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Wall Street Journal

October 23, 2001

Could Helicopters Have Saved People From the Top of the Trade Center?



WHEN a plane hit the World Trade Center's north tower, Stephen L. Roach phoned his wife twice from the 105th floor and got their home answering machine. In one message, he said he loved her. In the other, Isabel Roach says she could hear the desperate shouts of her husband's coworkers at bond-broker Cantor Fitzgerald LP: "Try the roof! Try the roof!" Mr. Roach shouted back to them, "There's no way out!"

If he was referring to a roof escape, he was correct. The doors to the roof were locked. Outside, hovering just a few hundred feet away from hundreds of workers trapped above the inferno, were New York police-rescue helicopters. Crews from the Brooklyn headquarters of the police-aviation bureau had scrambled at the first radio call of an explosion at the trade center. Of the two choppers that arrived within five minutes of the plane crash, one was a Bell 412 equipped with a 250-foot hoist and capable of carrying as many as 10 survivors at a time. The three-man crew was specially trained for rooftop rescues.

As the police pilots swooped in and peered through a smoke-free area on top of the north tower, however, they saw no one to save. People were still alive on the top floors, according to the New York Fire Department. But Greg Semendinger, the first chopper pilot on the scene, says, "There was nobody on the roof."

Earlier Rescue

Dangerous as it sounds, this kind of airborne mission can succeed. In 1993, Mr. Semendinger had helped rescue 28 people from the roof of the same north tower. A terrorist bomb had exploded in the trade center's basement garage, sending thick smoke up through the stairwells. That time, a police chopper piloted by Mr. Semendinger had lowered two men by rope to the roof. They cut down antennas to clear a landing area from which the workers were airlifted to safety.

But rather than reinforce the life-saving potential of rooftop rescues, the police department's daring helicopter operation in 1993 had the opposite effect. After the garage bombing, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the World Trade Center, and the fire department made a deliberate decision not to plan for future helicopter rescues, officials with the two agencies say. The agencies rejected recommendations from police pilots that an area of the north tower's roof be kept clear for helicopter landings. The antennas were put back up. And mostly for security reasons, the Port Authority kept the two sets of heavy metal doors leading to the building's only roof exit tightly locked -- as they would be on the morning of Sept. 11.

Part of the explanation for this decision in the wake of the 1993 blast was an intense feud then raging between the city's fire and police departments over who had control at emergencies. The fire department, which has no helicopters of its own, dismissed the 1993 rooftop rescue as grandstanding. Fire commanders said the mission was dangerous and unnecessary. And they said any future evacuations should be carried out by fire personnel from the ground.

Tough Challenge

On Sept. 11, a rescue from the north tower would have been difficult but possible, Mr. Semendinger and other veteran helicopter-rescue pilots say. The first building hit by a hijacked plane, at 8:48 a.m., the north tower was the second to collapse, one hour and 45 minutes later. Records of calls to 911 operators, first reported by the New York Daily News, show that people on the top floors were seeking help at least until 10:12 a.m., one hour and 24 minutes after the strike. With fire raging on the floors below them, they had no hope of walking down to safety.

Whether even a few of those lives could have been saved by a roof rescue isn't clear. Climbing staircases rapidly filling with smoke could have been tough. The plane's impact might have knocked stairway doors out of alignment, making them impassible, regardless of whether they were locked. The intense smoke and forest of rooftop antennas made landing a helicopter impossible. Rescuers also could have had trouble if a crowd of workers turned into a desperate mob, competing to get off the roof.

But Mr. Semendinger says the wind that morning did leave a corner of the tower relatively clear of smoke, almost until the building collapsed. Using a hoist with folding seats, rescuers could have saved as many as a few dozen people, he estimates.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Thomas Antenen, a spokesman for the department, confirms that the police helicopters were on the scene. But he says whether they could have rescued anyone "is a moot issue."

Helicopters couldn't have saved anyone from the top of the south tower, NYPD pilots say. That building's roof was completely obscured by a 100-foot layer of dense smoke blown from the north tower by wind from the northwest.

Port Authority and fire officials, reeling from the combined loss of 417 people from their own ranks, understandably bristle at any suggestion that decisions made years ago prevented a helicopter rescue that might have saved lives.

"The people who were trapped above this fire were trapped," says Frank Gribbon, the department's spokesman. "Perhaps their only recourse might have been to get to the roof, but it might not have been likely that they [would make] it either," because of smoke and other dangers.

