‘9/11’ - Emergency Response


tags: 911, New York, Terrorism, Emergency Response, Command & Control, C3, C2,

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By Superintendent Jason Byrnes, APJ Assistant Editor

© Superintendent Byrnes retains exclusive copyright of this article and no part may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from him.


This is an updated version of an article titled ‘9/11’ The World Trade Centre Attacks, first printed in the September 2002 edition of the APJ. When the article was initially written (six months after the event), many details of emergency operations were not public, or had been misreported in the media. The article printed in 2002 therefore contained a couple of inaccuracies – an inherent risk of writing about recent events!

Since 2001, most Australian police forces have revitalised their efforts on understanding and training for large scale events requiring the utilisation of the principles of Command, Control and Communications (also known as ‘C3’). One of the case studies invariably used in training is what happened in New York on 11 September.

Despite being updated and revised to give more focus to C3 issues, this article is still very much dedicated to the bravery of 416 police, firefighters and paramedics who died on that tragic day.


A total of 72 police and law enforcement officials (and a police dog) perished at the World Trade Centre1 (WTC) on 11 September 2001.  These men and women, along with 343 firefighters, died doing their jobs – rescuing and evacuating thousands people from the WTC.  The US National Institute of Standards and Technology has estimated that between 16,400 and 18,800 civilians were in the WTC when the emergency started and that of the 2,152 civilians who died, 1,942 or 94.64% were trapped on or above the floors that were hit by the airplanes.2 The successful evacuation of the majority of occupants is a testament to the bravery, dedication and commitment of all emergency workers.

This account is written to give the reader an insight into what occurred and how police and other rescuers undertook their duties in the most frightening and shocking of conditions. The article also overviews lessons learned from the event, and the serious issues that the various services had to confront in order to improve operations in the (hopefully unlikely) event of a repeat attack.

The World Trade Centre (WTC)

Located near the southern tip of Manhattan Island, construction commenced on the WTC in 1966 and tenants began occupying the first completed building in 1973.  By 2001 seven commercial buildings stood above the site (including a hotel) and there were substantial underground facilities including a shopping mall and train station.  The most prominent feature of the complex were the ‘Twin Towers’, each weighing about 500,000 tonnes and designed to withstand hurricane force winds.  The WTC was in many respects one of the focal points of business life in New York, approximately 50,000 people worked in the complex with up to another 150,000 passing through each work day.

The owner of the WTC site is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state government agency formed in 1921 to manage key state owned commercial and transport facilities that fall within a 25-mile radius of the Statue of Liberty. This ‘Port District’ includes land, buildings, airports, a major bus terminal, tunnels, train lines and bridges. The Authority is answerable to the Governors of the states of New York and New Jersey, and until 11 September 2001, its headquarters was in the WTC’s North Tower.


There are several thousand law enforcement agencies in the USA with the overwhelming majority operating as local or municipal forces.  New York City is no different with at least eight local and state agencies operating in the city. On September 11 two police agencies deployed significant numbers of personnel to the WTC and several others assisted away from the site.

In September 2001 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Police Department (PAPD) consisted of 1,301 officers, several of whom were posted to the agency’s WTC station.  The PAPD’s role is to provide policing and associated services at Port Authority locations. PAPD officers are sworn in as police in both New York and New Jersey and they are also trained as firefighters as the force also performs aviation firefighting at the airports it polices. The PAPD also has an Emergency Services Unit (ESU), a group which undertakes rescue, bomb evaluation and disposal and tactical assault operations. A number of PAPD members are also trained to operate ambulances.3

Despite its not insignificant size, the PAPD is dwarfed in scale by the New York City Police Department (NYPD); over 40,000 police providing the bulk of municipal policing services to one of the world’s largest cities.  The NYPD is answerable to the New York City Mayor, its officers are also empowered to undertake policing duties on Port Authority property if need be. Over 20,000 NYPD officers would be deployed to WTC related operations on September 11,4 the bulk of whom came from the general duties, traffic and detective units. NYPD specialist teams that would play a prominent role on the day included their ESU, aviation and harbour units. 

In addition to the above two, a number of state and federal law enforcement agencies had offices in or near the WTC and their staff would become involved. These agencies included the New York State Office of Tax Enforcement, the State Courts and the New York State Police. Federal Agencies to be involved and who lost personnel on the day were the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Secret Service.


Oversighting the emergency operations of city agencies is the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM).  Established by Mayor Rudi Giuliani in 1996 the OEM’s mission is to coordinate and plan the city’s response to emergency events. This includes the reduction of tensions that arise from time to time between NYPD and FDNY at emergencies. 

When a major emergency occurs the OEM activates its command post inside its headquarters (which in 2001 was on the 23rd floor of 7 WTC); attendees to the post include liaison officers from various agencies, the Mayor and his staff.  OEM field staff deploy to the emergency site to stand alongside agency chiefs, ensuring that responding agencies cooperate efficiently. As city agencies, both the NYPD and FDNY cooperate fully with the OEM yet in 2001 they both regarded themselves as operationally autonomous to it.5 This notwithstanding, the establishment of the OEM was regarded by Giuliani as one of his most important decisions as Mayor.6

The Attacks

The Al Qaeda terrorist movement spent years training a small number of men for the attacks.7 The ‘pilots’ (trained to fly the commercial jets, but not to land or take off) knew the magnitude of their mission before they had arrived in the US in the months leading up to the attacks, their assistants found out only after they had arrived in-country. A total of 19 terrorists seized control of four passenger jets mid-flight.

