipped with 2,000 gpm pumps are assigned to the Satellite Water System. There are seven high-pressure engine companies capable of pumping 500 gpm at 700 psi for use in high-rise operations.
The World Trade Center towers were protected by an automatic sprinkler system, but the crashes apparently damaged the system. Such jets are capable of carrying a massive amount of fuel. Shortly after takeoff for a cross-country trip, the fuel tanks were apparently fully loaded and the jet fuel created an intense fire. Other firefighters reported finding additional burn victims on the first floor of the north tower.
Fire alarm dispatchers received numerous reports from trapped occupants in the 110-story structure. A command post was set up across the street from the complex at West and Vesey streets. Numerous police and ambulances responded to the scene. Ambulances were staged across the street, west of the tower.
At 9:03 A.M., another Boeing 767 struck the south tower between the 87th and 93rd floors. Units on the scene notified dispatch of the second incident. The chief of special operations, Deputy Chief Ray Downey, was still enroute when he radioed the Manhattan fire alarm radio dispatcher and suggested a separate five-alarm assignment to respond to the 2 World Trade Center, the south tower. Ganci concurred and told the dispatcher to dispatch a fifth alarm. Another 20 engine companies, eight ladder companies and several chiefs were assigned.
Because of the large amount of units already dispatched to the first tower, engines and ladders from outlying areas were relocated to empty firehouses near the original scene. Originally assigned units were operating or enroute to the first incident. The nearest fire companies now assigned to the new incident had to respond from a distance, and dispatchers were trying to keep ahead of the anticipated request for additional apparatus.
Several staging areas were set up at firehouses around the city where additional outlying apparatus were directed. From these locations large amounts of apparatus could respond in convoys and be close to the scene if needed. Because Manhattan is an island, apparatus must respond from other boroughs via bridges or tunnels. A two-alarm assignment consisting of eight engines, four trucks and three battalion chiefs were staged on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The Manhattan side of the tunnel is located about four blocks from the incident. This assignment was requested and dispatched to the scene allowing numerous firefighters and apparatus to respond quickly and operate where needed.
Reports were now being received by fire alarm dispatchers of numerous occupants trapped on the upper floors of both towers. This information was relayed to the command post and the field communications unit. As more and more apparatus arrived, units were given assignments into Tower 1 and 2 and the Marriott Hotel, building 3. An additional five alarms were requested to respond to Tower 1. At this time, 68 engines, 25 ladder companies, five rescue companies and nearly 20 chiefs were operating or on the way.
Faced with a huge rescue problem, numerous floors of fires and uncertainty of what was going to happen next, a decision was made to bring back all off-duty members. The first 15 alarms were just a start at what was going to be needed at the site. The first recall of the entire fire department in more than 50 years was made. Off-duty firefighters and officers were instructed to report to their firehouses. (During blackouts in 1965 and 1977, partial recalls were ordered to augment available manpower. The last total recall of the FDNY was ordered on Dec. 26, 1947, during a severe blizzard.) The second-alarm assignment waiting on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn-Battery-Tunnel was requested to respond to the scene. An additional second alarm assignment was requested to south of the trade center area.
At 9:59 A.M., Tower 2, the second tower to be struck, suddenly collapsed. The entire downtown section of Manhattan was covered in debris, smoke and a dust cloud. Numerous civilians trapped on the upper floors were killed along with the firefighters and police officers who were trying to assist them.
Many victims were trapped under tons of debris. Some were rescued, and while they were being attended to, Tower 1 collapsed. Some who were lucky to make it out or survive the first collapse were not so lucky the second time. The second collapse damaged many surrounding buildings. Twenty-five engines, 15 ladder companies, numerous special units, 133 police vehicles and ambulances were destroyed or severely damaged. Estimates of the vehicles lost by the police and fire department are close to $47 million.
Early estimates said several thousand people were missing at the site, including 343 firefighters, EMTs, officers and chiefs. The Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) was missing 37 police officers. The NYPD was missing 23. As of mid-March, about 160 FDNY firefighters had been recovered, as were eight NYPD and 17 PAPD officers and three EMS personnel. Thousands of pieces of human remains have been recovered, but not identified.
The fire department changed its shifts to 24 hours on and 24 hours off, then to 24 hours on and 48 hours off. The fire department promoted 168 officers on Sept. 16 to fill the void left by the missing members of the department. Members of Federal Emergency Management Agency Urban Search and Rescue (FEMA USAR) teams responded from across the country to help search for victims. FDNY firefighters were assigned to a task force to help search voids for victims, remove debris, extinguish fires and check debris removed from the scene for victims.
Operations continue at the site around the clock. The debris field rises to eight stories in some areas and reaches seven stories below grade in others.
Numerous buildings were damaged, including the 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story building that suffered severe damage after the second collapse. The fire extended to the building. Because of the severe damage, the fire burned unchecked until the building collapsed hours later.
The first job of the firefighters who reported to the World Trade Center from home or on additional alarms was to look for live victims. Only one victim was located on the second day. No one else was found alive.
Construction crews and steelworkers were helpful in assisting firefighters. Since the incident, the perimeter of the scene has been cleared of debris. There are now 50 cranes and other types of large equipment removing heavy steel and other debris. This is the only way to check for victims. Debris is removed in a relay fashion, with numerous dump trucks waiting to be loaded so they can dump their loads on barges for removal to other sites. Estimates say clearing the site will take from six months to a year. Firefighters, although fewer in numbers, remain on the site to search for their fallen members.
The loss of 343 firefighters is the worst disaster to strike the FDNY or any other U.S. fire department.