10 Days At Ground Zero

The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this...


The following story is dedicated to all the rescuers killed at the World Trade Center incident on Sept. 11, 2001. This tragedy portrayed the sheer evil hidden in man’s darker side and, in turn, the heroes who rise above it all. (Note: Because this article was written five months after the event...


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We break out the prints and start highlighting all the key features with markers, as we openly discuss how and where access can be made to the concourse. We find street-level airshafts and subway station entrances surrounding “the pile” and banter on the feasibility of each as access points. Steve and Mike come up with some terrific ideas and we plot a course of action to propose to command. After we finish, we split up, determined that if there are people down there needing to be rescued, then it was going to happen. I head over to the far side of the site to scout secondary entry points, sketch some things, then make my way to the command post. After the effort appears to be in full swing, I focus my attention on putting together important notes for the announced 10 o’clock briefing at the OEM command post, a converted elementary school at West and Chambers.

At the NYTF1 tent, I brush off the ever-present dust from a large trunk and plop down to begin compiling some key construction facts my office sent me on the twin towers, in addition to the hazmat list I promised Chief Haring. Word spreads that a rescue was accomplished, further raising hope that there are still live victims in the rubble. Everyone picks it up another notch with renewed vigor. Several hours later, I gather my notes and walk over to the OEM post a half-block away. Bustling activity surrounds the school’s cafeteria, where top-level personnel from all the agencies involved with the initiative are gathering to discuss how this incident is going to be managed.

I am introduced to Jeff Armstrong, the overall scene commander. Everyone, including the fire and police departments, even the feds, report to him. I end up working with Jeff quite a bit over the next week and a half and become highly impressed with his abilities and leadership skills. This is a guy who can handle pressure. Plus, he’s a really nice person, with his ego very much in check. Jeff states it’s time to start the meeting, grabs a bullhorn and brings the conversations to a halt.

The session begins. There is electricity in the room. The latest report on the rescue effort is reviewed, along with fatality and injury statistics. Multiple generators hum away outside in the courtyard. We are still without most essential services, but at least we have light and phones, thanks to the quick work of the phone company. By now, cables lay in the street in every direction as far as the eye can see. We expect to have temporary power within a few days.

After the most critical issues have been addressed, Chief Fellini introduces me to the audience. I feel a bit uneasy taking center stage, fumbling with all my charts and statistics, not really feeling like I fit in. During the briefing, I note how much material went into building the towers – over a million tons of steel, glass and concrete. This gives the superintendents of the debris removal an idea of what it will take to remove it from the collapse site.

I then propose my estimate of the types and quantities of hazardous materials that were present before the collapse and what may be in the smoke, in the way of fire byproducts. It is not very reassuring. I stress again that this is a major hazmat event, although clearly stipulating that I am not a hazmat expert. I explain that everyone working at the site may have been exposed to some serious chemicals and carcinogens. Decontamination will become an issue, as no one’s clothes can be deemed safe. I also bring up the topic of synergy. Puzzled faces stare back at me, wondering where I’m heading. I explain that when certain known hazardous materials, with their associated properties, are mixed together, new compounds can be formed, and no one knows the hazards or their effects on humans. I state that I am certain this has taken place, but I do not know to what extent.

There are looks of great concern from most of the audience. The topic then changes to search and rescue. I display an illustration of the core area of the towers. My suggestion is that at least 80% of the victims, dead or alive, will be found in and around the areas where the stairwells and elevator shafts once stood. I figure most of the rescue workers and civilians had to be off the floors at the time of collapse and moving up or down the stairs and in elevators. They are now probably somewhere at and below grade level, as the towers go down six stories below the street. The core being better shelter than an open floor offers us the best opportunity to come up with “live hits.” I also suggest that the highest probability of success for rescues will be found in the sub-grade concourse level beneath the plaza, between the towers, specifically in the food court area. There have to be void spaces there, and food and water are present, which should sustain life for at least several days. Victim dehydration is a big concern. If fresh air is present, of course, there’s at least a chance.