9-11 Attack in New York

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For more information, see: 9-11 Attack.

Not only was the 9-11 Attack impactful on the world, it had many special effects in New York City. Prior to it, the worst line-of-duty death toll in the Fire Department of New York was 12, in the Wonder Drug & Cosmetics fire on 17 October 1966.[1] Prior to it, the most massive high-rise incident was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

It was the worst deliberately caused disaster in U.S. history. While there were problems with emergency management, many of the deaths were not preventable by the emergency response; they might have been reduced with different approaches to building design and a more pessimistic threat analysis. Unquestionably, the emergency services learned a great deal of how their response could improve if there is a future terrorist attack on New York City; several smaller plots have been disrupted.

World Trade Center

WTC buildings on 9/11

To understand the operational context, it must be realized that the World Trade Center contains a number of buildings beyond those hit by the aircraft, WTC1 (North Tower) and WTC2 (South Tower), both 110-story structures; the top three floors of each were dedicated to mechanical equipment.

There are also a number of critical infrastructure functions under the entire complex. A six-story structure provided personnel and utility connections among the buildings, access for the Port Authority Rapid Transit (PATH) rail system, and a 3 foot (0.9 meter) concrete wall holding back groundwater and the adjacent Hudson River.[2]

Twin Tower design

The Twin Towers were designed differently than other high-rises in New York, and were more sensitive to fire-induced failure. [3] Conventional high-rises, including the Empire State Building, which was hit by a smaller B-25 Mitchell aircraft in 1945, are supported by an internal column structure; exterior walls are not load-bearing.

The Twin Towers were supported by the exterior walls, with columns only in the core areas holding elevators. The outer walls consisted of closely spaced steel columns, tied together by a horizontal beam structure; the floor sections inside were simply trusses. Heatproofing retardant was sprayed onto the steel, and apparently was torn off by impact.

Changes in building codes

New York changed its building code in 1965. One of the provision was that a requirement for smoke towers was eliminated in high-rise buildings; these were separate stairwells to be used for the ingress of emergency responders rather than for evacuation. Width requirements for evacuation stairwells were reduced.[4]

Damage mechanisms

Once the outer wall was breached, a great deal of structural integrity was lost, while the crash in the Empire State Building did not reach the interior. Nevertheless, Chief Dunn and other analysts do not believe the collapse was directly due to crash damage, but to subsequent weakening of the outer wall caused by burning jet fuel.

Debris damaged other buildings in the complex, some, such as WTC7, to the point that they collapsed. Other buildings were damaged beyond economic repair. Other building complexes nearby, such as the World Financial Center (WFC), were also affected.


Six weeks before the September 11 attacks, Silverstein Properties leased the WTC. Select Port Authority employees were designated to assist with the transition; others, no longer in the transition team, still reported to lend their expertise.

Less than a month before the attack, John O'Neill retired from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and became director of security for the WTC. While he survived the initial attack, he went back into the buildings, and his body was found later, buried in rubble at Liberty and Greenwich Streets.

Rick Rescorla was Vice President of Security for Morgan-Stanley/Dean-Witter, the largest tenant in the World Trade Center. As a young infantry officer, Rescorla had distinguished himself at the Battle of the Ia Drang. At the time of the attack, he had metastatic prostate cancer, in a late phase. He and his deputies went back into the building to ensure evacuation, but were themselves killed in the collapse.

WTC safety and security personnel played vital roles in the response.

First response

WTC1 was hit at 8:46 AM and WTC2 at 9:03. The impact zone in WTC1 was floors 93 to 99, and stairwells from 100-110 were blocked. There were no survivors who had been above the 91st floor. Survivors noted that there was immediate spread of jet fuel fires from some of the elevators.[5]

WTC2 was hit at 9:03, between the 77th to 85th floors. As opposed to WTC1, the aircraft impacted while in a sharp bank, so parts of the impact zone remained passable. 18 individuals who were on or above the 78th floor, at the time of the impact, above survived, most from a "sky lobby" on the 78th floor. Other survivors from upper stories had started evacuating when they became aware of the crash into WTC1, although some were killed during evacuation.