American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to New York was the first hijacked plane to hit its target; the Boeing 737 carrying 92 people flew full speed into floors 93 to 99 of the North Tower (1 WTC) at 8:46am. The building’s stairwells quickly became impassable around floor 92, “hundreds of civilians were killed instantly … hundreds more remained alive but trapped.”8

At 9:03am, 17 minutes after the first attack, United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the South Tower (2 WTC) and crashed into floors 77 to 85.  That flight had been scheduled to fly from Boston to Los Angeles. Despite the tower’s massive size and weight, a survivor later said that he felt it sway in one direction for almost ten seconds before the building stabilised.9

Initial Response

Police Officer Moira Smith was the first NYPD member to radio in a report of the attack.10 Smith, 38 years old, was on patrol when she witnessed the strike and was last heard of administering first aid to a collapsed civilian. Smith’s body was not located until five months later; she is survived by a husband and (at the time) two year old daughter.

Inside one of the PAPD’s offices in the basement of the South Tower at the time of the first attack, PAPD officer David Lim was tending to his explosives canine Sirius.  Upon hearing the explosion Lim left Sirius in his kennel and went upstairs to investigate. As he left Lim said “maybe one got by us, Sirius” 11 – it would be the last time that Lim saw Sirius alive.

In the plaza area between the twin towers Lim was confronted by chaos and destruction.  Almost all exterior windows in the lobby had been blown out; debris was strewn around. Near Lim was a body on the ground, he began to radio that in “when another body lands just fifty feet from me with a very loud noise … I look over and see that the skin has been forced away from the flesh.” 12 The police officer moved into the North Tower and was joined by an increasing number of what Americans call ‘first responders’; police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT’s) from throughout New York.

There are seemingly endless examples of people selflessly volunteering to be a part of the rescue and evacuation effort. One example was NYPD officer John Perry who was submitting his retirement paperwork when the first plane struck. Perry ran to the site and later died in the North Tower.

PAPD officer Christopher Amoroso helping a victim.  Despite being burnt, he repeatedly returned to the site.  He later died.  Photographer unknown

Initial C3

The 17 minutes between the North Tower and South Tower attacks was enough time for the each emergency agency to commence substantial rescue operations.

When the first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46am the senior PAPD officer on duty was standing in the WTC concourse. The officer had to dive for cover to avoid a fireball which erupted from a nearby elevator shaft. Such was the force of the plane strike that the aviation gas fuelled explosive fireball forced its way down elevator shafts as far as the basement areas.

PAPD officers on duty at the WTC were called to the main station in 5 WTC to receive instructions. Once that was accomplished the PAPD forward command post was relocated to the lobby of the North Tower, and PAPD officers responding from other commands were ordered to that location.13 While many PAPD officers facilitated evacuations from the North Tower lobby, others began climbing the stairs in order to reach the impact zone 92 floors above.  About 9am, on the advice of the FDNY, the senior PAPD officer gave an evacuation order for the entire WTC complex. This was about the same time as both the PAPD Superintendent and Chief of Department14 arrived at the North Tower’s lobby. It was about this time that the second plane hit.

Earlier, while racing to the site, the NYPD’s Chief of Department initiated a ‘level 4’ response requiring almost 1,000 police to attend to site. A marshalling point was established at West and Vesey Streets, from where the majority of NYPD officers were allocated duties in the streets around the complex. The main focus was to clear the roads to allow emergency vehicles in, to establish crime scenes around parts of the plane and building which had hurtled from the site, and to facilitate the evacuation of thousands of civilians. Nearby tunnels and bridges were closed by various police agencies while overhead NYPD helicopters circled the burning building.  At the intersection of Church and Vesey Streets the NYPD’s ESU established a forward command post. Two ESU teams were moving into the site when the South Tower was struck.

The situation facing all rescuers, particularly the fire department, was grim:

“We had a very strong sense we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble, but we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, and we had to try to rescue them.” 15

The FDNY’s main Incident Command Post was initially established in the lobby of the North Tower but was moved by the agency’s Chief of Department across West Street, an eight lane highway running alongside the North Tower. The Chief felt the location to be a better one in which to plan FDNY (and EMS) operations. The FDNY’s focus was rescue rather than firefighting, no fire chief thought at the time that a total building collapse was possible.16

The Second Attack

Just before 9am a group of PAPD officers from the Manhattan Bus Terminal arrived at the West and Vesey marshalling point. Several of these members, led by former ESU member Sergeant Jim McLoughlin, made their way into the complex to assist in evacuations. Having obtained oxygen sets, helmets and firefighting coats, the group were about to begin their climb up the tower when, as police officer Will Jimeno later recalled:

“It is like an earthquake when the plane hits [the South Tower]. … The whole concourse above us collapses [and] … I feel a ball of debris hit us.  Now, I see a huge fireball coming at us and I yell ‘Run! Run toward the freight elevator!’”

“[PAPD officer] Dominick [Pezzulo] runs first, I am behind, and the sarge is behind me. Antonio [Rodrigues] is behind the sarge, and Chris [Christopher Amoroso] I bringing up the rear.  But Chris never makes it because the shock wave pushes him back into the main concourse area, and he takes the worst of it.  Dominick and I and the sarge just make it around the corner, but Antonio doesn’t.”