Mr. Gribbon says the fire department did the right thing by following its general policy of getting occupants of tall buildings to move quickly down stairways. He notes that an estimated 25,000 people from the two towers got out and lived.

The FDNY's aversion to helicopter rescues is the mainstream approach around the country. Fire experts concluded long ago that if fires erupt in tall buildings, and evacuation is necessary, it is always best to send people down the stairs, not to the roof. Smoke and flames tend to rise, and people can get trapped at the top if weather or smoke conditions make a helicopter approach impossible.

Curtis S. D. Massey, whose Massey Enterprises Inc. is a leading consultant on building-fire safety, says that the only major U.S. city that requires high-rises to plan for aerial rescues is Los Angeles. Convinced by experience that helicopters can effectively evacuate trapped people from burning high-rises, Los Angeles obliges developers to build helipads on all buildings more than 75 feet tall, or about seven stories. The Los Angeles Fire Department has its own six-helicopter rescue wing.

Now, as safety agencies around the nation analyze the Sept. 11 disaster, officials say they expect that Los Angeles's approach may get favorable new attention. Long-accepted fire-safety practices "need to be reconsidered in light of what's happened in New York," says Matt Stuckey, a Houston Fire Department division chief and a consultant with the Massey firm. On Sept. 11, American Airlines Flight 11 gouged an enormous hole in the trade center's north tower, centered at about the 93rd floor of the 110-story building. At least 700 people are thought to have been trapped above the level of impact. Those people included employees of Cantor Fitzgerald, which occupied the 101st and the 103rd through 105th floors, and customers and workers at Windows on the World restaurant, on the 106th and 107th floors.

Jules Roinnel, manager of the 1,100-member private club at the restaurant, says the staff there knew the roof doors were locked. In fire drills, Port Authority officials had instructed the staff to gather in the restaurant's entrance with customers and wait for instructions from a lobby command center. If necessary, occupants would evacuate down the stairwells.

Mr. Roinnel, who wasn't at the restaurant on Sept. 11, says that when the plane hit, dining-room manager Doris Eng, who was on duty, frantically called the fire-command center for advice on what to do with the more than 70 people trapped in the restaurant. It's not clear what Ms. Eng was told, says Mr. Roinnel, who learned of the call from a Port Authority official. Another restaurant employee trapped above the inferno, Christine Olender, called the home of her boss, Glen Vogt, and said the group in the restaurant hadn't yet received any instruction from the fire-command center, Mr. Vogt says.

Mr. Roinnel says he had long accepted as sensible the building management's instructions to stay put in an emergency, or head down. But now, he says the doors to the roof should have been open. "As long as it [a helicopter] could have gotten close enough, some people probably could have been saved," he says. The NYPD aviation bureau, with six helicopters, became the main air-sea rescue unit for the New York area in 1998, when the Coast Guard moved its nearest chopper base from Brooklyn to Atlantic City, N.J. On Sept. 11, a total of four police helicopters ultimately flew to the burning trade center, darting from one side of the buildings to the other, scanning for signs of anyone on the roof.

Near Miss

One Bell 412, piloted by Det. Pat Walsh, was so close to the towers that it was nearly hit by the second hijacked plane. Police estimate that the United jet came within 200 feet of the helicopter before slamming into the south tower.

When the police pilots saw no one on the north-tower roof, they called off other rescue helicopters that were en route from Long Island. A short time later, the south tower collapsed.

Mr. Massey says he has reviewed videotapes of the disaster and believes that if people had made it to the roof of the north tower, they could have breathed safely, despite smoke that blew across much of the roof after rising from windows on the north and west sides of the building. The roof can be a good place to await rescue -- whether from the ground or above -- because there is almost always a layer of breathable air below the smoke. The people trapped near the top of the north tower, however, had no chance to reach the roof. For decades, the Port Authority says, it had kept the north tower's roof doors locked.

(A number of people did attempt to reach the roof of the south tower, according to recipients of cellphone calls they made as they tried to escape. The doors to the roof there were also kept locked, except when that building's observation deck was open. The deck hadn't opened yet the morning of Sept. 11.)

Port Authority spokesman Allen Morrison says the north tower's locked doors were necessary to protect against vandalism to the building's vital communications antennas, including the 360-foot mast that was the main television transmitter for the New York area. The authority also wanted to block from the roof people bent on suicide or planning daredevil stunts.