WTC2, the South Tower, collapsed first.

There was no all-service universal emergency telephone number system in New York, in the sense that dispatchers receiving 911 telephone calls could invoke the appropriate response. The 911 call service had approximately 1,200 operators, radio dispatchers, and supervisors, all civilian employees of the NYPD. When a 911 call concerned a fire, it was transferred to the fire department dispatch center.

As discussed below, there were situational awareness problems among the on-scene commanders. This was even worse for the 911 dispatchers, who continued, throughout the disaster, to receive calls from individuals in the buildings, asking for instructions. Very little information flowed from commanders to 911 dispatch.

Command and control

There were serious problems of command and control both among the various emergency response agencies (Fire, Police, Transit Authority Police, etc.) and within individual agencies. The Incident Command System never functioned on an interagency basis, nor was a Joint Command Post supporting the site created under ICS standards.

In July 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani updated a directive titled "Direction and Control of Emergencies in the City of New York," Its purpose was to eliminate "potential conflict among responding agencies which may have areas of overlapping expertise and responsibility." The directive sought to accomplish this objective by designating, for different types of emergencies, an appropriate agency as "Incident Commander." This Incident Commander would be "responsible for the management of the City's response to the emergency," while the OEM was "designated the 'On Scene Interagency Coordinator.'"[6] This is not quite the language used in Federal Emergency Management Agency doctrine for ICS.

According to the 9/11 Commission, the FDNY and NYPD each considered itself operationally autonomous. "As of September 11, they were not prepared to comprehensively coordinate their efforts in responding to a major incident. The OEM had not overcome this problem." Further, there were additional agencies involved, such as the Port of New York Authority police. There were private organizations that would need to be part of ICS, such as WTC Security and the electrical utility.

Multiple police departments had jurisdiction, but had little to no interoperable communications with the FDNY. When NYPD helicopters saw the top of the building start to sag, an imminent warning of collapse, they were unable to radio this to the FDNY.

Office of Emergency Management

There was a citywide Office of Emergency Management, which had three basic functions.

  • OEM's Watch Command was to monitor the city's key communications channels-including radio frequencies of FDNY dispatch and the NYPD-and other data.
  • improve New York City's response to major incidents, including terrorist attacks, by planning and conducting exercises and drills that would involve multiple city agencies, particularly the NYPD and FDNY.
  • managing the city's overall response to an incident. After OEM's Emergency Operations Center was activated, designated liaisons from relevant agencies, as well as the mayor and his or her senior staff, would respond there. In addition, an OEM field responder would be sent to the scene to ensure that the response was coordinated.

The OEM's headquarters was located at 7 WTC, near the 1993 bombing target. Further, it was on the 23rd floor of a building, which made it both difficult to access if elevators failed, and also too high, under National Fire Protection standards, to have its own diesel generator or wet-cell battery backup. There was no backup site. It is not clear if the OEM was intended to take on the doctrinal role of the Joint Command Center that backs up an Incident Command Post for a large event.

Fire Department of New York

At about 9:00 a.m., Chief of Department Ganci took over as Incident Commander (IC), but for the FDNY alone. Incident Command doctrine calls for the IC to have authority over all responding organizations, with deputies handling the specific operations of specialized agencies and units. Ganci moved the Incident Command Post from the lobby of WTC 1 to a spot across West Street, an eight-lane highway, because of falling debris and other safety concerns. Various witnesses say that the leadership considered partial collapses, but total building failure was not discussed.

In what proved to be a catastrophic decision, but was not inconsistent with existing doctrine for high-rise building fires, officers above the operation command leveli move into the South Tower. A Field Communications Van did arrive, the backup of two units, which did not have radios that connected to the police system. The van was knocked out of service by the collapse, but, had the senior leadership used it, they might have survived.

At the Pentagon, the ICP was always in an Arlington County Fire Department mobile command post, with a coordinating Joint Command center over a mile away, at Fort Myer. Arlington continued to operate its unified 911 center for all other emergencies in the county.

