When the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, early estimates placed more than 10,000 people in or around the site, including hundreds of emergency responders who rushed to the scene when the towers were struck. Although efforts to locate and rescue survivors trapped in the rubble began immediately, the task proved daunting because 89 members of FDNY’s command staff were among those reported missing.
The New York City Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) provides interagency coordination during major emergencies. For the response on Sept. 11, FDNY, OEM , NYPD and other key city agencies worked together under a unified command structure, with FDNY in charge of fire and rescue operations at the Trade Center site.
OEM staff members had to evacuate their offices, located at 7 World Trade, when the structure caught fire after the first tower was hit. Despite the destruction of the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), OEM personnel continued operating even as they secured an alternate location and set up a new EOC. At the request of the New York City Mayor’s office, OEM contacted New York state and federal agencies, requesting additional resources, including the immediate deployment of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
OEM sponsors New York Task Force 1 (NY-TF1), the city’s multi-agency USAR team, which responds to major structural collapses under FEMA. OEM personnel learned soon after the attack that all members of NY-TF1’s upper command, scores of FDNY special operations rescue personnel and more than a dozen members of NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit were missing or had been killed, leaving a huge vacuum in the city’s technical rescue operations and command capability.
Rescue Ops in an Urban War Zone
To fill its staffing void and launch effective rescue operations, FDNY mounted an unprecedented total recall of all personnel shortly after the first tower collapsed. FDNY Firefighter John O’Connell, who works on Rescue 3 in the Bronx, was called back to work and arrived on scene just as the North Tower plummeted to the ground. Although he had prepared to face at least a partial collapse of the towers, “We never anticipated the whole building coming down,” O’Connell says.
FDNY Battalion Chief John Norman was at home when recalled. From a USAR perspective, Norman explains that developing an immediate strategy for searching such a vast rubble pile—with more than a million tons of pulverized, smoldering debris and heavy steel—would have been a challenge for even the most experienced structural collapse specialists, such as Ray Downey, chief of FDNY special operations command. Unfortunately, Downey was one of several FDNY USAR specialists among the missing. “The hit we took was absolutely incredible,” Norman says. “We lost people at the upper command level, including the chief of the department and two assistant chiefs, as well as the entire upper echelon of our USAR task force.”
According to Ray Lynch, OEM’s deputy director for NY-TF1, “The fire department, police department, Port Authority and other agencies within the city quickly regrouped and did a tremendous job under the circumstances.” When 7 World Trade, which had been gutted by fire, collapsed just after 5 p.m. on the 11th, OEM did not lose radio communications. “We were able to coordinate all of the city’s agencies and call for additional resources,” Lynch says.
For overall command and control purposes, FDNY divided the 16-acre impact zone into quadrants, using major streets to identify the boundaries and assigned sector chiefs to each section. With significant fires burning, firefighting was one of the top priorities. Additionally, rescuers conducted a “hasty search” in all surrounding buildings impacted by the collapses to ensure as many survivors as possible were located. Based on the assumption that only a few specific locations within the primary collapse zone might offer survivable void spaces, FDNY incident command treated these specific areas as separate rescue sites and began assigning FDNY, state and federal USAR resources to them. “We knew we had three key areas where there were a lot of people missing, including the North Tower, the South Tower and the Marriott Hotel,” Norman says.
As one of the surviving FDNY USAR specialists, O’Connell was assigned to the primary rubble pile. “We went right to work,” O’Connell says. “Searching voids, that’s my job. The first spot we started searching was between the two towers.”
A multitude of operational difficulties challenged rescuers: the threat of additional terrorism, fire, communications problems, heavy smoke, choking dust, unknown chemicals, as well as a flood of unsolicited volunteers offering assistance. “This was one of those ‘you all come’ events,” Norman says. “Red lights, blue lights, green lights, yellow lights, pink lights—any color lights within driving distance were here. Some of the convergent volunteers came for the right reasons and contributed positively, but the overwhelming response put an extra burden on our command staff that we didn’t need.”
With responders’ agendas ranging from noble to purely self-serving, rescue officials accepted offers of help carefully. “The number of unsolicited volunteers was an amazing, but dangerous thing,” Lynch says. “If a chief from a department shows up with 20 people in turnout gear, you’ve got to be really careful because you can end up with a lot of people—who may not have the right training—losing their lives.”
