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Faculty Member and Former NYC Firefighter Presents the Rescue Strategy Following the Attack on New York

Date: Nov. 14, 2001
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Archive: General News

"I've been in buildings while they were going down and they presented certain signs and signals before they went down. The idea of a total collapse in a Class I fire-resistant building was so foreign that a collapse expert, was purported to have said, 'This can't happen.'" Patrick Reynolds, director of the University of Cincinnati open learning fire service program, knew some of the firefighters who gave their own lives while trying to rescue the victims in the World Trade Center Sept. 11. He spent more than 20 years working in New York for the "best fire department in the world." At a Nov. 7 College of Applied Science colloquium, Reynolds presented an inside look at how New York City Fire responded to the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Patrick Reynolds

Reynolds traveled to New York shortly after the tragedy to assemble crisis teams to work with firehouses that suffered the greatest losses in the attack. The tragic toll included second-in-command on the scene and one of Reynolds' former supervisors, Bill Feehan, who died in the first collapse.

"When we look at something like this, the first impulse an individual has is to ask, 'What do you do?' How do you manage this?' This is beyond the control of normal management paradigms." Reynolds says the firefighting and rescue strategy is a plan that firefighters run over in their minds each and every day as they pass the buildings on their watch. He calls it the SAD approach to management: size-up, analysis and deployment.

Reynolds says 13 different points are taken into consideration as fire command develops the size-up screen: time of day, life involved, location, the extent of a fire, exposure, height (110 stories for the World Trade Center), area, occupancy, weather, apparatus/personnel, water supply and auxiliary appliances.

As far as the weather considerations, Sept. 11 was a beautiful day in New York City, which worked against the firefighters. "Humidity affects smoke travel and disbursement. On this day, you were going to have a good buildup of flames."

Add to that the exposure, the structures surrounding the World Trade Center and internal considerations because of the height of the building. "With high-rises, we speak of internal, auto exposures, where fire-involved floors can expose a floor above." Reynolds says because of the building's 110 stories, a secondary, exterior means of escape provided by a fire department power ladder was virtually impossible above the fourth floor, so the internal escape through the stairwells was critical.

Rough calculations of the area would require pumping 13-thousand gallons of water per minute per involved floor. Reynolds says each pumper can provide 1,000 gallons per minute. Reynolds said that during this part of the size-up, Chief Pete Ganci knew the water delivery was going to tax the capability of the arriving units.

As for the building's auxiliary system, the sprinklers and standpipes for firefighters to connect hoses, the building had them, but it was all contained in a core system, which was severed by the impact of the plane that hit the building. "He (Chief Ganci) made the assumption the core was gone, which turned out to be right on target. With the core gone, the elevator service was gone, the stairwell was gone and probably the standpipe systems were limited at best."

All of these elements were taken into consideration by Chief Ganci after the first hit, including that the World Trade Center had 50,000 people compressed into an area that was the size of about four city blocks, according to Reynolds.

Reynolds says the New York City Fire Department is the largest in the nation with more than 325 companies. The World Trade Center had the engine 10 and ladder 20 firehouse established at the site. The chief first called a five-alarm fire, bringing in "25 engines, seven trucks, three rescues, four battalions, two deputies and just about everything else you can get in," explains Reynolds. They had plenty of personnel. In fact, Reynolds says the loss of firefighters was compounded by the change of tour - the night shift was getting ready to head home and the day shift was coming in. "It was the biggest fire in the history of New York and everybody went. So instead of the rigs being loaded with six guys and one officer, some were rolling in with 12 guys and two officers."

With elevators out of service, rescuers were running equipment up by foot through the stairwells as occupants rushed to get out. It would take firefighters about 35 minutes to climb the stairs to the top of the building.

"Unbeknownst to the chief, he was in for a second operation equal to the size of the first," continues Reynolds. "The other tower is hit, the chief sends out another five-alarm call. Then the impossible happened, one of the towers completely collapsed. "At this point the chief has to go back to our original size-up. How much time did it take to collapse? He's thinking, 'I'm losing my men in this thing. We're past the fire stage now. Now we're into collapse. As for exposure, all of downtown New York is going to be affected.'

"The chief now goes to the original impact and as he moves his command, he's caught in the collapse and killed. Bill Feehan comes over. He can't believe what's going on," Reynolds says of his former boss, the first deputy commissioner and former chief of the department. "He left another commander at his command post, goes over to find out what was happening and is killed in the collapse. Ray Downey, chief of special operations command and a renowned building collapse expert, was killed in the collapse. We lost the entire command."

Reynolds says as New York City Fire rushed to get a new command in service, the second tower came down, taking the department out of firefighting mode and emphasizing rescue mode. The consideration here was more than 100 stories collapsing into about an eight-story mass of rubble. "I have to make a cost/benefit analysis. How many personnel do I hope to commit and how many lives do I hope to save? There was a belief there were people to be saved. Only five people were brought out alive. We lost 343 firefighters, of all ranks, and 4800 civilians.

"Imagine if you will the scene at that time. Can you remember the size-up, analysis and deployment? Can you do that with the pressure of time, can you do that with the people screaming for their lives, can you do it for those firefighters you sent into the building? Pete Ganci did it, and that's what the New York City Fire Department is all about, taking command in chaos, and prevailing."

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