Immediately after a commercial airliner commandeered by terrorists crashed into floors near the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center a on September 11, two helicopters took off from the New York City Police Department's aviation bureau across the river in Brooklyn. They arrived at the burning building within five minutes of the plane crash. Manned by experienced rescue crews, each of the craft carried a hoist with ten folding seats so that people could climb on board and be lifted away. Because of the direction of the wind, a corner of the roof of the building, the first that was hit, was clear of smoke almost until it collapsed. This was not true of the south tower, where the roof was obscured by a 100-foot thick layer of smoke blown from its twin building.
Police rescuers could have used the hoists to save a minimum of a few dozen of the hundreds of people trapped above the floor of the 110-story building before it collapsed one hour and forty minutes after the impact. Records of 911 calls show that people were still alive on the upper floors. But when the helicopters arrived at the scene, nobody was on the roof.
From one of the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, which occupied the 101st to 105th floors, over ten stories above the impact, an employee left a message on his wife's telephone answering machine, while shouting back to his co-workers, "There's no way out!" His co-workers had just been desperately shouting in the background, "Try the roof!" But the doors to the roof were locked with electrically operated dead- bolts, designed to be kept shut with battery power even after the building's power failed. The helicopter crews never saw anyone appear on the roof.
This was stunning information to me because, as a civil engineer whose career began designing skyscrapers in New York City, I am well aware that exits to fire-protected stairs leading down to the ground and up to the roof are required by the New York City Building Code.
In 1993, when police helicopters rescued 28 infirm employees from the upper stories of the World Trade Center after the terrorist bomb exploded in the basement, they had been able to land on the roof and break down the exit doors from outside. Because of smoke, it was impossible to land on September 11.
Some of the media had featured stories in 1993 of the heroic helicopter rescue. "But fire commanders, who had never authorized the helicopter landing, were furious," according to The Wall Street Journal. In some media coverage, the Fire Department, whose rescuers had led thousands of people to safety down the stairs, had gotten less play.
The Wall Street Journal, from which the information for this article was drawn, investigated how the policy of keeping the doors locked to the roof of the World Trade Center stayed in place during the next eight years. There were four factors. First, until a few weeks before the September 11 attack, the building was owned by the Port of New York Authority, a bi-state agency exempt from the New York City building code. Second, according to a Port Authority spokesman interviewed by the Journal, the north tower's doors were kept locked to protect against vandalism to communications antennas, including the 360-foot mast that was the main television transmitter for the New York area. They also wanted to prevent people from committing suicide from the roof.
But the Journal dug further: "A month after the 1993 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."
After a study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that recommended that the two departments conduct joint drills, the Port Authority sat down with the fire department to discuss improving fire safety at the Trade Center. "(H)owever, the department adamantly opposed making arrangements for helicopter rescues," the Port Authority spokesman told the Journal.
The policy that was in place under Mayor Rudolph Guiliani in September was that helicopter rescues "are to be attempted only if the fire department calls for them 'as a last resort,'" according to Edward J. Dennehy, a deputy fire chief quoted by the Journal.
At the time the major Journal article was written on
October 23, 2001,
Thomas Antenen, Deputy Commissioner of Police, was quoted saying that he did not see a need to review the city's policy on roof top rescues.