“Everything just starts hitting us, and then the wall comes down on top of me. I am flabbergasted. My friend Dominick is crushed down in the push-up position, and my legs are pinned completely by heavy concrete. Sergeant McLoughlin sees the walls breaking apart, and they are falling on him. And the ceiling falls on him, [pinning him] 20 feet away from me.  I can’t see him, but I can hear him.  ...”

“The lights are flickering but they don’t go out. Dominick begins to wiggle himself out. Sergeant McLoughlin, being form ESU, does everything by the book, and so we are talking about what we have to do. I have an old pair of handcuffs and I begin to scratch at everything around me, trying to free up some of the concrete. The sarge is thinking Dominick will get free and work to get me out first, and then together we will work to dig Sergeant McLoughlin out. The sarge is hurt bad, and he has a few thousand pounds crushing down on him.” 17

C3 Developments

Immediately after the second attack the FDNY ordered another ‘fifth alarm’; scores more fire trucks and hundreds of firefighters. Another 1,000 NYPD officers were mobilised to the site, ESU teams from the NYPD and PAPD entered both towers. Further, the NYPD activated Operation Omega, the city-wide lock down of government infrastructure. Bridges, tunnels, government buildings were all closed and secured by NYPD, PAPD and other police personnel. The island’s public transport system stopped and hundreds of thousands of civilians found themselves having to walk home from work.

Mayor Giuliani and his staff arrived in nearby Barclay Street just after the second strike. Because it was impossible to reach the OEM headquarters in 7 WTC, the Mayor’s party set themselves up in an office building commandeered by the NYPD to be a major command post. After receiving a detailed briefing from the NYPD, Giuliani obtained support from the State Governor in the authorisation for the deployment of National Guard military units. Renown for his ‘hands on’ approach to leadership, Giuliani and his party (including the Police Commissioner) made their way to the FDNY’s main command post on West Street to see the situation first hand.  There the FDNY’s Chief of Department informed the Mayor that rescuers could save the lives of those under the fire floors;

“I knew that he was actually saying something else; ‘we can’t do much above the fire except hope that there’s a staircase’”. 18

Fire chiefs were hastily setting up another forward command post near the lobby of the South Tower, while fire crews and police commenced their long treks up the building’s stairwells. Another medical staging area had to be established to cope with the extra casualties both in the South Tower and in the adjoining hotel (3 WTC).  A second FDNY staging point was established south of the WTC site for units driving from the south and consideration was being given to moving the main FDNY command post further north on West Street because of the increasing dangers.

APJ map indicating the pre-collapse (approximate) positions of major Command Posts (CP), staging posts (SP) and Forward Command Posts (FCP).  The NYPD’s initial main Command Post was in Barclay Street, one street north east of this map.


With only a few exceptions the two thousand people on or above the floors hit by the planes, died on September 11. 

A small number of people in the South Tower were able to descend through badly damaged stairwells, however these escape routes quickly became death-traps because of the thick black toxic smoke, overpowering stench of aviation fuel, intense heat and rapidly spreading fires.  Amazingly, an employee who was working on one of the South Tower’s floors hit by the plane, survived and was able to subsequently evacuate. Another survivor, broker Brian Smith, later told American PBS program Nova that after about 30 minutes of descending stairs, he arrived at the bottom only to find that the debris covered location “was a moonscape … It was surreal, the whole thing was surreal.19

The city’s telephone system overloaded, including the 911 emergency number. Worse, because the 911 operators were not given updates from operational staff as to what was actually happening at the site, they offered contradictory advice or advice that was inappropriate for the circumstances. The subsequent 9/11 Commission was strongly critical of the rigid procedures in place for the 911 system, and its lack of integration into wider emergency operations.20

Many people trapped on the upper floors of the twin towers fled for the rooftop either of their own accord or on mistaken advice of 911 operators, in a hope that they could be rescued by helicopter. This was a forlorn hope as the fire and smoke made landings impossible. 

Faced with a slow, agonising death from smoke and toxic fumes, many chose suicide. Scores of people jumped or fell to their deaths, sometimes hitting people on the ground.  At least one firefighter died this way, another later recalled “I just remember looking up thinking how bad is it up there that the better option is to jump.21 While passers-by to the site looked on in horror at the plummeting office workers, flurries of paper sucked out of the damaged buildings flew about the city.


Photo: Richard Drew. This has become known as ‘The Falling Man Photo’. The identity of the man has not been confirmed.


At 9:51am an NYPD pilot warned that large pieces of debris were hanging from the upper floors of the WTC. Contrary to subsequent media reports, no pilot warned of imminent collapse.22

At 9:58am the South Tower collapsed.  Trapped PAPD officer Jimeno recalled;

“Dominick … finally pushes everything off him … and he begins to work on getting me out.  My left leg is completely stuck under immovable concrete.  He is bending over just a little when we hear the collapse beginning.  … I just hear the most horrifying noise I ever heard.  It was like a huge train coming at me with the roar of the devil.  … Dominick stands up … but a huge cinderblock the size of a dining room table comes down, and it hits Dominick right across his legs and slims him down.”23

PAPD officer Dominick Pezzulo had joined the force in late 2000 after a career as a teacher. Pezzulo’s death was not quick and there was nothing that his colleagues Jimeno and McLoughlin could do to help him. The two officers had shocking injuries and were facing death themselves,24 trapped forty-five metres below the top of the debris, parts of which were on fire. 

