Observing and Documenting the
Inter-Organizational Response to
the September 11th Attack on
The Pentagon

Report Prepared by The George Washington University
Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management
July 15, 2002

2. The September 11, 2001 Attacks Revisited

At 8:45 AM (EDT) on Tuesday, September 11th 2001, American Airlines Flight 11, having been hijacked by a group of terrorists after taking off from Boston, crashed into the north tower of the WTC Complex in New York City (NYC). Initially, this event appeared to be isolated. Eighteen minutes later, as the media was televising video of the blazing tower around the world, a second commercial airliner came into view and disappeared with an enormous explosion into the South Tower of the WTC. This plane, United Airlines Flight 175 (also from Boston), confirmed that the U.S. was under attack by an unidentified terrorist group.

Immediately after the North Tower was hit, the NYC Fire and Police Departments dispatched personnel to secure the scene and begin rescue operations. Within five minutes of the second event, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered all NYC airspace 'sterilized', (freed from air traffic). Seven minutes later, all NYC airports were closed, and nine minutes after that (9:26 AM), all U.S. civil flights were prevented from taking off. Over 4000 planes were aloft in U.S. airspace, with several hundred en route from overseas, and all were ordered grounded or re-routed to Canada. This action did not stop American Airlines flight 77, hijacked shortly after departing Washington Dulles Airport, from reaching its crash-destination of the Pentagon at 9:43 AM. A fourth commercial aircraft was known to be missing, and the White House was evacuated at 9:45 AM. At 10:10 AM, United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, N.J. crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. At approximately the same time, a structural collapse occurred at the Pentagon building in the area of airplane impact. Just after 10:00 AM, the South Tower of the WTC complex collapsed completely, raising the estimated dead and injured exponentially. In response to this tightly grouped series of events, Secret Service agents were positioned in Lafayette Park, the United Nations complex was evacuated in NYC, and many Federal departments and agencies were evacuated in Washington, DC. By 10:30 AM, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management had begun the emergency evacuation of all DC federal buildings.

At 10:28 AM, the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex collapsed, adding to the scale of casualties. At this point, New York (NY) Governor Pataki closed all government offices in NY, and NYC mayor Giuliani ordered the evacuation of the area of Manhattan south of Canal Street. It was reported that several airports around the country were evacuating, and rumors of car bombs (at the U.S. State Department and other locations) and additional hijacked planes were making their way into the news.

At noon, it was still not clear that the attack was over. Washington, DC closed its city government buildings, and the General Services Administration (GSA) closed its buildings and courthouses throughout 5 states in the Capitol region. Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams declared a state of emergency for the city of Washington at 1:22 PM. Soon after, the FAA announced that there would be no commercial air traffic until at least noon of September 12.

By mid afternoon, rescue crews from around the country began arriving at the three sites to assist local police and fire departments and nearby mutual aid resources that immediately responded. Mayor Giuliani announced in a press conference at 2:49 PM, that subway and bus services were restored in NYC. At this time, estimates of the number of injured or killed ranged from several hundred to tens of thousands, though no official was willing to give specific numbers. With the collapse of both towers, approximately 3,000 people were killed (NY City EMA fatality count as of July 9, 2002 is 2823) including 343 firefighters and 78 police officers. At the Pentagon, the terrorist attack claimed 184 victims.

As the evening approached (5:20 PM), Building #7 in the WTC complex, which had been burning for much of the day, also collapsed. It housed NY City’s multi-million dollar, recently completed, state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center (EOC). In addition, other buildings in the area of the towers were on fire, and the collapsed debris continued to burn. Mayor Giuliani appeared at an evening press conference and urged New Yorkers to remain at home on September 12th if they could, though Defense Secretary Rumsfeld held a news conference with a different message: he stated that Pentagon employees should expect to report to work. A detailed time line of the first 48 hours that was derived from multiple media and government sources is provided in the Appendix Section at the back of this report.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the U.S. experienced its first large-scale integration of emergency management, emergency medical response, law enforcement, and military resources using the Terrorism Annex to the FRP. In NYC, initial efforts on the part of locally based regional offices of Federal agencies to deal with emergency response were hampered by the destruction of the city’s EOC, and loss of use of federal facilities in lower Manhattan (including the planned Disaster Field Office). The city’s EOC capabilities had to be regenerated virtually from scratch. The Federal Center in NYC was not physically damaged, but telecommunications were knocked out, which meant that FEMA Region II, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) II, and other Federal agencies had to use alternate operational locations. Additionally, the grounding of commercial aircraft restricted the deployment of emergency response personnel across the country.

At the time of the attacks, many senior Federal and State emergency managers were in Big Sky, Montana at a national emergency management conference, and some specialized response personnel were on deployment for potential hurricane response. To move the management and responder resources and supplies, traditional air transport had to be re-thought and new arrangements implemented. A rapid mobilization plan occurred for Federal resources despite these obstacles, and skilled upper and mid-level managers successfully executed the Federal mobilization. Mobilized Federal resources for the three 9-11 incident sites included search and rescue teams, Disaster Mortuary Teams, Disaster Medical Assistance Teams and other medical response teams, EPA HAZMAT teams, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) debris removal teams, and American Red Cross mass care resources. The Catastrophic Disaster Response Group, the interagency group of senior managers established by the FRP to resolve major interagency conflicts during a federal disaster response, was never needed and did not convene. Thousands of federal employees were involved in the response to the attacks. Fire and EMS services, Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams, structural safety experts, and debris specialists were engaged in the largest search and rescue and debris removal missions in United States history.