Ten Years Later: The September 11 Attacks
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Firefighters at Ground Zero

Title: Firefighters dig through the rubble
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Firefighters from the Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) immediately responded to the first airliner crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the tower at 8:46:40 a.m. The FDNY units were in the middle of a shift change. This meant that the maximum number of firefighters (those whose shifts had just ended and those whose shifts were just starting) were able to respond to the emergency. Engine Company 10 and Ladder Company 10 were the first to respond because their firehouse was located across Liberty Street from the World Trade Center. Other fire stations also reacted quickly. Within 30 minutes more than 100 fire trucks had appeared at the World Trade Center complex. Firefighters were on duty fighting the fire and handling survivors when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03:11 a.m. Firefighters continued fighting the fire and trying to save survivors until both towers collapsed. One of the problems the firefighters had to overcome was climbing up between 60 and 80 floors while hauling the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), with the pants, jacket, and helmet weighing an additional 70 pounds.

The FDNY is huge. In the five boroughs of New York City there were 2,629 fire officers, 8,599 firefighters, 3,000 emergency technicians and paramedics, and 2,000 civilians. They were organized into 203 engine companies, 143 ladder companies, 5 rescue companies, 7 investigative squads, 3 marine companies, and a hazardous materials (hazmat) company. These units were stationed in 225 firehouses scattered throughout the five boroughs. This demonstrates the extent of the manpower that responded to the crisis on September 11. Some reports have estimated that somewhere around 10,000 firefighters made it to the World Trade Center on September 11.

Two factors hindered the efforts of firefighters to be more effective. One was the failure of the communication systems. Radios did not work, and other communication systems were overwhelmed by the traffic. Almost as serious was the lack of coordination between the firefighters and the police. Distrust between the two agencies had a lengthy history, as firefighters believed that the police department was favored over the fire department by New York politicians. These feelings of hostility were reciprocated by the police, even though both departments had traditionally recruited from the same segments of the population—Irish and Italians.

An example of the way this discord influenced operations on September 11 was the helicopter rescue issue. In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, police helicopters rescued people from the rooftop by helicopter. Afterward the FDNY's Chiefs Association claimed that this was grandstanding and complained to the mayor. After some infighting, the fire and police departments reached a compromise. Police helicopters would thereafter attempt rooftop rescues only when requested by a fire chief.

At the same time the roof exits on both towers at the World Trade Center had been securely locked by the Port Authority, ostensibly to prevent vandals, daredevils, and suicides from gaining access to the rooftop. New York City building code regulations did call for access to rooftops in emergencies, but the World Trade Center complex was exempt from the code. The FDNY had agreed with this decision.

On September 11 the rooftop doors remained shut, dooming those unable to climb down the staircases. The rooftop doors could be opened by using the computers on the 22nd floor, but this system failed because of the explosion and fire. Moreover, the firefighters were unable to communicate with the police helicopters because of the collapse of the communication systems. Police helicopters flew over the towers, but there was no authorization to rescue people from the rooftops even if they had been able to make it to the rooftops of either tower.

The firefighters never had a chance to put out the fire because it was a high-rise fire. A high-rise fire can only be extinguished from inside the building because no ladder truck and no stream of water can reach that high, making it the most dangerous type of fire to fight. In many cases, the only hope is that the building remains standing and the fire burns itself out.

A characteristic of the Twin Towers was that there were large open areas of 20,000 to 30,000 square feet on each floor. This made firefighting almost impossible, but the firefighters tried their best anyway. Half of the firefighters tried to fight the fire and the other half were busy evacuating people from the burning buildings. The fire chiefs had become concerned about the possibility of the towers collapsing, but too many people were in distress to pull the firefighters out. Consequently, losses among the firefighters when the towers collapsed were horrific. The final tally of firefighters killed on September 11 was 343. Among the dead were the first deputy fire commissioner, the chief of the department, 23 station chiefs, 21 captains, 46 lieutenants, 249 firefighters, 1 fire marshal, 2 paramedics, and 1 chaplain.

Others were injured, and some of the surviving firefighters have had serious health problems since. New York firefighters have always had a reputation for bravery, and September 11 was no exception. It was part of a long history of fighting dangerous and deadly fires.

After it became apparent that there would be no more survivors, the firefighters began searching for bodies and body parts. Even the recovery of a small part of a body meant that DNA analysis would allow the deceased to be identified. The firefighters had a code that they did not leave comrades behind. They worked diligently to recover whatever body parts could be found, but particular emphasis was put on finding the remains of firefighters. When the mayor's office announced that the number of firefighters, police, and Port Authority personnel at the site would be reduced in early November 2001, the firefighters protested to the point of almost rioting at the World Trade Center site. They felt that moving the debris had become more important to the city government than finding the remains of the victims. Bad feelings developed between the firefighters and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Only after a direct appeal by firefighters who had lost relatives in the attacks did the mayor back down and allow more firefighters to search for body remains.

The efforts and sacrifices of the New York City firefighters have been recognized. On June 10, 2006, a bronze memorial was dedicated to the memory of the dead firefighters with names listed on the memorial according to rank. It begins with First Deputy Commissioner William F. Feehan and ends with paramedic Ricardo J. Quinn.

The toll on the New York City firefighters was extreme. Besides the heavy loss of experienced personnel and the loss of 91 vehicles, there were still 415 members of the department on medical leave or light duty six months after September 11. Stress-related problems have been particularly severe. To replace the lost firefighters the department lowered entrance requirements for its recruits. One firefighter said, "It is going to take us a couple of generations, at least, to get the Fire Department back to where it was prior to 9/11."

Stephen E. Atkins


Further Reading
Aust, Stefan, et al. Inside 9/11: What Really Happened. New York: St. Martin's, 2001; Bernstein, Richard. Out of the Blue: The Story of September 11, 2001, from Jihad to Ground Zero. New York: Times Books, 2002; McKean, John. Architecture in Detail: Crystal Palace. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1994; Smith, Dennis. Report from Ground Zero. New York: Viking, 2002; Von Essen, Thomas, with Matt Murray. Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York City. New York: ReganBooks, 2002; Harris, John, and Snodin, Michael, eds. Sir William Chambers, Architect to George III. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 1996; Summerson, John. Architecture in Britain, 1530–1830. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1993; Baker, Al. "The True Toll on Firefighters Is Still Untold." New York Times, March 10, 2002, 41; Dunlap, David W. "A 'Silent Roll Call' of 9/11's Firefighter Heroes." New York Times, June 10, 2006, 1; Dwyer, Jim, and Kevin Flynn. 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive inside the Twin Towers. New York: Times Books, 2005; Halberstam, David. Firehouse. New York: Hyperion, 2002; Lance, Peter. 1000 Years for Revenge: International Terrorism and the FBI; The Untold Story. New York: ReganBooks, 2003.
 

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