Wednesday September 12

A DAY OF TERROR: THE RESPONSE; Rescue Workers Rush In, And Many Do Not Return


New York firefighters, impelled by instinct and training, rushed to the World Trade Center yesterday to evacuate victims. Then the buildings fell down. The firefighters never came out.

More than 300 firefighters were unaccounted for when the day ended. It was the worst disaster in the New York Fire Department's history, explosions having collapsed the two main towers onto the first wave of rescuers as they snaked through stairwells and hallways.

Throughout the night, officials went from firehouse to firehouse doing head counts to reckon the death toll.

In the tumult of the morning, the temporary command center set up on a nearby street to deal with the calamity was buried in a rolling wave of concrete chunks.

Among those who died there were Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci and First Deputy Fire Commissioner William M. Feehan. Also killed was one of the department's Roman Catholic chaplains, Mychal Judge, who had rushed to the scene to comfort victims.

There was no trace of three of the fire department's most elite units, Rescues 1, 2 and 4, officials said last night.

"We haven't found other people yet either and I don't even want to mention their names," Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, with ash still on his clothes just before midnight, said about the department's loss. "Some of the best people in this department, I can't find anybody from 5 Rescue and 7 Squad. It's just a devastating thing. I don't know -- the Fire Department will recover but I don't know how."

Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik said late last night that about 33 officers were unaccounted for.

As night deepened, officials were able to bring in cranes and heavy shovels to begin moving rubble in hopes of finding survivors. But for most of the day, the notion of a rescue effort seemed remote.

"At this point, it's less of a firefighting operation and more like a war," said Michael Carter, vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, who was on the scene.

Like dazed and bloodied soldiers, thousands of firefighters and police officers wandered helplessly throughout the afternoon and evening on the West Side Highway, blocked by the danger of further catastrophe from attempting to enter the scene. Staring at the rubble, others seemed frozen by the fact that two enormous buildings had simply disappeared.

With scores of firefighters and police suddenly missing, random groups of people took command. Building superintendents became lifesavers -- guiding panicked residents to basements. Consolidated Edison workers guided people to safety. And small groups of people responding to calls from panicked friends -- including one woman trapped with her twin children -- descended on the neighborhood to help. The first groups of rescuers -- firefighters toting axes, construction workers toting shovels and police officers on their hands and knees -- looked like a handful of tiny insects swarming over 100-foot-tall piles of debris. In one spot, a jagged four-story section of the building jutted straight in the air. In another, a six-story section lay flat on its side. And all around them were 50-foot mounds of twisted metal, concrete chunks and shattered glass.

By the time the buildings collapsed, more than 400 firefighters were at the scene, many of them racing up stairways to reach people trapped on the upper floors, fire officials said. Many of the rescuers were from six-person units that specialize in building collapses, and many are now missing, presumed to have died when the buildings collapsed.

Marite Anez, who was working in an office on the 87th floor of 1 World Trade Center, said that as she and hundreds of others scrambled down stairways, she passed many firefighters climbing up.

When she reached the first floor, she said, the building collapsed. "You couldn't see anything," she said. "That's when everyone panicked. Everyone was pushing. The fire people gave us light, showed us the way out. The ones who were going up, I'm sure they died."

Edward Fahey, among the first firefighters to arrive, said he had to dodge bodies that were being propelled from windows on the upper floors.

Robert Byrne, from a fire company on Houston Street, said he was on the 30th floor when the second plane hit. "We were trying to evacuate civilians," he said. "The hallways were filled with dust and smoke. The whole building was shaking. We feared it would collapse, and the chief said to get the hell out of there."

Like many survivors, Mr. Byrne seemed oblivious to the soot and dust that covered his body. He stared blankly and spoke haltingly.

"I managed to get out of the building just a few seconds before it collapsed," he said. "I hugged the wall with a couple of people. We got very lucky. I don't know what happened to the company. Just me and the lieutenant got out."

From the beginning, the city's emergency response was hampered. Soon after the first plane hit, the command center for the Office of Emergency Management at 7 World Trade Center was evacuated.

Fire officials set up a mobile unit outside the complex, on Vesey Street, but that was destroyed when the buildings came down. After that, fire officials moved their command post to a firehouse in Greenwich Village, at Houston Street and Avenue of the Americas.

There were conflicting reports about whether people in the second building were told to evacuate after the first tower was hit. Several people said they heard an announcement over the building's public address system saying that they should stay put, and that the building was secure. Others said they did not hear any announcements.

One former Port Authority official said that according to procedures drawn up with the Fire Department, evacuations would be conducted only on the floors immediately above and below the fire. With a capacity of 50,000 workers, simultaneous evacuation of all occupants could lead to chaos, the former official said.

