In a haphazard joining of time and place I found myself not far from the World Trade Center on the morning September 11, 2001, and in a commandeered city bus going south on West Street with more than a dozen firefighters as the second building, 1 World Trade Center, fell. I then with hundreds of firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, construction workers and others watched the day enfold in a tragedy so profound that not one among us was prepared to integrate what we saw into a normal expectation, or an unaffected memory.
As the bible says: "Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it." With diligence and courage, we must record our mistakes to enable the trumpet of truth to sound out. Without it we will be shattered.
"What makes them do it?" is a question I have been asked hundreds of times in the course of my travels. It is a natural question. Why do people give of themselves so utterly? Why do firefighters run into burning buildings knowing that the environment of a building on fire might be the most dangerous location in the world?
And, why do policemen and policewomen continue in a profession where they have to wrap a bullet shield around their bodies at the start of every tour? What does this simple precaution say about them? What a difficult profession it is for a person who is responsible for their children's future to begin every day thinking of a confrontation with a person who means to kill them.
Three hundred and forty three firefighters, twenty-three police officers, and thirty-seven Port Authority Police officers were lost in trying to help the thousands to safety. Many of these first responders knew they would not survive. There is much evidence for this. One left a note of parting love to his family in a firehouse.
They were ready to give their lives in the course of their duty - a readiness that comes with the job. But, were they prepared? Indeed, were the Police Department, the Fire Department, and City officials prepared to protect them?
You know the horror that was placed in the full fury of its turmoil into the lives of so many families, because of the wanton acts of organized Islamists. That day is perhaps the most written about, analyzed, and referenced day in contemporary history. Hardly a day goes by, now, nearing three years later, that we do not use the terms "nine-eleven" or "ground zero." But there are distinguishing facts of the emergency operations at the World Trade Center that have not been adequately discussed.
I have several good friends among the family of firefighters who feel that their loved ones were lost in an emergency situation they could have survived, that had they been prepared or protected they would have been able to save themselves. Indeed, it can be said that every firefighter in the north tower could have been saved.
The South Tower fell precipitously. There was no warning. We know from radio recordings that the men of Ladder 15, along with Battalion Chief Oreo Palmer and Fire Marshal Ronnie Bucca had already started fire operations on the 78th floor. They were fighting the fire. There was no way that those in that building should have known that Leslie Robinson's engineering firm and Minoru Yamasaki's architectural firm failed to test for a comprehensive fire load as the WTC buildings were being designed, and that the steel on all four sides of the building was softening and stretching 91/2 inches per one hundred feet at 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, or that the steel, for whatever reason, would not last in the heat it was subjected to for the normal duration, the normal fire code expectation of fire-proofed steel, of four hours.
"...The architect, not the engineer," said Mr. Robinson, "is the one who specifies the fire system." To me this is a circumnavigation of responsibility.
And when the south building came down at 9:59 a.m., after enduring its wound for just 56 minutes, it brought the weight of 110 stories, 4,761, 416 square feet of occupied space, and all of its occupants with it. There was no way to have predicted that horrible event in the South Tower, and no one survived.
But, as Jay Jonas, a captain working in the north tower said to his men when he looked out of a window and realized the south building had fallen, "If that building can fall, this one can fall." And, so, now there is a verified anticipation of the collapse of the north tower.
But not all the firefighters looked out of a window. These building were huge environments, one acre on every floor. The elevators and the stairs are in the middle of the building. Every fire emergency is dangerous and almost always dark, and so firefighters rely on their radios to tell them of mitigating factors they might not be aware of, factors that might affect their safety.
The radio repeaters worked in the South Tower. They had been tested during the course of the 56-minute emergency. But in the lobby of the North Tower, Assistant Chief Joseph Callen, having learned that there was another plane in the air, delivered a radio command at 9:33 a.m. "Everyone come down to the lobby immediately," he said.
No one responded to that order. No one came down to the lobby. And, then, when the South Tower fell at 9:59 a.m., covering the North Tower commanders and their staff with debris, Chief Joseph Pfeifer, still in complete darkness, gave the order, "All units in Tower One, evacuate the building."