“I’m trying to run the search and rescue operation, and I’ve got people on the site who I’ve got no communications with, no control over, who are doing things that are causing problems or safety threats for people in other areas because they’re not part of a coordinated system,” Norman says. “It took a few days before we eventually gained control over this through tightened security, but I had to throw a few people out, telling them not to come back or they would be arrested.”
Within hours of the collapse, select personnel joined FDNY crews on “bucket brigades” located throughout the impact zone, removing vast layers of pulverized debris. Ironworkers and construction workers with heavy cranes and equipment were integrated into the operation to handle the heavy steel girders that fell like “pick-up sticks,” according to O’Connell. Tons of debris was taken to the Fresh Kills Landfill, where NYPD detectives and FBI agents searched for evidence, human remains or personal artifacts officials hoped to return to the victims’ families or survivors.
By Sept. 12, FEMA USAR task force teams had joined with FDNY personnel for one of the largest and most complex technical rescue and recovery operations ever mounted.
FEMA Supports Locals
FEMA began developing the USAR National Response System in 1989 to quickly deploy qualified personnel to disasters nationwide. There are 28 USAR task-force teams, each comprising 62 fire-rescue specialists, structural engineers, medical professionals, logistical and communications specialists, canine search teams and incident support teams (ISTs), which serve as liaisons with local jurisdictions in command of an operation.
Dave Webb, FEMA’s National USAR unit chief, was in Virginia Beach, Va., conducting weapons of mass destruction training when the first tower was hit. Webb immediately began activating FEMA USAR task forces. “The official way that federal response must be triggered is that a local government tells the state they are overwhelmed, and if the state can’t provide enough assistance, the governor makes a request to the president for a federal disaster declaration. But we do have some latitude under the Stafford Act that allows the president to take preemptive measures when he deems it necessary,” Webb says.
With airspace shut down nationwide, Webb rented a vehicle and rushed back to Washington, D.C., to coordinate the federal USAR deployment to New York City and the Pentagon. “Between 9 and 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, we activated eight USAR task forces,” he says. “Because of the lifesaving nature of the mission, we didn’t wait around for the bureaucracy. We acted on verbal agreements and followed up with the appropriate paperwork as soon as we could.”
IST members were immediately deployed to New York and the Pentagon, although the logistics of moving personnel from as far away as Colorado and California proved challenging for FEMA staff members. Maryland (MD-TF1) and Virginia Task Force 1 (VA-TF1) were deployed to the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania (PA-TF1), Massachusetts (MA-TF1), Ohio (OH-TF1) and Indiana (IN-TF1) were activated via ground transportation to New York.
The IST is the overhead or management team responsible for the federal USAR task forces. Lt. Fred Endrikat, Rescue Company 1, Philadelphia Fire Department (PA-TF1), and Capt. Alim Shariff, Cunningham (Colo.) Fire Protection District (CO-TF1), served on the FEMA IST in New York. According to Endrikat, IST operations chief, “When FEMA comes in, the whole goal of the USAR program is not to take over an incident, but to assist the local agency, which always maintains jurisdiction over the incident.”
“Regardless of the size of an incident,” Shariff explains, “there are certain steps you need to take to get the process started.” Logistically, moving USAR resources into New York was a challenge compounded by restrictions on commercial air travel and access to military transport aircraft, now involved in a state of war. Shariff, who served as the planning section chief, and other IST members from Utah and Colorado, jumped on a plane that had been approved to transport blood products to New York. When they got to the Javits Convention Center, the site selected by OEM to house FEMA assets, Shariff was impressed. “New York had an organized structure in place, which made integrating our resources into the system easier,” says Shariff. “In spite of the devastating losses they had suffered, for New York to pick up and go on so quickly was amazing.”
Within 24 hours of the attack, PA-TF1, MA-TF1 and OH-TF1 were ready to assist in search operations on the rubble pile. Endrikat, who represented the FEMA task forces, and Norman, who represented FDNY, worked closely to coordinate USAR operations. “[Norman] was responsible for the development of strategy and operational planning for the New York Fire Department,” Endrikat says, “and I was responsible for all the federal task forces. Our strategy had to be in sync. Whatever New York determined the priorities were for any given operational period, we would try to assist them with whatever they needed.”
“It was a team effort,” Norman says. “I was responsible for coordinating search-and-rescue operations, making sure we got all areas covered and ensuring that this was done safely.” The nature and size of the collapse was unprecedented, compounding search operations. “With the exception of the perimeter, the collapse was a virtual pancake. There weren’t many areas that had large, survivable voids,” Norman says.