It took 10 seconds for the South Tower to collapse (at a speed estimated to be about 200 kilometres per hour). The resulting wall of debris, smoke and fine particle dust instantly filled ten city blocks, engulfing thousands of fleeing onlookers and rescuers.  NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Joe Dunne later recalled “the debris was literally flying across the street.  Several people who were there said they were fortunate enough to get behind the round pillars that were holding up the crosswalk … so the debris was falling, literally, on either side of them.”25 The thick dust from the pulverised building covered everything and prevented a clear view of the scene.  Small sections of the building’s exterior walls remained however most of the metal and concrete were piled up, much of it on fire. 

No one who was in the South Tower at the time of the collapse survived. 

C3 Post First Collapse

The South Tower’s collapse seriously weakened the FDNY’s and PAPD’s C3 structures. Like other rescuers, most senior officers at ground level fled for their lives when the building came down and it took a while for those who survived to return to their posts, if for no other reason than the post locations themselves had been obliterated. 

FDNY Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer had been the first senior firefighter to arrive in the North Tower’s lobby. Upon hearing the deafening roar of the South Tower collapsing, Pfeifer and others ran for safety but were engulfed in blinding dust. Pfeifer radioed an evacuation order on his FDNY radio as he moved his shocked and dazed team away from the building:

“we walked north, just trying to figure out what took place here and then tried to gain some control.  There was just a sense that this wasn’t a good place to stay.”26

In damaged nearby buildings such as 3 WTC (the Marriott Hotel), scores of rescuers were among the wounded and trapped.

NYPD helicopter pilots immediately reported to their command the collapse of the South Tower, and five minutes later warned that the top floors of the North Tower “were glowing red.”27 NYPD commanders ordered an evacuation and the agency’s marshalling and command posts were relocated away from the WTC site.  Moving vehicles proved difficult in the debris, the PAPD command truck for example could not move until its air filters were cleared of dust.28

Despite being over a block away from the WTC, the NYPD’s Barclay Street command post containing Mayor Giuliani was badly damaged and had to be evacuated. The Mayor and his party had to escape via an underground exit to an adjacent building because of the damage, and then moved north on foot to find an alternative command post site.

News of the total collapse of the South Tower was met with disbelief by most rescuers in the North Tower, even though some had been knocked off their feet in the shock wave. Orders to evacuate were complied with by some, others refused to obey or didn’t believe other rescuers who passed the order on.  On the ground and underground levels NYPD, PAPD and Secret Service Agents shepherded civilians from the site. By this stage torches were essential to help see beyond a few metres as an NYPD ESU team found out when it reached the ground level after descending from the 11th floor:  “the ESU team exited the North Tower and ran one at a time to 6 WTC, dodging those who still were jumping form the upper floors of the North Tower, by acting as spotters for each other.  They remained in the area, conducting additional searches for civilians; all but two of them died.”29

It is not certain how close rescue crews go to the North Tower’s fire zone.  There are radio transmissions from some crews who had made it as high as the 54th floor, most however did not get near that because of the distance and the heavy amounts of equipment they had to carry.  There were reports that several rescuers themselves required first aid treatment for exhaustion.

NorthTower Collapse

At 10:28am, 102 minutes after it was hit, and 29 minutes after the South Tower fell, the North Tower collapsed. To many it appeared that hell had come to earth as another tsunami of dust forced its way across south Manhattan and the Hudson river.  The shockwave killed and injured hundreds. Surrounding buildings were further damaged and fires spread. Most of the vehicles that had survived the first collapse but which had not yet been moved, were destroyed.30

Then PAPD Lieutenant Kevin Hassett wrote “it was chaos for a while and it took some time for it to all sink in, … our eyes saw it but the brain wasn’t registering it. We knew that there were many people inside those towers when they came down … not just PAPD, NYPD or FDNY … but lots of everyday folks.  …  The initial sense was overwhelming … where do we start and there has to be people alive in that rubble and how do we get them out.  …  A sense of helplessness was presented before us.  We who need to be in control and want always to be in control were suddenly and horribly confronted with a total absence of any sense of control of anything.  You felt powerless, numb, shocked, horrified and overwhelmed. It was the end of the world I remember thinking to myself. God help us was a common voiced feeling.” 31

C3 Post Second Collapse

C3 broke down totally in the period of time immediately after the second collapse.  23 FDNY senior officers died, including the Chief of Department and three other executive officers.  The PAPD’s Superintendent of Police, Chief of Department, an Inspector and Captain also died.  Without senior staff and with malfunctioning or overworked radio systems, both agencies became paralysed for a time.  Within an hour the PAPD had established a new command post to coordinate the agency’s rescue and recovery work, in a gymnasium at a community college to the north of the WTC site.  A departmental command centre was established in the Journal Square Transportation Centre (a Port Authority building across the Hudson River in New Jersey).  

Various FDNY command posts were established by surviving senior officers who rallied personnel around them.  It would be well over an hour before a single command location would be re-established, and even then that was relocated several times during the afternoon in an attempt to consolidate operations.

After breaking into a locked fire station, Mayor Giuliani and his party of advisors and senior service heads began to take stock of developments.  Soon the NYPD’s Manhattan academy was designated the site of the city’s main command and control facility and within hours it was fully operational.  Representatives from all services and government agencies, along with state and federal bodies, began planning for the rescue and recovery effort.  


