On 9-11, preparedness saved lives

When hijacked airplanes hit the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, a remarkable thing happened.  Nearly everybody who could have been saved was saved.  That is why the final death toll – under 3,000 – was so much smaller than was first thought.

Many lives were saved by the heroism of rescue workers.   Some 479 firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians died saving and trying to save the lives of others, along with 113 volunteer civilian rescuers, ranging from low-paid security guards to Wall Street executives. 

But there is another story, told by USA Today a few months after the 9-11 attacks, of how the New York Port Authority upgraded the building’s stairwells and organized evacuation drills so as to be prepared for a terror attack.

The Port Authority’s preparations worked.  Almost everyone below the levels where the planes struck lived.

Here are some of the highlights of the USA Today article:

On Feb. 26, 1993, terrorists exploded a bomb in a parking garage under the north tower.  Six people died. T he evacuation took nearly four hours in dark, smoky, poorly marked stairwells.  Some people were stuck in elevators for 10 hours.  The Port Authority made crucial improvements after that attack.  The changes saved countless lives on Sept. 11.

Quadriplegic accountant with evacuation chair

The Port Authority put reflective paint on stairs, railings and stairwell doors.  It added bright arrows to guide people along corridors to stairway connections. It installed loudspeakers so building managers could talk to people in their offices as well as in hallways.  It gave every disabled person an evacuation chair that would let two husky men carry them down stairs.  One evacuation chair was used to carry a man down from the 67th floor.

In the 1993 attack, the explosion knocked out the main power source, its backup and the fire-control command post.  The Port Authority added a second source of power for safety equipment, such as fire alarms, emergency lighting and intercoms.  It built two duplicate fire command posts, one in each tower.  The Port Authority also put batteries in stairwell lights so a power failure wouldn’t blacken the escape route.  Overall, the improvements cost more than $90 million.  Sprinklers, added before 1993, helped suppress fires.

Most important, building management took evacuations seriously.  Evacuation drills were held every six months, sometimes to the irritation or amusement of occupants.  Each floor had “fire wardens,” sometimes high-ranking executives of a tenant, and they were responsible for organizing an evacuation on their floors. … …

Firefighter Mike Kehoe helps evacuate people in Tower One

The World Trade Center had an excellent stair system, much better than required by building codes — both when it was built 30 years ago and now.  Each tower had three stairwells. New York City building codes require two.

Stairways A and C, on opposite sides of the building’s core, were 44 inches wide.  In the center, Stairway B was 56 inches wide.

The bigger the stairway, the faster an evacuation can proceed.  In 44-inch stairways, a person must turn sideways to let another pass — for example, a rescuer heading up.  In a 56-inch stairway, two people can pass comfortably.

The World Trade Center stairwells allowed thousands to get out despite panic and smoke.

The USA Today article is well worth reading as a whole.  Click on For many on Sept. 11, survival was no accident to read it.

Click on The difference an evacuation chair can make for more about John Abruzzo’s rescue.

Not everyone in authority exercised as much foresight as the Port Authority.  The Police Department and Fire Department did not even have radio systems that could communicate with each other.   Firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police went into chaos.  They coped as best they could.

Click on 9/11 Archives Show Heroism Amid Chaos for an Associated Press reporter’s account of brave firefighters and medical technicians.

Click on 5 Heroes to Remember This September 11 for some stories of individual heroism which are representative of many more.

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