How many firefighters failed to hear Chief Pfeifer's order will never be known, but we do know that 29 minutes later 121 firefighters were killed, and as far as we can ascertain no civilian who had been below the point of impact in the North Tower, no New York police officer, no Port Authority police officer, and no EMS personnel was killed in that second collapse. Just the firefighters, those in the fire zone, and those trapped above the impact were so horribly taken.
Thousands were saved, and this event will live in history as the greatest rescue ever made.
There is no doubt that there was inadequate communication between the two most important emergency organizations in New York City, and the fact that the Office of Emergency Management headquarters bunker was in the ill-fated No.7 World Trade Center building diminished whatever possibilities that might have existed of having coordinated communications between the fire department and the police department.
Police officers, both city officers and Port Authority officers, acted valiantly that day. Indeed, there is evidence that some police officers helped victims out of the buildings and then re-entered only to lose their lives. There is no greater courage than that. Still, the question lingers why so many police officers were saved, and so many firefighters died? Almost ten firefighters for every lost New York City police officer were killed. And, among lost police officers, there were none of officer rank while there were 23 fire chiefs killed. This suggests to me that there were successful communication efforts within the ranks of the police, for certainly the police were in the buildings trying to help, as was their duty. But, the communications within the ranks of the firefighters cannot be proven to be successful, as evidenced by the number killed in the North Tower.
We know too, as cited in the McKenzie Report, that the 911-operators received important information that was passed on to Police Department officials, information that might have been used by fire officers in determining strategy and safety measures, but was not received by them.
We know as well that information reported by a Police Department helicopter pilot who had a level view of the impact zone of the buildings, and of the fire's intensity and behavior, was not transmitted to the fire department. General Arnold has reported that, on the morning of 9/11, General Eberhart sent a communication from Washington to Vice Admiral Buckely on an aircraft carrier 4500 miles from New York, requesting that the Asia bound ship turn around and head for surveillance duty on the country's west coast. Think of that, a successful communication to protect Americans, between two military organizations, over a distance of 4500 miles. Yet, we could not effect a communication from a police helicopter to a fire chief on the street 1000 feet away.
Some people will say that the culture of bravado in the fire department inspired firefighters to continue up into the buildings after receiving an order to evacuate, but this is nonsensical and at odds with fire department experience. A fire officer would not subject his men to serious risk by countermanding an order to pull back. These are professional line officers trained in safety and responsibility, and who have an experienced-based and intuitive trust in their chief officers.
There are no acceptable casualties in the fire service, and the fire service anticipated the need of protecting against the attack of weapons of mass destruction long before 2001. Our nation's foremost fire chiefs have consistently testified before congress on the need to equip and train firefighters for such contingencies, and, recognizing the counter-productive competition between federal authorities, to call on the government to create a centralized authority to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts to protect the American people. There were, previous to the creation of the Homeland Security Agency, 47 federal agencies involved in some form in response to terrorism. Chiefs Alan Brunacini of Phoenix, John Ebersole of Chicago, and Ray Downey of New York all offered compelling warning to the congress. On March 21, 1998, Chief Downey, who was killed on 9/11, testified before Congress just five years after serving as a rescuer in Oklahoma City: "...I see many shortfalls in the area of first responder capabilities, for dealing with and mitigating upon incidents of WMD. The fear of chemical or biological terrorism is foremost in the minds of every firefighter..."
Yet, the Clinton administration did not act. The Bush administration did not act - until that fateful day.
We must learn from our own history. Every year from 1900 to 1906, the fire chief of San Francisco, Dennis Sullivan, stated unequivocally in that city's Annual Municipal Report that the city could burn down if a high pressure water system and deep well cisterns were not installed in the city, and on April 18th, 1906 an earthquake broke apart the city water system and the city burned for three days, killing more than 3000 people and displacing more than 200,000.
And, now, today, it is evident that the Homeland Security Agency has determined on a course of preventing terrorism before it happens. Most of the agency's resources are invested in prevention programs. But, there is only one organization in our country that will respond in significant number in time enough to save lives in every emergency, and especially in response to a chemical or biological act of terror. It is the fire department, and the Homeland Security Agency must begin to train and equip firefighters in a consequential continuum, for firefighters are not much better trained and equipped today than when Chief Downey spoke before Congress in 1998. In a very real sense, fire chiefs feel very much as Chief Dennis Sullivan did in 1906 - that people are not listening to them.