As for the people inside the North Tower when it collapsed, there were sadly only a few examples of good luck and fortune.  One was PAPD dog handler David Lim and a small group of firefighters and a civilian who had been in the stairwell on the sixth floor.  Lim later recalled: “we smell jet fuel, and I wonder now, having survived this, is everything just going to explode into fire?  … The smoke and dust begins to clear, and suddenly there is a … big light and I realise it is the sun.  We seem to be on top of the collapse, if that is possible.  I say to anyone ‘what are the chances that we have survived this?’.  Chief Picciotto (from the FDNY) … answers ‘one in a billion, officer’ he says.  ‘One in a billion’”. 32

After using his mobile phone to ring home, Lim and the others rappelled to the bottom of the debris pile. The badly injured PAPD officer tried unsuccessfully find his dog Sirius before he was taken to hospital.

The experiences of NYPD Lieutenant Terri Tobin seems to typify the luck of the survivors.  Hit in the head with debris in the first collapse, Tobin’s ballistic helmet most likely saved her life. Even so medics inserted 40 stitches to her head and treated her fractured ankle and broken tooth on site.  The North Tower then collapsed and a shard of glass cut Tobin’s leg and she then had to receive another 40 stitches.33 Less fortunate was NYPD detective and ESU member Joe Vigiano, a 14 year veteran and highly decorated police officer who had previously been involved in two separate shooting incidents in which he was wounded seven times.  Vigiano died in collapse, as did his brother, FDNY firefighter John. The other brothers to die were NYPD officer Tom Langone and his FDNY firefighter brother, Peter.

Across the Country

Earlier in the morning, as the first plane flew into the North Tower, the enormity of developments became apparent to the Federal Aviation Authority.  All civilian air traffic across the nation was ordered to immediately land. Air force planes were scrambled in an unsuccessful attempt to intercept suspected hijacked planes.  Warships were ordered to sea and nuclear power plants throughout the nation were placed on alert. Federal agencies across the country closed their buildings, including major government buildings in Washington DC. Even the Prime Minister of Australia was affected by the event; he was visiting Washington at the time and had to be rushed to a safe underground location.

At the US military’s main headquarters, the Pentagon, a hijacked plane smashed into the building however the fires and loss of life were relatively limited in comparison to the events at the WTC. The fourth hijacked plane crashed into Pennsylvania countryside, after its passengers had attempted to overpower the hijackers. 

In 2006 Zacarias Moussaoui was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his unsuccessful attempts to be one of the hijackers of the Pennsylvania plane.34

Photographer unknown


Initial casualty estimates at the WTC were staggeringly high with an order of 11,000 body bags being placed by city authorities.35 A total of 170 hospitals had been placed on alert but after the first few hours, very few live patients arrived. 

This did not mean that the danger had ended at the site however. Weakened by fire and falling debris, WTC buildings 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 all either collapsed totally or partially that day. One of the victims of the collapse of 3 WTC (the Millennium Hotel) was FBI Special Agent Leonard Hatton. At the time of his death agent Hatton was a member of a Joint Bank Robbery Task Force however he had recently given evidence in relation to a trial in which the defendant had committed terrorist offences. The other federal officer to die on the day was Secret Service Agent Craig Miller.

Recovery plans were fully implemented by early afternoon. It was obvious that the task was beyond the capacity of any single agency, even beyond the combined resources of the various New York City agencies. A sizeable portion of the city was under rubble, thousands were missing, a crime needed to be investigated and the rest of the city protected. 

President Bush declared that the FBI would lead the criminal investigation, meanwhile the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assisted in the coordination of the deployment of rescue and recovery teams from around the nation. By late afternoon 20,000 NYPD officers were on duty along with thousands of soldiers and hundreds of police from other agencies. An exclusion site on land and sea was declared for kilometres around the WTC and in the air, jet fighters patrolled and protected the city from another potential attack.

Around 5pm the first heavy machinery made its way towards the WTC site, clearing debris and vehicles from the roadways to enable dump trucks and emergency services to access what became known as ‘Ground Zero’ to the public – ‘The Pile’ to rescuers.  Water Police and firefighting vessels pumped water from the Hudson River to enable firefighters to extinguish spot fires. Other boats were used to convey bodies across the river to makeshift morgues in New Jersey. 


Immediately after the collapses, bucket brigades were formed by surviving rescuers. By night the various agencies were starting to get an idea of who among their staff was missing, and how much equipment they had remaining. 

Less than 25 people were rescued alive from the rubble, the last one being pulled out only a few days after the collapse.  PAPD officers McLoughlin and Jimeno, trapped below ground when the South Tower was hit, were the second and third last people to be rescued. Jimeno was pulled out of the rubble late in the evening of September 11, McLoughlin on 12 September.36 Both men would spend months recovering and learning to walk again, McLoughlin in particular had to overcome amazing injuries including his gun lodging into his leg to the extent that it could only be removed by surgery. The ordeal was graphically recreated in the 2006 Hollywood movie, World Trade Center.

