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America Under Attack: Emergency Response in New York City

Author: John Christopher Fine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-10
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Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.


The sheriff was tired. "They're working twelve hour shifts, seven days on," he said from headquarters.

Seventeen miles up river, the Rockland County Sheriff’s River Patrol was assigned anti‑terrorist deployment to protect the Tappan Zee Bridge, the one remaining Hudson River crossing north of New York City. It was the only nearby artery open after the attack on the World Trade Center. Bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed.

"There was a threat against the bridge and language was overheard that the Indian Point Nuclear‑Power Plant up river might be a terrorist target," Sheriff James Kralik said. His river patrol boats were dispatched to protect the nuclear power plant until the US Coast Guard could relieve them.

Photo: Mark C. Ide

Everywhere 9-1-1 lines were jammed with worried callers. Fear and despair, failure of communication networks, even destruction of New York City's emergency management bunker in the World Trade Center resulted in confusion. Law enforcement, fire and rescue teams from the City and from neighboring departments worked together to respond to the emergency

The police, fire, and emergency medical services in New York City are among the largest, best organized, and most competent in the world. About 40,000 police officers, some 12,000 fire fighters and recently merged EMS personnel working under the New York Fire Department have been capable of coping with any kind of emergency.

Drills at the New York World Trade Center after the first terrorist bombing in 1993 prepared emergency crews for quick response. But it was unthinkable that a pair of hi-jacked jetliners would be crashed into the twin 110-story towers, causing cataclysmic implosion and pancake collapse of both 1350-foot tall towers.    

Many police, fire and EMS personnel were killed in the collapse.  Entire rescue, hazardous materials, and emergency services units were completely wiped out. The subsequent wave of police, fire and rescue personnel were not equipped for what they encountered. Civil authorities in the United States have never faced the devastation of warfare in modern times.

"In the entire London Blitz of World War II we lost twenty thousand people," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.  “New York lost more than six thousand in a single day.”  Heroes of the London Blitz were civilian authorities, paid and volunteer, who donned civil defense helmets, saw to the wounded, excavated dead from rubble in bombed out tenements and office buildings, and insured order.

A New York City Fire truck on dutyat Ground Zero in the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapses.
In addition to the twin towers, the other five buildings in the WTC complex suffered near or total collapse. 
Photo: Mark C. Ide

For comparison, in the year 2000, thirty‑four catastrophic fires occurred in the US, killing 176 people. In 1999, forty‑four catastrophic fires in the nation killed 214. Horrible disasters each one, yet their statistical enormity is dwarfed by the September 11th World Trade Center attack, which, at press time, logged 461 confirmed dead and 4,470 missing.

New York's finest and New York's bravest formed a unified team from the very outset. Firefighters had heavy boots, parkas, pants, respirators and gloves, axes and pry bars. City police wore only summer weight uniforms. Their guns, handcuffs and duty belts gave them extra weight that became burdens as they joined firefighters walking into damaged buildings and rubble.

Fumes and smoke from the fires filled the air. Concrete dust from the pulverization of the buildings caked eyes, breathing passages, and lungs. Sharp shards of metal and glass cut hands and legs. One police officer had a finger amputated while performing rescue work.

"That's the escalator. All this collapsed on top of it,” a fireman said. There was no way to get under it. The escalator and stairway were the way out of the building, but the structure had collapsed onto them. Most of the building was now a shell in smoldering ruins. Hoses ran inside, now unmanned, water running everywhere from earlier efforts to put out fires that were still burning outside the ruined building.

"Where did you get the mask? Do they have any gloves? Are there any goggles?" Questions like these were frequently asked as rescuers wanted to move debris but were overcome with the smoke and‑dust. There was danger everywhere.

“Hey, watch that hole," a voice called out, barely discernable behind the thick mustard‑ochre colored smoke coming from the ruins. The hole suddenly appeared, a pit of undeterminable depth, yawning down into the rubble. Police walked around it. Rescuers tried to venture further into an area where the once proud Millennium Ball and a transmission antenna stood, anchored like a ship’s masts in a dense fog.