For many, the only help had to come from colleagues and others who were fleeing. A woman who worked for Morgan Stanley on the 64th floor of Tower 2 -- able to walk only with crutches -- was carried down by fellow employees. "It was incredibly difficult," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used. "They had me over their shoulder for 5 or 10 flights and just couldn't do it."

Another co-worker she knew only as Louis came upon the struggling group, lifted the woman to his shoulder and carried her by himself, she said, adding that the temperature in the stairwell was at least 90 degrees.

At about the 15th or 20th floor, the woman recalled, a security guard said they were out of danger, and urged Louis to leave her and continue on his own. Louis refused. "He carried me down all 54 flights, and then out of the building," she said, "all the way to the E.M.T. guys, and he stuck with me until we got one who said I could go in an ambulance."

After the first building collapsed, people began looking everywhere for survivors amid the rubble. Flames popped out of an ambulance; taxis slammed into buildings. One man walked around calling out: "Is anyone there? Show me an arm. Show me an arm." He got no response.

Someone asked a firefighter, "Is there anything I can do?"

"There's nothing anybody can do," the firefighter replied. "There's nothing anybody can do."

Mike Fitzpatrick, 38, said he and seven other firefighters were in the lobby of the first building to collapse when one became trapped. They had begun trying to cut him out when the second building collapsed, and they couldn't hear him anymore. Then they had to leave.

"We stayed because one of our officers was trapped," he said. "We were trying to dig him out -- we were trying to dig him out. He was alive. It collapsed on him."

By 11 a.m., hundreds of dazed firefighters were on the scene. Many were on their knees; some were crying, their heads in their hands, sitting on piles of debris.

At 1:45 p.m., small groups of firefighters and construction workers climbed gingerly over piles of shifting debris three to five stories high, as gas-main explosions boomed in the distance. They found nothing. At 2 p.m., the first bulldozers arrived at Liberty and Church Streets to begin moving debris. At 3 p.m., dozens of firefighters began combing through the rubble, but after only half an hour of searching, fears of another collapse forced them to scramble away.

Officials feared the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, another high-rise burning in the complex, as well as other high-rise buildings bordering the complex. Throughout the afternoon, bricks cascaded from a burning building south of the site. By early evening, 7 World Trade Center finally fell.

Firefighters south of the complex faced the worst conditions, with a steady wind blowing acrid black smoke and huge plumes of dust in their faces. Throughout the afternoon, the smoke and dust forced firemen to pour bottles of water over their eyes so they could see.

Frank Carino, 36, a New York firefighter, said he had tried to rescue men on the seventh and eighth floors of one building but the ladder of his aerial truck did not reach high enough. "They had broken the windows and they were yelling out at us the stairways were on fire," he said. "One of the men was using a megaphone." He added that he believed that the two were rescued by firefighters within the building.

Another firefighter, who declined to give his name, knelt on the asphalt, a towel over his shoulder and his eyes bloodshot.

"I saw at least 10 people jump," he said. "I heard even more than that land and crash through the glass ceiling in the atrium. We could hear them crash. We thought the roof was crashing down but then we looked up and saw that people were falling through the glass. Some people fell right onto the pavement." He stopped, unable to continue talking.

He said he entered the lobby of 2 World Trade Center with his company, but was immediately blown across the lobby. "We did our best to crawl out," he said. "My company is still missing two guys. They went back in to help people."

The three blocks of Church Street that border the trade center were lined with the hulks of ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars where their drivers abandoned them. Windows blown out, caked in dust, the vehicles -- doors ajar, hazard lights flashing -- all appeared frozen exactly as they were when the first building collapsed. All that was missing was their occupants.

At the corner of Liberty and Church Streets, a five-story section of the top of a building loomed over the road, causing firefighters to stare anxiously above them as they walked below. A New York State flag still flew in front of 7 World Trade Center but the building was a blackened mass. Six inches of ash and office paper covered the graves at the St. James Cathedral, across the street from the towers.

By 6 p.m., a bulldozer had finally managed to clear a single lane of Liberty Street, allowing fire trucks to enter the area and begin pouring water on smoking sections of the buildings.

The chaplain who died, Father Judge, 68, was found by firefighters on the street along with his driver, who was also dead. They recognized him and took him to St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street, where they laid his body at the altar.

"The church was there and they figured it was a safe place to put him," said Brother Thomas Cole of the St. Francis Friary on 31st Street, where Father Judge lived.

His body, wrapped in sheets, was later moved to the empty firehouse across the street from the friary. Later, two dozen friars and firefighters, some weeping, recited the blessing of St. Francis: "May the Lord bless you and keep you and show his face to you, and have mercy on you."

Brother Cole said that Father Judge's morning prayer had been for "peace and joy in our city."

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, also a Fire Department chaplain, recalled that Father Judge gave a sermon recently, "a homily about how you have to enjoy each day with your friends and family. He was a remarkable human being."

Back to photos
Back to the Greenbelt