By Dan Goodwin
President / Skyscraper Defense, Inc.
In 1983, I scaled the outside of the North World Trade Center to call attention to the fire departments inability to conduct firefighting and rescue operations in the upper floors of towering skyscrapers. Seventeen and half years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I watched the televised coverage of the destruction at the World Trade Center. As the events unfolded, one question kept replaying in my mind… “Has nothing changed?”
Since 9/11, a debate has raged as to whether the fires in the Twin Towers could have been extinguished and the nearly identical collapses prevented. Many claim it was technically impossible due to the limited amount of time – 56 minutes in the South Tower and 102 minutes in the North Tower. However, an increasing number of people are challenging that theory. According to two U.S. government agencies, FEMA and NIST, had it not been for the ‘ensuing fires’ the towers would have remained standing indefinitely! In other words, had the fire department been able to quickly reach the upper floors and extinguish the flames, many of the people who died in the World Trade Center would still be alive today. This is the subject of our conversation.
COULD THE FIRES HAVE BEEN EXTINGUISHED?
My intention is to challenge the old school of thinking by opening the floor to the pros and cons of alternative methods and equipment that could have altered the course of history. However, before we begin, I think it is wise to examine the events of the day and determine exactly what occurred. Only then can we change the way we look at things.
American intelligence is on record stating, “It’s not a question of whether we’ll be attacked again, but a matter of when”. If there is one thing we have all learned from 9/11 it is that skyscrapers can be human death traps. Once you enter a high-rise building you soon discover the only way out is most probably the way you came in. Windows, for the most part, are sealed tight, thereby trapping heat and smoke inside. The ducting for the HVAC systems enable flames and smoke to rapidly spread through 10 or more floors in a matter of minutes. Terrorists know by detonating a series of explosive devices in the sub-basement parking lot or the building’s lobby the elevators and stairs can be rendered useless, producing another nightmare scenario. Thousands could die because most building occupants are not be equipped with oxygen masks.
According to Deputy Chief F.D.N.Y. (Ret.) Vincent Dunn, “The best-kept secret in America’s fire service is that firefighters cannot extinguish a fire in a 20 or 30 thousand square-foot open floor area in a high-rise building. A fire company advancing a 2 1/2-inch hose-line with a 1 1/4-inch nozzle discharges only 300 gallons per minute and can extinguish only about 2,500 square feet of fire. The reach of the streams is only 50 feet. A modern open-floor office design, with cubicle workstations and dwarf partitions that do not extend to the ceiling, allows fire to spread throughout an entire 100 x 200 foot floor area. A fully involved, free burning 20,000-square-foot floor area cannot be extinguished by a couple of firefighters spraying a hose stream from a stairway. City managers and department chiefs will not admit this to the public if they want to keep their jobs. But every fire-ground commander knows this is a fact. What really happens at a serious high-rise fire involving an entire floor or more of the building is what we call ‘controlled burning’.”
LET IT BURN
Just minutes after the first plane struck the North Tower, fire commanders gave the order to evacuate all floors beneath the impact zone. That decision saved thousands of lives. However, many believe they based their decision on the knowledge that each floor in the Twin Towers covered 40,000 square feet, double the square footage cited by Deputy Chief Dunn. On 9/11, fire commanders knew it was technically impossible to reach or extinguish the fires. Instead, they let it burn!
Watching on television, I expected a squadron of helicopters to descend on the World Trade Centers shooting streams of foam via high-powered cannons. However, to my dismay, the only helicopters I saw were the observation type, and they hovered out of harm’s way. Amazing as it may sound but on 9/11 America’s largest fire department, the people responsible for rescuing trapped people from the more than 5000 high-rise buildings in New York City, had no helicopters. ZERO! That’s unbelievable! And, what’s even more mind boggling, today, nearly nine years after the attacks, New York’s fire department still has no helicopters. Now why is that?
LACK OF PLANNING
In the 1960’s, structural engineers designed the World Trade Center towers to withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft. Unfortunately, the people responsible for the safety and defense of the complex failed to include that ‘worst-case scenario’ into their security plan. Considering three busy airports were nearby, forming a triangle encompassing the World Trade Center complex, a stray airliner hitting a structure that was a quarter mile high was too real of a possibility to ignore. Why wasn’t there a plan for such an event? Why wasn’t a fleet of helicopters available for such emergencies? We all know hindsight is 20/20; but it doesn’t take an Albert Einstein to see the looming possibilities. If the engineers had envision such nightmare, why didn’t the people responsible for the World Trade Center do the same. If they had ‘thought out of the box’ and created protocols for such a scenario, devising ways of fighting fires more than thousand feet above the pavement, there is a good chance the fires could have been extinguished, the towers would still be standing, and thousands of people would still be alive.
Following a protocol older than the Empire State Building, ‘New York’s Bravest’ were sent charging up the stairs even though fire commanders knew it would take several hours to reach the fires. Unfortunately, the people trapped in the upper floors did not have several hours; and neither did the towers. Burdened with heavy boots, protective clothing, oxygen tanks, drinking water, and firefighting equipment, it took the firefighters an average of a minute and a half per floor. The fire in the South Tower was burning above the 70th floor; the fire in North Tower was burning above the 90th floor – You do the math. According to reports, the majority of the firefighters and first responders who perished in the collapse were huddled on the 30th floor, exhausted and dehydrated from the exertion; and they still had 40 or more floors to go!
Considering the time it would have taken a fully loaded firefighter to reach the upper floors of the Twin Towers via the stairs, wouldn’t it have made sense to have planned ahead and provided an option of approaching fire emergencies from the roofs? Sure, you would be battling the heat and smoke; but when does a high-rise fire not give off heat and smoke? What if the people responsible for the security of the World Trade Center had pooled their resources and developed a defense plan that included fleets of robotic firefighting pods that were capable of bringing the fires and smoke under control? If NASA can deploy robotics millions of miles from Earth, where the challenges of distance are obvious, robotics are certainly capable of performing tasks on the side of a skyscraper. Once the robotics knocked down the wall of flames, Skyscraper Defense Teams could have been lowered via larger versions of the firefighting pods, enabling them to chase the fire into the belly of the building. In light of the bombing at the complex in 1993, it baffles the mind why innovative protective measures were not pursued. If the people responsible for the safety, security, and defense, of the World Trade Center had ‘thought out of the box’, anything could have been possible.