Temporary morgues were set up to receive remains, cocooned in orange and green body bags. The first responders on the periphery of the disaster were found first. Their ambulances, fire, and police vehicles were crushed, incinerated in the raging infernos that followed the collapse of the structures.

As the site became stabilized and fires controlled by ladder companies and pumpers, some established on the Hudson River, running hoses into the site through derelict buildings, police forensic teams began to hunt for evidence. Paramount were pieces of the aircraft. That cockpit voice recorders and black boxes would survive the disaster or that they could be found if they did survive was questionable. Teams of police and federal agents combed the wreckage looking for evidence.

Police and rescue dogs were brought to the scene to sniff out victims in the rubble. They are called rubble dogs and their reward is finding someone alive. There were no rewards on September 11th. Initially, nothing protected the dog’s feet. Their eyes, noses, and lungs were choked with dust and smoke, but like their handlers they persevered. Booties were eventually brought in to protect their paws from sharp pieces of metal.

Then the rains came. Torrential rains. New York City Police, with the assistance of State Police, sheriffs, local police and brother agencies from around New York, established perimeters, and provided security. Other teams of police continued to comb the wreckage.

The site became a massive removal operation. Heavy equipment was brought in. The Commissioner of Sanitation directed traffic and ordered sanitation trucks in as fast as room was made and space became available.

Loaders, cranes, forklifts, tow trucks were everywhere. The screams and beeps of their high-pitched backing warnings penetrated the air. Sirens seemed distant, far away. Nurses and surgeons and emergency trauma doctors waited at makeshift triage centers, but there were no survivors to treat, only injured rescuers - and there were many injuries.

First responder vehicles damaged in the collapse.  Photos by John C. Fine

Cement dust caked eyes and nostrils. Eyes required frequent washing. Oxygen masks helped rescuers breathe, their lungs heaved with the dense smoke that hung like a pall in the air. With the torrential rain everyone slipped and fell. Leather gloves became soggy, slimy. Iron girders became greased poles where boots could no longer get purchase. The cement dust turned to thick muck.  Calls for blood donations caused many around the nation to respond. Sadly, as the days passed, reality dawned. There would be no survivors requiring transfusions.  A physician leaving the site commented in despair. "There is no work for doctors here."

For the police, fire and rescue personnel, the work went on.  Citizen soldiers were called up. National Guard troops worked alongside civilians.  Construction workers and heavy equipment‑operators gradually displaced rescuers in order to begin removal of hundreds of tons of rubble. As time waned so did hopes that any would be found alive beneath the debris. Experts said temperatures underground reached 10 degrees. Without water and food, survival would have been a miracle.

Yet in a place where rubble had covered over a store, removed by a crane's steel grab, a shelf remained virtually intact. On it were 6 cans of paint. The paint cans were not even covered by dust, intact and in perfect order as the store's clerk had left them. Would that a human being could have secured that protected niche and thus survived.

Police work in peace and war remains the same.  It is to preserve social order, to render aid and assistance in an emergency. In New York, police, fire and EMS services mobilized. On the Hudson River sheriff's patrols and US Coast Guard joined its police marine units to establish security. Fireboats used their massive pumps to send river water through feeder hoses into the site.  Corps of men and women, volunteers with the Salvation Army and Red Cross set up canteens. Young people from schools around the nation mailed boxes of work gloves and aid. Supplies. Citizens mobilized everywhere to do what they could. 

The outpouring of kindness brought grace, dignity, and honor to a terrible tragedy. That is the stuff of America – the soul and the spirit of a people, independent and free, who join together in crisis to form a common bond to preserve our nation.


John Christopher Fine is a former New York Senior Assistant District Attorney, Assistant Attorney General in Charge Organized Crime Task Force, U.S. State Department Official and Special Counsel to the U.S. Senate.  Considered a foremost authority on organized crime and political corruption, Fine, a lawyer in private practice, continues to act as a government consultant and author of magazine articles on law enforcement and crime issues. 



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