The rescue and recovery effort became the largest of its kind in US history (surpassed on scope only by the response to the 2005 devastation of New Orleans).  Over a million tonnes of rubble had to be searched for victims, survivors and evidence.  Best practice for disaster victim identification searches is for an area to be divided into grids, with each searched in turn.  Ground Zero was far too big for this.  The site was divided into quadrants, with each quadrant searched in a grid-like pattern.  It took months to fully search the site, rubble was searched in-situ before being taken to another location at Ground Zero and sifted.  The debris was then conveyed to reclaimed land at Fresh Kills, Staten Island, where it was sifted again, under police supervision. 

In undertaking this work, authorities were swamped with offers of assistance from the public and companies.  The depth of generosity was to the extent that the government publicly rejected further offers due to the logistical difficulties they were presenting.

Police and others joined together as part of the rescue and recovery effort. Image: FEMA.


The immediate physical dangers facing rescuers was the rubble and fires. For many days and weeks the site consisted of canyons and mountains of precariously positioned rubble which could easily crush or consume rescue personnel. Underground fires burned for months, emitting smoke and toxic fumes. In January several rescuers had to be reassigned to other duties when high levels of mercury were found in their blood. In February 2002 a study of air samples indicated record pollution levels with sulphur and silicon air particles exceeding the levels experienced by Gulf War veterans who subsequently developed long term illnesses.37 Adverse weather conditions such as rain and the onset of winter also made life more uncomfortable during the rescue and recovery operation.


The initially high hopes for finding live victims in the rubble soon faded in the days after September 11, but even the realisation that no-one else would be found alive did not prepare rescuers for the gruesome reality that most bodies disintegrated in the wreckage. The majority of remains found consisted of small parts, often no larger than a part of a finger. Whenever remains were found they were taken to a morgue at a nearby hospital for DNA and other forensic testing. For many families being able to bury at least part of their loved-ones helped to sooth their grief.

The first funerals were held within a week of the tragedy, police and firefighter victims were awarded full departmental honours. Each funeral was filled with heartache but pride, stories of sadness and foul chance. An example was NYPD Sergeant Timothy Roy from the Bus Squad. Roy witnessed the first attack while driving to court and rang home to say he would be late. He died and left behind three children and his wife.

The story of one police victim gained international mention by no less than President George W Bush. On 14 September the President visited New York and spoke to the relatives of the numerous victims, including the elderly mother of PAPD ESU officer George Howard. Mrs Howard presented President Bush with her son’s most prized possession, the small shield he wore on his work shirt.

On 20 September President Bush addressed the US Congress and gave a speech that was televised throughout the world.  In the speech the President held up the shield and said “each of us will remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened.  We’ll remember the moment the news came – where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire, or a story of rescue.  Some will carry memories of a face and voice gone forever.  And I will carry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Centre trying to save others.  It was given to me by him mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her sone. This is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end.” 38

George Howard had been in the PAPD for 16 years and was a volunteer firefighter for longer.  Keen in rescue duties, Howard had been a founding member of the PAPD’s ESU and had been decorated for his bravery in rescuing people from a trapped elevator in the wake of the 1993 WTC bombing.  On 11 September Howard had been off duty but like so many others, he decided he had to join the rescue effort.  The officer arrived just before the North Tower collapsed, his body was found five hours later by an NYPD detective who by chance saw a holster and gun protruding through the rubble.

    September 2002 – the PAPD’s ESU heavy rescue truck based at JFK Airport. The new truck replaced one lost at the WTC.  The truck is named the ‘PO George Howard’, in honour of the fallen member.  Image: author  


In the weeks and months after the tragedy, when carrying a victim from the site, all work would stop and machines turned off. Silence was observed as a mark of respect as flag draped bodies and parts were taken away.39 This honour was also extended for the only recorded non-human victim, PAPD explosives canine Sirius.  Found on 22 January 2002, Sirius was carried from the site by his handler, David Lim. The officer later was quoted as saying “he waited and I came back”.40

Post Event Tensions

As time passed and the recovery effort continued, tensions emerged over aspects to the operation. Most emergency personnel worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day for many months and the tiredness, along with stressful working conditions, began to show.

The most public boil-over of frustration occurred in early November 2001 when off-duty firefighters protested against the decision by the city government to reduce the numbers of rescuers on-site. Firefighters feared this was to facilitate the speeding up of rubble removal and to save money. Retired firefighter Dennis Smith wrote that the government’s decision was “an attack on the very nature of what firefighters stand for, what we have been dying for, for 150 years in this city”.41

NYPD officers barricaded the protest route and made a number of arrests when the protesters tried to force their way through.  It was not a high point in the WTC recovery operation, but it illustrated the frustration and anguish of human beings working under extraordinary stress for sustained periods.

Intra-agency C3 Lessons

Several departmental and governmental reviews were conducted in the wake of the rescue and recover effort.  The reviews all found that despite emergency operations being largely successful, there were shortcomings.  Some issues were identified as being unavoidable because of the scale of the disaster; several were judged to be very much avoidable.

The PAPD suffered the largest loss of life at a single event in the history of US law enforcement.  Its 37 dead represented 3% of a force which until that day had only lost 11 officers on duty in its 78 years of existence.  On scene members liaised well with FDNY and other emergency workers inside the complex, however failings identified by the 9/11 Commission42 included the absence of contemporary standard operating procedures, an undue focus of several senior officers on front line operational rescues rather than managing agency response, and a lack of radios with common frequencies.  The latter in particular meant that PAPD staff who arrived from commands other than the WTC, could not easily be briefed and advised of developments.