New York City's fire code requires roof doors to be unlocked or to have devices that allow someone to open a locked door from the inside. Officials at several companies that manage large numbers of tall buildings in Manhattan say their buildings provide roof access in an emergency.

But the Port Authority's Twin Towers had the status of state government property and therefore were legally exempt from the fire code, according to both the Port Authority and the city's building department, which oversees enforcement of the fire code. The fire department, consistent with its focus on getting people to move down during fires, went along with the authority's policy of keeping the trade center roof exits locked, Mr. Gribbon, the department spokesman, says.

Tough Locks

People who needed access to the roof, such as window washers and technicians who serviced the antennas, were issued electronic-key cards and also had to be buzzed through by security guards who monitored the doors by closed-circuit television from a 22nd-floor office, according to Alan Reiss, who until July was the Port Authority official responsible for the trade center.

On Sept. 11, falling debris knocked out the 22nd-floor security center's equipment just after the plane hit, says Mr. Reiss, who is still with the Port Authority and was helping with the transition to new management that took over the complex in July. The guards, who had to be rescued themselves, couldn't have buzzed anyone through to the roof. Even after the building's electricity was cut off, internal batteries in the electromagnetic locks would have kept the doors closed for several hours, Mr. Reiss says.

To many people who saw the shocking events of Sept. 11 on television, a helicopter rescue amid the flames and smoke might seem improbable. But Richard Wright, director of safety and flight operations for the Helicopter Association International, a trade group in Washington, D.C., says that as he watched on live TV that morning, he recalled rescues he had made during his 25 years as a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard and Marine Corps. In 1988, he helped lift oil-rig workers from the burning sea around the Piper Alpha rig, after an explosion destroyed the North Sea facility, Mr. Wright says. Such oil-rig rescues have been made in the middle of fierce storms and at night, he says.

The February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center had led to another notable chopper rescue. That day, a terrorist bomb exploded in the garage, killing six people, injuring 1,042 and sending smoke up through both towers. The bombing was far less severe than the Sept. 11 attack and caused a fire that was much smaller and containable.

Two police helicopters, including one piloted by Mr. Semendinger, scrambled immediately after the 1993 bombing. As the choppers approached, the pilots picked up radio traffic among emergency personnel on the ground, indicating that stairwells were filling with smoke and some occupants of the north tower were having medical problems, Mr. Semendinger recalls. Despite the antennas on the roof of the north tower, the pilot says, he decided to try to land his Bell 412 on that building.

There was no one on the roof waiting to be saved that day either, he says. But the roof was clear of smoke, and two of his crew members climbed down a rope from the chopper, cut down some of the antennas and dismantled rooftop floodlights to clear an area for the helicopter to land. (On Sept. 11, there would be too much smoke to send rescuers down to the roof, so the police only contemplated trying to save victims with the hoist.)

In 1993, the doors to the roof were locked, too. But because there was relatively little smoke on the roof, police Sgt. Timothy Farrell was able to use tools he brought with him to break open the doors and get down the stairs. A number of people who had tried to walk down from upper floors through smoke had suffered asthma or heart attacks, among other problems, according to a report published in 1994 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The helicopters evacuated 28 people with medical difficulties from the roof.

The fire department was officially in charge of the 1993 emergency and oversaw the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the entire trade-center complex, including the two towers. But some press accounts gave prominent play to the police-helicopter pilots and their rooftop heroics. Top fire commanders, who had never authorized the helicopter landing, were furious.

Angry Letter

A month after the bombing, the New York City Fire Chiefs Association sent a letter to then-Mayor David N. Dinkins, denouncing the police-helicopter rescue as "a cheap publicity stunt." The people removed by helicopter "were in no danger until the police department arrived and gravely jeopardized their safety by this stupid act," the letter said. The helicopters could have crashed and caused injuries or deaths, the letter added. A helicopter crash could have ruptured the building's water line, leading to an uncontrollable spread of the fire, the letter said.