A few survivors were rescued during the first 36 hours following the attack, which motivated everyone to search as many voids as quickly as possible. “We knew the primary areas where we were likely to get any survivors were the staircases and elevator shafts in the two towers and the Marriott Hotel, so we targeted those areas,” Norman says. “Most of the accessible voids were searched within the first 48 hours.”
Maps, Equipment, Dogs in Demand
Getting copies of maps and building plans of the Trade Center complex was an essential first step to coordinate search operations. “In 1972, I had worked on the original buildings as the fire-protection designer,” Norman says. “The drawings the Port Authority gave us were the exact drawings I had looked at 30 years ago; they had my scribbling on them. FEMA’s support staff scanned the drawings into a computer and started to generate maps we could use to target areas that needed to be searched.”
The situation on the rubble pile was dynamic. With no standardized marking system shared by FDNY, the FEMA USAR task forces or volunteer rescuers, there was frequent duplication of search efforts amid the constantly shifting debris. “We had people going into areas that had been searched two and three times,” Norman says. “One of the things we’re working [on] for the New York City Fire Department is to implement the FEMA marking system for future operations.”
FEMA task force technical search specialists with high-tech equipment, including listening devices, search cameras and canine teams, were “the most in-demand of all our resources, along with the structural engineers,” Endrikat says. “Because the site was so big and the task so massive, we would send our canine and technical search components in with New York firefighters to locate victims,” Endrikat says. “The structural specialists made on-going assessments of void spaces and other structural hazards throughout the operation.”
Firefighter Lou Brasten (Rescue Company 1, Philadelphia Fire Department, PA-TF1 search team manager) and firefighter Rich Benditt (Rescue Company 1, Philadelphia Fire Department, PA-TF1 rescue specialist) worked with engineers from several federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Department of Energy, to test cutting-edge robotics, listening devices and search cameras during void search operations. “A lot of this equipment is classified,” Brasten explains.
“The robots were not very useful due to the nature of the collapse” Benditt says, “and because it was almost impossible to get everyone on the rubble pile to quiet down, listening devices proved of limited use.” Benditt indicated that several new search cameras being tested by engineers were valuable to rescuers, particularly those that offered color images, not just black-and-white. “One camera had a lot of potential,” Benditt says. “The engineers modified a color search camera that allowed us to zoom to 20 power, move the head left and right 180˚ and rotate it 360˚. None of our current search cameras has this level of resolution. We could look across half a block with this camera, pick out something in a room that was sheered off, zoom in and see a sweater, a glove or a pair of boots. We never found anyone alive, but we did locate remains.”
On day two, Michael Kurtz, medical specialist with PA-TF1, noted one unique contribution by PA-TF1 technical rescue specialists, who erected a high-line rescue rope from the bottom of the primary rubble more than 100 feet to the top to move heavy rescue equipment, search dogs and personnel more efficiently.
“It was very sobering when the body of a New York City fireman was recovered by the New York guys, placed in the Stokes litter basket and brought down from the top of the pile,” Kurtz says. “It stopped the whole operation. The litter with a flag draped over it was lowered down, and everybody—from crane operators to people on the bucket brigades—stood up, took their helmets off and quietly saluted as the Stokes came down to the bottom of the pile.”
FEMA Stands Down
A total of 20 of FEMA’s 28 task forces were deployed for seven to 10 days each in New York City and rotated shifts over a period of five weeks to support local search-and-rescue operations. There was never an official transition from rescue to recovery efforts, but when it became clear that all potential survivors had probably been located, the FEMA USAR teams stood down. FDNY continued the recovery operation in conjunction with other local resources. IST members Endrikat and Shariff remained in New York for more than 40 days to assist on-going operations and help rebuild NY-TF1.
“People who worked side-by-side with the FEMA task force teams were dazzled by their capabilities and their great level of dedication and training,” Norman says. “This is one legacy that will go a long way in our job.”
Endrikat noted that as after-action reports are prepared and personnel who served in New York have had time for reflection, numerous lessons learned will be evaluated to improve future operations. “We have no historical perspective for any incident like this anywhere in the world,” he says. “If you step back and take a look at the magnitude of the incident, the sheer number of people who were lost, including firefighters on the operational end of it, who had a strong background in technical rescue and special operations, New York did a tremendous job.”