Assessment of Geospatial Technology Applications by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World Trade Center Operations

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

3. The September 11, 2001 Attacks Revisited

At 8:45 AM (EDT) on Tuesday, September 11th, an American Airlines aircraft that was hijacked by a group of terrorists after taking off from Boston, crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center Complex in New York City.  At 9:03 AM a second plane, United Airline Flight #175, hit the south tower of the WTC.  Immediately after the north tower was hit, the New York City Fire and Police Departments dispatched personnel to secure the scene.

Following the attacks on the WTC, another American Airlines plane hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia at approximately 9:40 AM. The Federal Aviation Administration issued an immediate order to ground all the planes flying in the U.S. airspace. Over 4000 planes had been over US land, and several hundred were en route from overseas - all were grounded or re-routed to Canada.  Fearing yet another attack, the White House was evacuated at 9:45 AM.

Around 10:00 AM a fourth commercial plane crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. At about the same time a partial collapse occurred at the Pentagon building in the area of impact. Shortly after 10:00 AM the south tower of the WTC collapsed. Within the next half-hour, the northern tower of the WTC collapsed.  When both towers collapsed, -according to the latest statistics- nearly 2830 people were killed including over 300 firefighters and 78 police officers. At approximately 5:30 PM a third tower in the WTC complex, Building #7, housing NY City’s multi-million dollar Emergency Operations Center (EOC), also collapsed.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the United States experienced its first large scale integration of emergency management, emergency medical response, law enforcement, and military resources prescribed by the Terrorism Annex to the Federal Response Plan (FRP). In NYC, initial efforts on the part of locally based regional offices of Federal agencies to deal with emergency response were hampered by damage to the city’s EOC.  NYC had recently completed a multi-million dollar state of the art EOC; but it was housed in one of the WTC buildings that were totally destroyed. The city’s EOC capabilities had to be regenerated virtually from scratch. The State of NY seemed to fare better. 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 find other operational locations. Additionally, the grounding of commercial aircraft restricted the deployment of emergency response personnel across the country. At that time, many senior Federal and State emergency managers were in Big Sky, Montana at an emergency management conference and some of the personnel were deployed for potential hurricane response.  As a result, traditional means of transporting resources and supplies had to be re-thought and worked around.

A rapid mobilization of Federal resources occurred despite these obstacles. The Federal response organization was created and the Federal mobilization was successfully executed by skilled upper and mid-level managers.  Federal resources mobilized included search and rescue teams, disaster mortuary teams, disaster medical teams, medical response teams, EPA HAZMAT teams, USACE debris removal teams, and American Red Cross mass care resources.  The Catastrophic Disaster Response Group, the interagency group of senior managers tasked with resolving problems during a disaster response, never convened. As of October 1, 2001, there were around 2000 Federal employees working in response to the September 11th attacks. Large forces of Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams, structural safety specialists, and debris specialists engaged in the largest search and rescue and debris removal mission in United States history.