New York Police Department

As opposed to the FDNY, the police commissioner is not the primary operational commander, although he retains final authority. The chief of department directs the 40,000 policemen.

In the event of a major emergency, a leading role would be played by the Special Operations Division. This division included the Aviation Unit, which provided helicopters for surveys and rescues, and the Emergency Service Unit (ESU), which carried out specialized rescue missions. It should be noted that ESU capabilities overlap those of FDNY rescue units, and there has been rivalry between them.

The NYPD precincts were divided into 35 different radio zones, with a central radio dispatcher assigned to each. In addition, there were several radio channels for citywide operations. Officers had portable radios with 20 or more available channels, so that the user could respond outside his or her precinct. ESU teams also had these channels but at an operation would use a separate point-to-point channel (which was not monitored by a dispatcher). These radio frequencies were separate from those of the FDNY and Port Authority.

Port Authority Police

The WTC is leased by the Port of New York Authority, an interstate organization that has its own police force. Its officers receive more firefighting and rescue training than do regular police officers.

WTC staff

New York Local Law 5 requires buildings, of any substantial size, to have a full-time fire safety director, one or more deputy safety director, and building evacuation supervisor. Floor wardens are to be designated among the tenants on each floor. Silverstein Management did have such peronnel. The Fire Safety Director is responsible for:

  • Verifying the FDNY has been notified and coordinating with all emergency response agencies
  • Direct floor wardens in when to evacuate, when to move people to refuge areas, which stairways are usable, and the routes to be used for evacuation
  • Deploy security officers, providing master keys and portable radios
  • Direct the Operations Control Center, which, in part, attempts to run the elevators in a safe emergency mode (e.g., bypassing fire floors)
  • Make appropriate announcements on the public address system

Rescue operations

Since most high-rise fires are contained to several floors, and there is normally a fire command room in the building, with access to its internal communications, sensors, and sprinklers, this has some merit for smaller fires. Once the decision was made, however, that the fire could not be extinguished, and the operation was one of rescue, it would have been wise for the overall Incident Commander to move outside the immediate area. An Operations Commander did need to stay with each major fire.


Radio systems

Radio repeater system

There was also a need to communicate throughout the complex, but there were technical problems with radio communications. [7] Communications to the upper stories had been a problem in 1993, so the FDNY had asked building personnel to activate the repeater system, which boosted the signal to the upper stories. One button on the repeater system activation console in the North Tower was pressed at 8:54, though it is unclear by whom. As a result of this activation, communication became possible between FDNY portable radios on the repeater channel. In addition, the repeater's master handset at the fire safety desk could hear communications made by FDNY portable radios on the repeater channel.

The activation of transmission on the master handset required, however, that a second button be pressed. At 9:05, FDNY chiefs tested the WTC complex's repeater system. Because the second button had not been activated, the chief on the master handset could not transmit. That second button was never activated on the morning of September 11, so the operations chiefs did not use the system from the operations post. [6]

He was also apparently unable to hear another chief who was attempting to communicate with him from a portable radio, either because of a technical problem or because the volume was turned down on the console (the normal setting when the system was not in use). Because the repeater channel seemed inoperable — the master handset appeared unable to transmit or receive communications — the chiefs in the North Tower lobby decided not to use it. Firefighters subsequently used repeater channel 7 in the South Tower.

Ironically, although there was a much earlier evacuation warning for the North Tower, few firefighters heard it.

North Tower

The first battalion chief, Joseph Pfeifer, entered at 8:52, and was soon succeeded by a division chief, Assistant Chief Joseph Callan, who briefly acted as Incident Commander until Chief of Department Ganci arrived. Callan became operations commander for the North Tower, assisted by Deputy Chief Peter Hayden Within minutes of arrival, the Operations Commander spoke with building personnel and learned that all 99 elevators appeared to have failed, and there were no indications that sprinklers or standpipes were working on upper floors.