“Significant shortcomings within the FDNY’s command and control capabilities were painfully exposed on September 11.”43 Constant radio communications failures made it “difficult, if not impossible” for senior officers to control and coordinate responding units,44 a handicap compounded by a break down of discipline.  Significant numbers of firefighters in the North Tower ignored or were slow to react to evacuation orders.45 Several fire engines drove straight to the WTC rather than going to staging points as directed,46 scores of firefighters and EMT’s, either off duty or on duty but not called to the site, attended on their own volition.47 When the agency did issue recalls, the process was ineffective and disorganised because no testing of arrangements had been undertaken in decades.48 A total of 26 of the department’s 32 most senior officers were at the site during morning, including several civilian executives who had no operational role to play,49 and there was criticism that the concentration of resources (particularly rescue and hazardous material units) at or near the WTC left the rest of the city vulnerable to certain risks.50 The Department accepted many of the criticisms and strong efforts have been implemented since then to address many of the issues raised.51

An independent assessment NYPD’s performance found that out of the 16 key organisational tasks, the agency performed 10 well.52 Six areas though posed “significant challenges;”53 post-collapse rescue (which lacked detailed coordination for some time), on-site traffic management (too many vehicles allowed into the close proximity of the site), perimeter security (too many unnecessary personnel allowed on site), policing the disaster scene (60 looting arrests in first two days), secondary attack / hazard management and city-wide threat assessment (lack of comprehensive systems).54 As with the FDNY, the NYPD accepted the criticisms and began implementing improvements to their systems, capabilities and readiness.55

Inter-agency C3 Lessons

The 9/11 Commission found that there was a lack of proper coordination between rescue personnel climbing above the ground floor. Several floors were checked multiple times by differing teams while it is suspected that others may not have been searched.56 There were examples whereby personnel from one agency refused to accept an order or advice from others.  This reflected higher level issues as to the most efficient and effective coordination of resources. 

On September 11 there was no interagency plan that clearly allocated roles and duties.  Although there was some liaison between senior officers from the NYPD and FDNY, there was only a tacit understanding that the FDNY was the lead agency in evacuating people from the towers, with the NYPD and PAPD taking responsibility for evacuations once people reached the ground level.57 Overall interagency coordination was minimal58 and missed opportunities arose because information could not be quickly shared.  

“Whether the lack of coordination between the FDNY and NYPD on September 11 had a catastrophic effect has been the subject of controversy. We believe that there are too many variables for us to responsibly quantify those consequences. It is clear that the lack of coordination did not affect adversely the evacuation of civilians.  It is equally clear, however, that the Incident Command System did not function to integrate awareness among agencies or to facilitate interagency response.”59

Police (including cannine teams) and firefighters in the ruins. Image: FEMA


Over five years after the event, construction has commenced on a replacement WTC structure. This process has been marred (perhaps not surprisingly) by controversy as to the design, functionality and symbolism on what is to replace the twin towers.

In the years since 2001 each New York emergency agency has increased resources to respond to emergencies, particularly terrorist acts. Millions of dollars have been spent on replacing destroyed equipment and acquiring new kit that can be used to combat chemical, biological and radiological threats. Training, especially among the specialist rescue teams, has been geared towards scenarios which once were considered fanciful Hollywood plots. 

Each agency has also increased recruiting to replace vacancies created by both death and retirement. The PAPD’s strength now for example is around 1,600 (in comparison to 1,301 on 11 September). In May 2004 the FDNY Commissioner indicated that the agency (with an authorised staffing level of around 11,000 in 2001) had had to recruit 2,668 new firefighters in less than two and a half years. This huge amount was to replace vacancies created by the tragedy, natural attrition and the high number of firefighters who subsequently retired.60

The lingering dangers of September 11 are ever present in the minds of many of the survivors, particularly those who toiled in the subsequent rescue effort.  Since 2001 there has been controversy over the health risks for rescuers. In late 2001 statements were issued by several authorities, including the Mayor and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, indicating the site was relatively safe to work in.61 In January 2006 however, former NYPD Detective James Zadroga became the first person whose death was positively linked by a coroner to his role as a rescuer. The then fit homicide detective spent over 400 hours digging through the debris.  As with hundreds of other rescuers, Zadroga developed a cough, headache and shortness of breath.  His condition quickly deteriorated, within months he required an oxygen bottle to breath and received a pension 2004. 

Mercury was found on Zadroga’s brain and he was diagnosed with black lung disease before his death. 

Zadroga was the first of what will possibly be hundreds of rescue related deaths; at least 750 FDNY firefighters are now unfit to work because of their illnesses.62 City authorities have even passed a law enabling ailing rescue workers to access pensions if they worked for more than 40 hours at Ground Zero. While debate continues over the issue of government accountability and contemporary knowledge of the health risks, James Zadroga’s parents are now raising his five year old daughter as his wife had had died in 2004 due to an unrelated heart ailment. The daughter is just one of thousands of children who are victims of 9/11 by losing parents as a result of the carnage.


This article could not have been completed without the invaluable assistance provided by Kevin Hassett, as well as Cathy Travis and Pasquale DiFulco. The end notes at the bottom of this article include several informative web pages and publications, and are highly commended should the reader wish to find out more about the tragedy and heroism displayed on that day.

