As we approach the 10th anniversary of our nation’s most costly terrorist attack, we must ask ourselves if we have learned all we should have — all we could have from the terrible lessons these monsters have taught. Whether the killers are domestic or international in origin, we must endeavor to never repeat any errors we made in our anticipation, preparation, or response to horrific events.
One excellent example of proper learning is the emergency response and evacuation after terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York. Look at the combined image below and to the left. In the topmost image, you will see perhaps the world’s best example of emergency vehicle gridlock, in the NYPD and FDNY response to the 1993 attack, which involved a 1,300 pound chemical VBIED detonated in the underground parking deck (killing six people and injuring thousands). The transport of injured persons was greatly hampered that day by the “crush” of emergency responders and their vehicles. Beneath that you see the same street in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack. New York responders had learned their lesson and kept half of the street free of emergency vehicles to facilitate the flow of resources. Other lessons they learned from the 1993 attack included:
1.) Emergency power supplies for lighting in the stairwells, reflective tape and a loudspeaker system to facilitate evacuations
2.) Fire “wardens” for each floor of the towers who kept a daily tally of souls on the floor and any special evacuation needs
3.) A radio repeater system to boost signals to emergency responders inside the buildings
4.) Many more refinements to the emergency plan
The lessons paid off. In 1993 it took nearly four hours to evacuate the twin towers. That time dropped to less than one hour in 2001, saving countless thousands of lives.
What important lessons can we glean from past terrorist attacks?
1.) Plan for the worst case scenario. The Twin Towers were designed to absorb the impact of a commercial airliner, but the engineers didn’t factor in the weakening effects of burning fuel. FDNY responded to the 9/11 attack as a high-rise fire, placing their Command Post in the ground floor lobby of the North Tower and at a communications van parked just outside. Nowadays, NIMS/ICS stresses the need to place any CP outside the hot zone. The loss of fire service personnel that day, 343 brave souls, was made far worse by the concentration of command officers in the hot zone when the towers collapsed.
2.) Don’t overlook seemingly small details. Timothy McVeigh was arrested on April 19, 1995 on I-35, not long after he detonated the VBIED that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Trooper Charles J. Hanger of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol noticed that McVeigh’s car had no license plate. When stopped, McVeigh refused to identify himself and was found to be carrying a concealed handgun. Three days later, while being out-processed following arraignment, the still unidentified McVeigh was recognized as the “John Doe #1” composite sketch by an alert telecommunicator who stopped his release. An alert Trooper and equally alert dispatcher prevented McVeigh from a successful escape from the bombing.
3.) Dare to make bold decisions. While the airliner attacks were still underway on September 11th, 2001, bold and unprecedented decisions were made. At about 0926 a national “ground stop” order prevented the takeoff of any additional aircraft. Then, at 0942, the FAA’s National Operations Manager, Ben Sliney, ordered all airborne aircraft to land at the nearest airport. That ballsy decision prevented the hijacking of any additional aircraft to use as guided missiles. There is no publicly-known information that more aircraft would have been hijacked that day, but circumstantial evidence points to the possibility that more teams of hijackers might have existed and that more ground targets might have been selected. The important thing to point out is that regardless of whether or not he had the authority to ground all civilian aircraft, Ben Sliney did not hesitate: he made the call and made it stick.
During the planning for Y2K, I was on a threat assessment team looking at potential breakdowns. We were told that the airline industry was concerned their navigational and communications systems might go dead at the stroke of midnight and they had been unable to effectively test for such a failure. I made the suggestion of having all planes land well before midnight (in their time zone) to sit out the date change. The answer we got back from federal planners was that a total grounding was impossible. Since most of the airliner fleet is airborne at any given time, we were told, there would not be enough space at airports to park them all. Apparently, our federal source pulled that answer out of their ass. When Sliney said “park ‘em” more than enough space was found.
4.) Play well together and protect each other. The collapse of the South Tower at the World Trade Center was not known by most of the responders in the North Tower. They felt a huge jolt, but except for those near windows, most police officers and firefighters resumed rescue operations unaware of the collapse. After a NYPD helicopter radioed a warning that they saw girders “glowing red” in the North Tower, “just like they did before the South Tower collapsed,” both the NYPD and FDNY radio systems broadcast an “all-out” order. The all-out order means to evacuate the building immediately, taking with you only those civilians in your immediate area of control. Not all rescuers had radios that day and some who did were unable to pick out the all-out order from the overloaded communications system. As some police officers were moving groups of civilians rapidly down the stairwells, they relayed the all-out order to firefighters still climbing the stairs, humping their hoses and tools. One police officer later related that a firefighter refused the all-out order, stating he “wasn’t going to take any f___ing orders from a cop.”
All-out means just that — ALL-OUT! We sometimes call it tombstone courage, when a cop runs into a no-win situation. If you die in the hot zone attempting a rescue, did you make the situation better or worse? I mean no disrespect to the 60 police officers and 343 firefighters who died at the World Trade Center that day, but we have to measure our response. Is the potential gain worth the risk? Only you can answer that question if you are faced with that decision, but at some point a commander has to cut their losses and save as many of their vital resources as possible.
No one among us will ever forget how we first found out our nation was under attack 10 years ago. Ironically, I was training a critical incident management class in Williamsport, Pennsylvania that day, about 150 miles northeast of the crash site of Flight 93. Our classroom was the county Emergency Operations Center, and we sat mesmerized at the horrific images on CNN. Suddenly, the Fire Chief came running in and told us Governor Tom Ridge, later to become the first Secretary of Homeland Security, had activated all the state’s EOCs because the Air Force had just shot down an airliner near Shanksville. We later learned that Flight 93 was not shot down — rather, it crashed when the passengers fought back against the hijackers. Still, the shock and uncertainty of that day made for a tense class, yes we carried on with the two back-to-back Sergeant-level classes and the students were very attentive.
As I said to a fellow instructor that night at the motel, “terrorism isn’t theoretical anymore.” The theory changed into lessons we must all learn, or suffer the fate of repeating costly mistakes.