A representative unit, Engine Company No. 5, arrived within 10 minutes of the impact, and was ordered to climb to the 79th floor, with the initial purpose of fighting the fire. At first, they had slight grounds for optimism — a civilian, descending, said he had been there in the 1993 bombing, when there was more power and lighting loss, and more smoke.

Within minutes, however, the operations commander decided the fire could not be put out, and firemen were told their mission was now rescue. Enginemen were told not to bring hoses, although some still did from habit. [8]


At 9:28 a.m., Callan broadcast on the two radio channels in use orders that firefighters leave the north tower. "Everyone come down out of the building. Leave the building immediately," Callan said, according to an interview he gave retired FDNY Chief Vincent Dunn. But few in the north tower heard his order - and when the building collapsed an hour later, Pfeifer's brother, Kevin, was among the dead.[7]

South Tower


Assistant Chiefs Donald Burns and Jerry Barbara were designated as operations commanders for the South Tower. Both died in the collapse at 9:58. [9]


Emergency Services Unit

The police Emergency Service Unit set up a command post, at Church and Vesey streets, to direct all NYPD ESU rescue teams in the WTC complex. ESU personnel have some of the capabilities of rescue units in many urban fire departments; there has been rivalry between ESU and the FDNY. "The first NYPD ESU team entered the West Street-level lobby of the North Tower and prepared to begin climbing at about 9:15 A.M. They attempted to check in with the FDNY chiefs present, but were rebuffed. OEM personnel did not intervene." [6]

There was better coordination in the South Tower. "After the South Tower was hit, the ESU officer running this command post decided to send one ESU team (each with approximately six police officers) up each of the Twin Towers' stairwells. While he continued to monitor the citywide SOD channel, which NYPD helicopters were using, he also monitored the point-to-point tactical channel that the ESU teams climbing in the towers would use. The ESU team began to climb the stairs. Shortly thereafter, a second NYPD ESU team entered the South Tower. The OEM field responder present ensured that they check in with the FDNY chief in charge of the lobby, and it was agreed that the ESU team would ascend and support FDNY personnel."

A third ESU team subsequently entered the North Tower at its elevated mezzanine lobby level and made no effort to check in with the FDNY command post. A fourth ESU team entered the South Tower. By 9:59, a fifth ESU team was next to 6 WTC and preparing to enter the North Tower.

Other police

From 9:03 to 9:59, NYPD and Port Authority officers, as well as United States Secret Service agents with offices in WTC, began assisting civilians in leaving the tower, working around the lobby and directing them to the concourse. They directed those who seemed capable to self-evacuate, and assisted those who were injured or exhausted. Other civilians exiting the stairs who were either injured or exhausted collapsed at the foot of these stairs; officers then assisted them out of the building. Another NYPD officer stationed at the bottom of the escalator directed them to exit through the concourse to the north and east and then out of the WTC complex. This exit route ensured that civilians would not be endangered by falling debris and people on West Street, on the plaza between the towers, and on Liberty Street. "Officers were stationed throughout the concourse, assisting burned, injured, and disoriented civilians, as well as directing all civilians to exit to the north and east. NYPD officers were also in the South Tower lobby to assist in civilian evacuation. NYPD officers stationed on Vesey Street between West Street and Church Street urged civilians not to remain in the area and instead to keep walking north."

"Three plainclothes NYPD officers, without radios or protective gear, had begun ascending either stairwell A or C of the North Tower. They began checking every other floor above the 12th for civilians. Only occasionally did they find any, and in those few cases they ordered the civilians to evacuate immediately. While checking floors, they used office phones to call their superiors. In one phone call an NYPD chief instructed them to leave the North Tower, but they refused to do so. As they climbed higher, they encountered increasing smoke and heat. Shortly before 10:00 they arrived on the 54th floor."

Police aviation

WTC Staff


Emergency Medical Services were part of the FDNY.

While the hospitals of New York City went into their mass casualty incident protocols, there were relatively few seriously injured casualties, as opposed to the dead.