Abbreviations Used

C3: Command, Control, Communications

EMT: Emergency Medical Technician

ESU: Emergency Services Unit

FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation

FDNY: Fire Department New York (City)

FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency

NYPD: New York City Police Department

OEM: Office of Emergency Management

PAPD: Porth Authority of New York & New Jersey Police Department

PATH: Port Authority Trans-Hudson Railway

WTC: World Trade Centre


1 The U.S. spelling for Centre is Center, however the Australian version will be used in this article.

2 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (9/11 Commission), The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Authorised Edition, WW Norton & Company, New York, p.316.

3 For more information on the diverse role of the PAPD, refer to websites http://www.panynj.com/AboutthePortAuthority/PortAuthorityPolice/and http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing11/morris_statement.pdf.

4 B. Kerick, Testimony of the former Commissioner of the New York City Police Department Bernard B Kerick, Opening Remarks before the National Commission on terrorist attacks upon the united states, 18 May 2004, viewed in February 2007 at http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing11/kerik_statement.pdf

5 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.285.

6 R. Giuliani & K. Kurson, Leadership, 2002,  Time Warner Books, p. 315.

7 The 9/11 Commission (p.169) estimated that the terrorists spent between USD$400,000 and USD$500,000 in preparing for the attacks. 

8 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.285.

9 Nova, A survivor’s story, webpage viewed at www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wtc/above.html

10 Officer Down Memorial Page, web page, viewed in February 2007 at www.odmp.org/officer.php?oid=15818.

11 D. Smith, Report from Ground Zero, Viking, 2002, p.89.

12 D. Smith, Ibid, p.89.

13 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.292.

14 In the PAPD, NYPD and FDNY the Chief of Department is the senior officer in charge of operations.  The overall heads of the departments are the Commissioners (or in the case of the PAPD, the Superintendent).   

15 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.290.

16 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.291.

17 D. Smith, op. cit., p.114.

18 Giuliani & Kurson, op. cit., p.8.

19 Nova, loc. cit.

20 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.318.

21 J. Casaliggi, 9/11, television documentary, Goldfish Pictures Inc., 2002.

22 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.304 & p.321.

23 D. Smith, op. cit., p.115.

24 One of Sergeant McLoughlin’s many injuries was a leg shattered by his firearm, reportedly so severe that surgery was required to remove it from the leg.

25 D. Smith, op. cit., p.68.

26 J. Pfeifer, 9/11, op.cit.

27 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.309.

28 J. Morris, Statement by Joseph Morris, Former Port Authority Police Chief of Department, 18 May 2004, viewed in February 2007 at http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing11/morris_statement.pdf.

29 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.310.

30 The FDNY alone had to replace 91 fire trucks and ambulances.  See N. Scoppetta, Testimony of Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta before the National Commission on terrorist attacks upon the United States, 18 May, 2004, viewed at http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing11/scoppetta_statement.pdf.

31 K. Hassett, Letter to the author, 2002.

32 D. Smith, op. cit., pp.90 – 91.

33 D. Smith, op. cit., p.68.

34 This was a controversial case in that there was widespread calls for the death penalty to be applied.  There were also questions about Moussaoui’s sanity and intentions, and questions remain as to why one of the low level hijackers was charged when the alleged mastermind of the day’s events, remains uncharged (even though he is in custody).

35 Giuliani & Kurson, op. cit., p.341.

36 The 2006 Hollywood movie WorldTrade Center was based on their experience.

37 New York Architecture, website viewed February 2007 at    www.newyorkarchitecture.info/Building/442/World_Trade_Center.php.

38 US Whitehouse web site, viewed in February 2007 at   http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.

39 Initially only emergency service victims were covered in a US flag however this was soon extended to all located victims.

40 In loving memory of Sirius, Port Authority Police K-9, webpage, viewed in February 2007 at http://our.homewithgod.com/mkcathy/sirius.html.

41 D. Smith, op. cit., p.349.

42 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.320.

43 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.320.

44 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.319.

45 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.322.

46 McKinsey & Co., Improving FDNY’s Preparedness, 2002, p.6., viewed in February 2007 at http://www.nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/mck_report/toc.html.

47 McKinsey & Co, (FDNY), op. cit., pp. 9 – 10.

48 McKinsey & Co, (FDNY), op. cit., p.10.

49 McKinsey & Co, (FDNY), op. cit., p.10.

50 McKinsey & Co, (FDNY), op. cit., p.10.

51 N. Scoppetta, op. cit.

52 McKinsey & Co, Improving NYPD Emergency Preparedness and Response, 19 August 2002, p.3, viewed in February 2007 at http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/pdf/nypdemergency.pdf.

53 McKinsey & Co, (NYPD) ibid.

54 McKinsey & Co, (NYPD) ibid, pp.14 - 20.

55 RW Kelly, Testimony of Raymond W. Kelly, Police Commissioner of the City of New York before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 18 May 2004, viewed in February 2007 at http://www.9-11commission.gov/hearings/hearing11/kelly_statement.pdf.

56 9/11 Commission, op. cit. p.321.

57 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.319.

58 McKinsey & Co, (FDNY), op. cit. p.9.

59 9/11 Commission, op. cit., p.321.

60 N. Scoppetta, op. cit.

61 CBS News, The dust at Ground Zero, 10 September 2006, viewed in February 2007 at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/09/07/60minutes/main1982332.shtml.

62 Ibid.

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