Readiness is to be highly motivated, and fully understanding of mission and risk. Our first responders could not be more committed in their desire to provide service in times of emergency. But there is a significant difference between readiness and preparedness. To be prepared, one must be properly trained in systems and procedures, and equipped adequate to the emergency. It cannot be said that our first responders were prepared at ground zero. Why? It is because information was not shared, and the services did not interact in a predetermined and agreed-to manner. Consequently they were not given the opportunity to work in a viable emergency system.
This emergency manner is codified in many places in America by signed protocols - agreements of incident command between responding emergency organizations, either local or state or federal, as has been mandated by the National Incident Management System in every region of our country where the homeland security is a priority. Today, however, thirty-two months from September 11, 2004, there is not yet a signed protocol between the police and fire departments in New York City. They have met, and considered various proposals, but they have not agreed.
There is a territorial imperative that separates the two departments, protocol or not, which I believe is caused by their separate rescue units. The fire department has five rescue companies with 170 men, and a haz-mat unit (besides other companies in its special operations command), and the police department has 10 truck companies in the Emergency Services Unit with 460 men and women, and a haz-mat unit (besides other units in its emergency service division). Each of these police officers and firefighters is a well-motivated and highly trained individual in rescue procedures, and their similarity, department to department, in company identity and mission causes competition that is often divisive and sometimes harmful. Legitimate arguments are made about the protection of evidence, particularly in haz-mat emergencies, but these resolvable issues just serve to further the competition. In my opinion it is this competition that will be found, historically, as the basis for the communications failure on September 11, 2001, and which continues to this day. Furthermore, these rescue units, where they exist separately in both police and fire departments in various cities in our nation, should be disbanded in their respective departments, and consolidated in a separate emergency service. It is in the population's interest to see that the nation find a way to fund specialized emergency services organizations. Every major city in America should have a fire department, a police department, and an Emergency Services Department, staffed by qualified individuals who have advanced from within the two primary protection departments. Emergency Services units are the life's blood of an emergency operation caused by terrorism or natural disorder, and they should not be allowed to be competitive if we are to be prepared.
Prudent political analysts project that we will have terrorist confrontations for the next fifty years, and we must also begin to protect our workers from terrorist activities as we protect the health of workers in the workplace.
Workers in America for the most part are neither ready nor prepared to meet a terrorist action. Those who work in our multi-use buildings each day are not adequately prepared for a terrorist incident. We tell our citizens that the terrorists win if we are fearful, and so we are reluctant to expose them to training realities that might make them think of fearful possibilities. Yet, there are actions and equipment that can reduce the harm in chemical, biological or other attack, and security heads of our major corporations know what they are. There is more to security than fire drills. Corporate chairpersons must find a way to pay for the equipment and training that are recommended by the heads of their corporate security departments. A corporate chairperson should get to know and respect his security executives as well as he does the vice-president of sales and marketing. In other words, equalize the priorities in the way corporations think about the future, for every dollar spent for information sharing, readiness training and preparedness drills and equipment will save lives, and help insure the future stability of the corporation. A policy and a codified regulation should be instituted by the Homeland Security Agency to mandate education and training in emergency preparedness. Corporate Chairpersons and company boards must be held personally liable for this training and education, in much the same way they are held liable for malfeasance in management.
We all mourned profoundly on 9/11, and we continue to mourn. Our congressional leadership must remember how millions of big-hearted civilians acted on 9/11, and the months following. Congresspersons must be unselfish in recognizing priorities for counter-terrorism funding. They should begin to fund fire departments and police departments directly, and not through their states, and, like our first responders, they must be focused on the common good, and be without competition. Our record since 9/11 is wanting. The firefighters of America are right to be alarmed by a fire service unprepared to effectively reduce life-loss in an act of terrorism, and by a populace that has not been informed, trained or equipped to act safely in emergency situations.
Do we have leaders who can remember that the effect of the present on the future is the definition of history, and that our own history of counter-terrorism preparedness must never be repeated?