Immediate response to the collapse

Assistant Chief Frank Fellini, who had been off duty, arrived on scene after the collapse, and set up an operations command post for WTC7, at Vesey and West. At first, he thought all other chiefs were dead besides Callan and Turi, but was joined later by Assistant Chief Cruthers, senior to Fellini, and then Nigro, the senior survivor. Cruthers, at the time was incident commander, but handed off to Nigro. [10]

Nigro established a new ICP at Vesey and Chambers.

Recovery operations

Assistant Chief Frank Cruthers was the incident commander of World Trade Center for rescue and recovery, working from an emergency operation/command center (EOC) in an unused fire station next to the quarters of Battalion/Engine 7/Ladder 1. [11]

Recovery was an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) mission, which falls under the FDNY Special Operations Command. SOC commander Deputy Chief Ray Downey was missing and presumed dead. Captain James Ellison, Downey's executive officer for rescue operations, set up the EOC, while Captain Fred Lafemina set up the base of operations in a tennis court north of WTC, on Chambers Street.

Special Operations personnel worked in teams of five: an officer and four firefighters. SOC was joined by the New York State Capital USAR team was operating on-site. The federal USAR teams and the New Jersey Task Force, a state team, were deployed and on standby at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Debris and remains processing

On-site personnel could only recover recognizable bodies and body parts. The remaining grisly mixture of debris were trucked to the Fresh Kills facility on Staten Island, designated it a crime scene designation to receive the material from WTC. NYPD personnel and Federal Bureau of Investigation Evidence Response Teams began a detailed process on September 12:

  • find as many human remains and begin forensic identification
  • recover personal effects
  • earch for evidence from the terrorists.


Environmental effects

The dust and debris from the collapse had apparent long-term respiratory and cardiovascular effects more on personnel involved in the recovery operations than the immediate response. [12]

Lessons learned

FDNY Deputy Chief (retired) Vincent Dunn, author of the text, Collapse of Burning Buildings, analyzed the WTC collapse. [3] His recommendations for a rebuilt WTC included:

  • Stop using load-bearing outside walls and return to steel skeletons. Encase the steel structural members in masonry or other durable fire retardant.
  • Reduce the size of open floors, stop using lightweight bar joists as floor supports and increase the thickness of concrete flooring
  • Completely cover the floor space with automatic sprinkler systems.
  • Stairs and elevators should be smokeproofed, and smoke spread also should be limited by not having heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) service more than one or two floors.

The NYPD has prepared general guidelines for Protective Design for High Risk Buildings. Many of its recommendations deal with more common terrorist threats than large aircraft, but reflect the 9/11 experience. The book expands on the several analyses of the WTC disaster by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, considering building codes, the unique issues of dense cities such as New York, etc. [13]


  1. Terry Golway (2002), So Others Might Live: A History of New York's Bravest, the FDNY from 1700 to the Present, Basic Books, ISBN 0465027407, pp. 219-226
  2. J.D. Averill et al. (September 2005), NIST NCSTAR 1-7: Occupant Behavior, Egress, and Emergency Communication, Reports of the Federal Building and Fire Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster
  3. 3.0 3.1 Vincent Dunn, Why the World Trade Center Buildings Collapsed: A Fire Chief ’s Assessment
  4. New York Building Code (1938), quoted in "NIST NCSTAR 1-7: Occupant Behavior, Egress, and Emergency Communication", Reports of the Federal Building and Fire Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster, p. 18
  5. NCSTAR 1-7, p. 77
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Chapter 9: Heroism and Horror, 9-11 Commission Report
  7. 7.0 7.1 Al Guart, "9/11 Probers Grill FDNY Fire Hero", New York Post
  8. Golway, pp. 306-307
  9. Daniel Nigro (2002), "Report from the Chief of Department", Fire Engineering
  10. World Trade Center Task Force Interview: Chief Frank Fellini, December 3, 2001
  11. James P. Ellson, "Building the EOC", Fire Engineering
  12. WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, Bureau of Health Services, World Trade Center Heath Effects on FDNY Rescue Workers: A Six-Year Assessment, September 2001-September 2007, Fire Department of New York
  13. Engineering Analysis: Protective Design for High Risk Buildings, New York City Police Department, 2009