Firefighting in the WTC on 9/11

A question or three has been nagging me for awhile, haven’t been able to find any answers. Hopefully the smart folks here will be able to help:

Let’s say the buildings were able to keep standing despite the extreme heat of the fires. What was the plan, or what would have been the likely plan, to put out the fires and rescue the people trapped above the impact floors? And how long would it likely have taken? Would the buildings have been salveagable afterwards, or would they have had to be demolished?

Everything possible done to get people out. No real way to fight the fire. If the fire could be contained to the upper floors, maybe, possibly, only some portion of the buildings at the top would have to be dismantled. Unlikely that the fire could be contained enough to save the building. Demolition of those buildings would be a whole new experience, probably requiring helicopters, specialized cranes, and some really [del]stupid[/del] courageous workers.

I should have just searched this board, there actually is a lot of discussion about WTC demolition, so that question is pretty much answered(at least as well as it can be).

But that still leaves open what the plan was to rescue the people.

Since you couldn’t evacuate people from the helipads (cut off by the flames), my guess is that the rescue plan was pretty much to knock down local fires enough for people to make it to the stairwell, help guide/carry injured people to the stairs, clear out debris blocking escape routes, and so on.

Basically: Clear paths out of the building, assist those you can reasonably help to make it out, apologize profusely to those you can’t. A grim business.

There wasn’t really any plan. There isn’t much of a plan for most very tall buildings. They don’t get hit by fully fueled jet planes very often. Realistically, no one in the fire zone or above had much of a chance of survival. Perhaps a few who made it to the roof could have been picked up by helicopter. But if the fire produced enough heat and smoke, that might have been impossible also. It’s all speculation, there isn’t really anything to compare it to.

They knew pretty quickly that there was little they could do to fight the fire, or to rescue people trapped above the impact zone. The 9-11 Commission report covers the actions and strategies of the first responders in great detail, an entire chapter. Here’s one excerpt that gives a good summary:

So because the buildings came down relatively quickly, they never really had an opportunity to plan out their strategy?

Given say, several more hours, they would have been able to really get underway trying to rescue people from the upper floors?

Other than helicopters on the roof I don’t think there was anything that could be done. There wasn’t any real chance of putting out the fire. I don’t know if there was any accurate assessment of the condition of the floors on fire, but my impression is they would have been impassable. Perhaps if the fires went out on their own, passageways through the burned out floors could have been opened and people brought down that way. But I doubt the fire could be stopped from reaching the upper floors if the building hadn’t collapsed. I think there was some analysis of that, but I forget the upshot, maybe I’m wrong.

They did have an initial plan, largely developed in the wake of the 1993 attack, which was to evacuate. They had more than a thousand responders deployed within 15 minutes of the first plane hitting. But because the incident disrupted sprinkler systems and water lines, there was no practical way to fight those fires or rescue people above the fire zones, even given more time. And time wasn’t going to help combat the main threat to those folks: the rising smoke.

In the north tower, most of the people who could evacuate did. Damaged stairways meant there was no way to reach above the 91st floor. Even if the building hadn’t collapsed, those trapped would likely have died from smoke inhalation before firefighters could have devised a way to ascend. Most of the people below the impact zone got out in the roughly hour and 40 minutes between impact and collapse.

The 9-11 report says:

The South Tower was a different story for two reasons. One, the plane hit much lower (between the 77th and 85th floors), stranding more people above. Two, the tower collapsed much quicker – 56 minutes.

NYPD had helicopters at the building within 15 minutes and had determined the flames and smoke made rooftop rescues impossible.

I was an initial responder and then some more. The only stupid question is the unasked question, right? So at the pub I asked a few firefighters, “What the hell did you guys think you were going to do?”

“Oh spray the lower floors to keep the fire from spreading.”

Sigh. I lost a firefighter cousin in that in that one. And neighbors and a EMT co-worker. And my self.

Or, you know, just a couple of fully-fueled, unmanned airliners.

That was cold, man.

If the buildings had not fallen, the real question would be how structurally sound the tops were. If the risk was that what happened within hours could instead happen within days or weeks - well, interesting speculation.

I’m imagning a complete evacuation for blocks around every time there were decent winds blowing. Crazy but highly paid volunteers willing to helicopter in and set charges; they’d evacuate all the surrounding buildings, then bring them down as best they could, even if it took out a few neighbours. The only difference would be they’d be better prepared against the dust and debris. Worst case you’d pick the path of least damage and try to topple them in that direction. (I.e. try to aim up the west side parkway?) After all, without a lot of planning and prep, how likely they’d fall down neatly and cleanly in place?

Hey! I said unmanned!

Still too soon.

All firefighting operations operate on a “default plan” RECEO

Rescue: Get the people out
Exposures: Protect other structures that may be threatened by fire
Containment: Contain the fire to a specific area
Extinguish: Drown it
Overhaul: Verify all fires are out and clear any dangerous debris

Granted some of these processes can run concurrently with sufficent manpower and equipment.

My .02 worth would be that they would given time, clear a rescue path from a lower floor and start moving people down that path. Even if there were no intact stairwell for several floors, several styles of ground ladders could be hauled up intact stairwells and be used to move folks between floors without other functioning methods of exit. It would be slow and arduous for all involved, but it could be done. Once they are a couple floors below the incident everything should be fine for the long march down and possibly even having functional elevators on lower floors to make the last part of the trip.

Helicopters and such would be very slow going and would probably turn into an epic shitstorm of people trying to pile onto the craft.

If you have to go that route my first thought would be something like having cargo helis lifting up standard cargo containers, get 40-50 people into the bin and lift off. If an enterprising company wanted to make a module designed for such things you could probably make something that would haul more people effectively.

Wouldn’t the antenna spire on the north tower made it impossible to land a helicopter there? Also has this caused any change to building/fire codes in NYC or anywhere else?

This is an interesting lecture on fire safety engineering and lessons learned from WTC.

Well there wasn’t time. And communications and electricity were down. Cops etc. couldn’t get orders. ANd it’s a town of probably 9 million people if we’re honest. Transportation was out. It was days before even a damn cell phone worked.

Please stop dancing on the head of this pin. For some of us it wasn’t a fucking TV show and we get cranky in Sept.


It does suck here in September. Sad, sad.