On this day in 2001 a series of co-ordinated terror strikes on New York City and Washington DC took the lives of almost 3,000 people and changed the world forever.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, now remembered simply as 9/11, were shocking in the extreme. Like most people I can still recall exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the news. The dramatic images that emerged in the minutes and hours after the attacks, including the almost unbelievable sight of the iconic Twin Towers collapsing into dust, still have the power to shock and move.
It unfolded like this. At 8.46am New York time (1.46pm in the UK) a hijacked passenger plane, American Airlines Flight 11, was flown straight into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing all 92 people on board and hundreds in the building. 17 minutes later, at 9.03am, a second hijacked passenger jet, United Airlines Flight 175, hit the South Tower before a third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC at 9.37am. At 9.59am the structure of the South Tower gave way and the building collapsed on itself, sending an enormous toxic dust cloud across Lower Manhattan.
At 10.07am a fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania killing all 40 passengers and crew but, miraculously, no-one on the ground. It was thought that the aircraft was headed to Washington and the White House. It later emerged that the passengers, in an extraordinary act of courage, had been attempting to regain control of the plane when the hijackers chose to fly it into the ground.
At 10.28am the North Tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed. The whole tragedy had unfolded in just 102 minutes.
Of the 2,977 victims killed on the day of the attacks, 412 were members of New York’s emergency services who responded to events at the World Trade Center. That’s more than a third of the estimated 1,000 emergency workers who attended the scene. Unsurprisingly 11 September 2001 remains the deadliest day in the history of firefighting in the US.
This death toll included 343 firefighters from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), 60 police officers from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department (PAPD), eight emergency medical technicians and paramedics and one patrolman from the New York Fire Patrol. One PAPD police dog, Sirius, also lost his life.
Sadly the deaths didn’t end there. It has been reported that in the 19 years since the attacks as many as 1,400 rescue workers who responded to the scene, both immediately and in the following weeks and months, have died from illnesses related to exposure to the dust and debris caused when the towers collapsed.
The task facing the men and women of the emergency services on 11 September 2001 was an almost impossible one. Although firefighters were on the scene just six minutes after the first plane struck it soon became clear that there was no chance of extinguishing the enormous fire that was raging hundred of metres above their heads, being fed by gallons of aviation fuel. In fact the flames were so intense that the smoke billowing from Manhattan was seen from the International Space Station, and it was not until 100 days after the attacks that fires were completely extinguished from what had by then become known as ‘ground zero’.
Instead the emergency services turned their efforts to rescuing the thousands upon thousands of people thought to be inside the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning. In fact, emergency teams had already begun to evacuate people from the South Tower even before it was struck. Within a few hours every battalion, engine house and ladder in New York was battling to save lives and off-duty firefighters had been recalled en masse; the first time the FDNY had issued a total recall in more than 30 years.
Later FDNY Division Chief for Lower Manhattan Peter Hayden told the 9/11 commission, set up to investigate the attacks, “We had a very strong sense we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble. But we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians and we had to try to rescue them.”
Emerging from this rescue effort there are, of course, numerous accounts of astonishing courage and dedication to duty. Stories such as that of Moira Smith, an officer with the NYPD who saw the first plane hit the North Tower. On witnessing the crash she immediately rushed to the building to aid the rescue effort and is credited with helping hundreds of people to escape, who all remembered her as being calm, organised and assured. She was killed when the South Tower collapsed - the only female NYPD officer to lose their life that day - and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valour. One of Moira's colleagues said, "She could have saved herself, but nothing would have stopped her saving one more person."
Another hero was Keith Roma, the only member of the New York Fire Patrol killed on 9/11. He is estimated to have saved the lives of 200 people, making at least four trips up and down the North Tower as it burned; at one point carrying a barefooted woman across the broken glass covering the lobby so she could safely escape. When his body was found in the remains of the tower, three months later, he was with another nine people he had been trying to escort to safety when the building fell.
The efforts of Moira and Keith and so many others were not in vain. It’s estimated that of the 17,400 civilians who were in the World Trade Center on that morning, 87% were safely evacuated.
However in the aftermath of the tragedy questions began to be asked about how the emergency response had been co-ordinated and, in particular, how emergency teams had communicated with each other during those first few hours. It became clear that those on the ground had been let down by a failure in command and control.
It emerged that fire department managers and those organising the NYPD response had barely been in contact during the critical hours. The FDNY’s radio system had also been unreliable, often leaving firefighters without information or direction. Tragically it seemed that some of those who died in the North Tower might have been saved had they received the advice to evacuate the building after the South Tower fell, but the message didn’t get through.
As a result of 9/11 emergency services, not just in the US but further afield, began reassessing and improving their plans to deal with future disasters. This wasn’t just about command and control but also ensuring that teams on the ground had proper training and equipment to deal with major disasters. For example, in the UK the Metropolitan Police doubled the size of its counter terror command in the wake of the attacks, and the creation of HART (hazardous area response team) means there are now specially recruited medical teams - trained and equipped to provide an ambulance response to complex or large scale incidents - who work alongside the police and fire services at major incidents.
Two years ago I was lucky enough to visit the 9/11 Museum and Memorial in New York. It’s an amazing place, made more so by the fact it’s built on the exact spot where the World Trade Center once stood. It’s a strange sensation to stand in a quiet, sombre museum, remembering the images from the day and reminding yourself that it all occurred right where you’re standing. Two galleries, created within the footprint of the North and South towers, tell the story of the attacks, the victims and the extraordinary tales of courage that emerged from that day. Objects recovered from ground zero, including a FDNY firetruck and the police badge belonging to Officer Moira Smith, have also been preserved and help to commemorate all those emergency services workers who lost their lives trying to save others on 11 September 2001.