The Darkest Day

Firehouse® Magazine compiles a preliminary report on the fire-rescue service response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The worst terrorist attack in the history of the world caused an astonishing swath of death and destruction in three parts of the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Two hijacked jetliners deliberately crashed into each of the 110-story-high World Trade Center towers in New York. Another jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, VA.

A fourth jet crashed 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. In all four jetliners, 266 passengers and crew members were killed.

In New York at 8:48 A.M., a Boeing 767 jetliner crashed into the 1,350-foot-high north Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. This was the site of the terrorist bombing in 1993 where six people were killed and hundreds were injured when a bomb exploded in an underground parking garage. (See Firehouse® April and August 1993.) Engine 10, which is located across the street from the World Trade Center along with Ladder 10, was first due in 1993. On Sept. 11, Engine 10 gave a verbal alarm to the Manhattan fire alarm radio dispatcher reporting an explosion at the trade center. Seconds later, it was confirmed that a jet had crashed into one of the towers.

A second alarm was requested, followed seconds later by a third alarm. FDNY Chief of Department Peter Ganci responded with Chief of Operations Daniel Nigro. Ganci requested that the incident be increased to five alarms while still enroute. Eighteen minutes later, the second jet, also a 767, crashed into the 110-story Tower 2. Rescue Operations Battalion Chief Ray Downey suggested that a separate five-alarm assignment respond to the second tower. Ganci concurred and the assignment was dispatched.

Numerous calls were being received for people trapped on the upper floors of each tower. During a normal working day, upwards of 50,000 people work in the trade center complex. There could also be up to 200,000 visitors to the 16- acre site. Firefighters from all of the city's five boroughs responded to the scene. A command post was set up across the street from both towers. Responding units were positioning close to the building. The chauffeur of Engine 10 reported that debris was falling from the building.

At 9:59 A.M., Tower 2, the second building struck by a jet, suddenly collapsed. Urgent calls from the scene to the dispatcher reported the major collapse. Many units were operating on the upper floors of both buildings. Many occupants who managed to escape reported firefighters were passing them on their way upstairs as the civilians made their way down the stairs. The dust cloud from the collapse created zero visibility for responding units. Civilians fleeing the area in all directions clogged the already narrow streets and limited any type of travel.

The collapse dropped portions of the building onto rigs and personnel. Killed immediately were Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci, a 32-year veteran; First Deputy Fire Commissioner William Feehan, 40 years of service; and Fire Department Chaplain Mychal Judge. Many members of complete companies were missing, including many from rescue and squad companies.

Twenty-nine minutes later, Tower 1 collapsed. Many more firefighters were caught by debris. Others ran for cover. The fire continued to burn under the tons of debris covering a large area. There were reports of reduced water pressure in the area after the collapses. Fireboats helping to remove injured civilians to New Jersey hospitals were ordered to supply additional water to the area. Additional tower ladders were requested to operate their streams onto the multi-story-high piles of rubble.

Many surrounding buildings were damaged and fires communicated to additional structures. One report was received for a subcellar fire. The fire jumped into the damaged 7 World Trade Center, a 47-story office building that housed the city's Office of Emergency Management on an upper floor. This entire building was damaged. Fire spread throughout the structure. Mutual aid fire companies and ambulances from throughout the tri-state area responded and staged at various points around the city. All off-duty FDNY firefighters and fire officers were recalled to their firehouses. City buses were dispatched to pick up firefighters at firehouses and delivered them to division stations where they waited for orders. A third-alarm assignment was sent from Brooklyn into Manhattan to assist. A second-alarm assignment was also sent to a separate location to supply apparatus and manpower to the large scene. Hundreds of doctors and nurses, EMTs and paramedics administered to over 3,000 people brought to various hospitals. The FDNY went to a 24-hour-on/24-hour-off system. Additional personnel were available to relieve exhausted firefighters at the scene. Heavy equipment along with special camera and listening devices were being used to canvass the scene for survivors. Many civilians and firefighters had been located over a two-day period in portions of the collapse wreckage. At the time, there were hopes of finding more trapped people alive.

At press time, nearly 350 firefighters, fire officers and FDNY EMS workers were missing. Also, upwards of 30 police officers were missing. The city prepared a list of missing workers totaling 6,453 people. Volunteers and steelworkers worked alongside members of the eight Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams that were requested to the scene. Among FEMA teams responding were Massachusetts TF (Task Force) 1, Ohio TF 1, Missouri TF 1, Pennsylvania TF 1, Indiana TF 1, California TF 1, 6 and 7. USAR teams dispatched to the Pentagon were Virginia TF 1 and 2, Maryland TF 1 and Tennessee TF 1.

Notable Incidents

Pearl Harbor
Dec. 7, 1941
2,388 killed (incl. 3 firefighters), 1,178 injured

Oklahoma City bombing
April 19, 2001
168 killed, 500 injured