The ferocity of this reaction can only be understood against the backdrop of a long-running feud between the police and fire departments over who should be in charge at fire and accident scenes. Since the late 1980s, there had been repeated episodes of arguments, shoving matches and even fist fights between personnel from the two services at emergency sites, according to press reports at the time. Less than two months before the 1993 bombing, there had been a physical confrontation between police and firefighters at the scene of a serious car accident in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

In its 1994 report reviewing the response to the trade center bombing, the Federal Emergency Management Agency obliquely criticized the fire department. FEMA said the department ought to conduct joint drills and planning with the police department for possible future helicopter rescues. FEMA didn't contradict the mainstream thinking on moving people down the stairwells of a burning high-rise. But it did say, "The fire department does not operate in a vacuum."

When the Port Authority sat down with the fire department to discuss improving fire safety at the trade center, however, the department adamantly opposed making arrangements for helicopter rescues, says the Port Authority's Mr. Reiss. "I remember lots of anger" within the fire department over the police-helicopter rescue, he says. "I wasn't going to get in the middle of that," he adds. The fire department's wishes meshed with the Port Authority's desire to keep the roof locked to prevent vandalism and suicides, he says.

"The fire department thought their people on the ground should handle evacuations, and basically there was an agreement that you don't use helicopters to do rescues," he adds. The fire department's Mr. Gribbon confirms this account and says the FDNY considered the authority's security worries sufficient grounds for locking the roof exits.

Mr. Antenen, the police spokesman, declines to comment on the 1993 rescue, its aftermath or on any controversy between the police and fire departments years ago.

When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office in 1994, his administration quelled the police-fire feuding. The two departments agreed on a protocol for using helicopters in major fires. But the agreement closely followed the fire department's preferences.

Helicopter rescues are to be attempted only if the fire department calls for them "as a last resort," explains Edward J. Dennehy, a deputy fire chief. Police helicopters aren't allowed to fly directly to burning buildings and attempt to rescue people. The protocol requires the choppers to land at designated Manhattan heliports and wait for firefighters to meet them there. The police helicopters then are supposed to ferry the firefighters to the building to carry out the rescue.

Mr. Gribbon says that as far as he knows the plan has never been used. It would be "something of a lengthy process for us to enact this procedure," he says.

On Sept. 11, the fire department never called for a helicopter rescue, Mr. Gribbon says. The disaster "occurred so rapidly and was so severe that fire department resources were committed to an internal evacuation of people," he says.

Commanders on the scene, many of whom were killed, didn't anticipate that the twin towers would collapse as quickly as they did, he adds. If those commanders had had more time, Mr. Gribbon says, "I'm certain that at some point, helicopter operations would have been a consideration and probably would have been implemented."

Police pilots say they perform helicopter rescues with some regularity, although they rarely receive the sort of notice they got in 1993. Only a few weeks before Sept. 11, an NYPD helicopter had used its hoist to lift an injured boy and his mother from a cruise ship about 10 miles outside New York Harbor.

The NYPD helicopter teams are limited when it comes to fires, however. Unlike firemen, they don't carry the sort of breathing apparatus that allows a rescuer to penetrate a smoky building to search for survivors. Under the New York rescue protocol, the firefighters whom the police choppers are supposed to ferry to burning buildings would have the breathing equipment.

Things are different in Los Angeles. Paul Shakstad, chief pilot of the Los Angeles fire department's air-operations division, says his helicopter-rescue teams carry the breathing apparatus and are self-sufficient. The division was launched in 1962 to help battle brush fires. In the mid-1980s, the fire department began using its six helicopters for rooftop rescues from skyscrapers, as well.

The strategy has paid off several times -- most notably in 1988, when a raging fire in the 62-story First Interstate Bank tower destroyed four floors. Rescuers delivered to the roof saved eight people trapped above the fire, who were carried down by helicopter. The fire ignited late at night, so few people were in the building.

On Sept. 11, the FDNY didn't have a plan for dealing with a disaster in which intense flames engulfed multiple floors of a skyscraper, Mr. Gribbon says. "Up until now, we've never really had more than one floor burning in a fully occupied high-rise building," he says. Referring to Sept. 11, he adds: "Did we ever plan for something like this, of this magnitude? No."

Mr. Antenen of the police department says he doesn't see a need to review the city's policy on rooftop rescues.

Mr. Gribbon says the fire department "will probably look at a lot of the things we do." But such a review won't necessarily lead to changes that would encourage rooftop rescues, he says.

-- Ann Davis, Aaron Lucchetti and Gregory Zuckerman contributed to this article. Write to Scot J. Paltrow at and Queena Sook Kim at

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