The Day The World Shook

Some of the material for this story was taken from the WNYF WTC issue

February 26, 1993. It started like most other days. A 4 A.M. wake up, coffee and a buttered roll while driving to work at the Manhattan Central Office. At 12:18 P.M., lunch was being served when we received a call via a street alarm box at the corner of West & Liberty Streets. At the same time Engine Company 10, whose quarters are across the street from the World Trade Center, called us via radio and reported a possible transformer vault explosion on West Street near the Trade Center.

Transformer vault (also called manhole) explosions are fairly common place in Manhattan, especially during wet weather. They're highly visible and normally generate numerous telephone calls to the Central Office. We didn't think this one was going to be any different. When Engine 10 advised us by radio they had a working fire in the Trade Center, we thought the transformer vault was located within the basement of the complex. Not a routine event, but still,it's only a transformer vault we thought.

Normally, when a fire or emergency occurs that generates numerous phone calls, the phones stop ringing once an apparatus arrives. This time the phones never stopped. That was our first hint of a major catastrophe. Soon the calls were reporting a different condition. Smoke in the towers as far up as the 33rd floor within the first 3 minutes. The ceiling collapsed in the train station that is located on the B4 level (4th level below grade) of the complex. At this point we knew it was more than a vault.

The Manhattan Central Office has 4 positions that are normally used to answer fire phones. There are 18 incoming phone lines for reporting fires or emergencies. For the next 6 hours those lines rang continuously. Since calls were being received faster than we could answer them, the 911 operators were told to send the calls to any borough that had an available phone line. Very quickly all 5 borough Central Offices were being deluged with calls from stranded occupants seeking instructions. Management immediately foresaw our need for additional manpower and ordered 2 dispatchers and 1 supervisor be brought in on overtime.

Calls were being received from people in both towers and the Vista Hotel. The incident commander was unable to to operate at more than 1 location so a separate incident was opened for each location.The first box transmitted was 69 at Vesey & West Streets. When a 10-76 was transmitted (working fire in a hi-rise), this mandated the transmission of surrogate boxes 9031 and 9032. These boxes each bring an engine, ladder, and chief from Brooklyn.

At this time the operation was in the underground garage of the complex. The incident commander, upon learning that we were receiving calls from both towers and the hotel, ordered separate boxes transmitted for those locations. Boxes 8084 ( 1 WTC), 8087 (2 WTC),300 (at West and Liberty Streets, for the Vista Hotel) were then transmitted.

With those boxes transmitted, almost every Manhattan unit below Central Park was assigned to the incident. Numerous relocations from the outer boroughs were made to cover the vacant firehouses.The incident commander, requiring additional resources, ordered the first "borough call" in 15 years. A third alarm was transmitted for Brooklyn box 3832 at Columbia and Lorraine Streets, with the responding units directed to the World Trade Center.

The blast was centered on the B2 level. It was so intense that it caused the collapse of the steel reinforced concrete floor to the floor below (B3 level), which in turn caused more collapses. Tons of debris were piled onto the B6 level floor. A steel fire door that opens to the B2 level from a stairway from the B1 level was blown off it's hinges and embedded into a wall 35 feet away.

The blast just so happened to be located at the point where it could do the most damage. It knocked out the power plant for the entire complex. This plunged into darkness over 50,000 people in the Twin Towers. No lights, no elevators, no heat, and lots of soot filled smoke. Most New York City television stations have their transmitters atop tower 1.This left only 1 TV station on the air (Channel 2 WCBS). Cable reception was not interrupted as the cable head end is fed directly from the studio and not the transmitter site. Many of the trapped occupants were listening to their radios for information. In some of the offices where televisions were located, they were watching channel 2.

One of the newscasters went on the air and advised people in the towers that if they were having trouble breathing, they should break out the glass window. This was the worst thing they could have done. By now the entire tower was filled with smoke and was acting like a 110 story smokestack. About that time I answered a call from someone seeking instructions. By now, we were told to tell all callers to stay where they are, block all air vents with whatever rags they could find, stay calm, and wait. The caller told me he was going to break out a window. He was on the 54th floor. I advised him not to stating that there are over 500 emergency personnel on the ground and he'd kill someone with the falling debris. Not to mention the fact that the open window will allow smoke to enter the area and vent itself. He hung up and went to break the window. I advised the radio dispatcher to let the command post know to expect falling glass from the 54th floor. Later,the newscaster was "admonished" by his supervisors.

By 5 P.M. most of the incoming calls were from concerned family members of trapped civilians. This was sometimes a heart wrenching job as relatives of people who we already knew to be deceased were asking if we could find their loved ones. All we could do was give them a phone number to the information center that was set up by the police department for this purpose. Most of the other calls were from people seeking medical aide, or looking for an estimated rescue time. Given the enormity of the task of searching 110 floors and 99 elevators in each tower, there was no way I could tell them how long it would take.

At approximately 11:25 P.M., the last elevator was located, occupants were removed after being in there almost 12 hours, and the incident was declared under control at 2:25 A.M., Saturday February 27.

Needless to say, lunch was served cold.

The blast's toll:*

  • 6 civilians killed
  • Over 1,000 injured
  • 105 firefighters injured - 5 admitted to local hospitals
  • reinforced floors almost 30 inches think blasted away on 3 levels below grade, plus a concourse level floor,leaving a crater about 150 feet in diameter at it's largest point.
  • On the B1 level, the operations control center of the Port Authority Police Department (and the fire command station forthe complex) was heavily damaged and rendered out of service.
  • On the B2 level, various walls of elevator shafts and freshair plenums severely damaged, allowing smoke to enter and rise through the cores of both towers.
  • Numerous concrete walls destroyed or damaged.
  • 200,000 cubic feet of water poured into the lowest grade fromdamaged refrigeration unit supplies (from the Hudson River),sewer lines, fresh domestic water lines, steam pipes, and condensate return. Water 1.5 feet deep across the B6 level.
  • 124 parked cars destroyed, 102 damaged.
  • Partition walls blown out onto PATH train mezzanine.
  • Numerous telephone conduits collapsed from ceiling onto cars (but phone service was not cut, miraculously).
  • Fire alarm and public address systems out of service.
  • Elevators out of service.
  • Water cooled emergency generators shut down due to overheating when their water supply was cut. This disabled the emergency lighting.
  • Sprinklers & standpipes out of service.
  • 2,500 tons of rubble removed.
  • Clean up effort involved 2,700 workers per day, plus a total of 160,000 gallons of cleaning fluid and 200,00 gallons of detergent.
  • Restoration cost: $250,000,000.
  • Tenants began moving back into tower 2 on March 18, 1993,tower 1 on March 29, 1993. The Vista Hotel opened early this year.

The USFA issued a report on this fire. (Requires Acrobat reader.)

Vital statistics of the Center *

  • Opened for tenancy: 1970
  • Site: 16 acres
  • Height of towers: 1,350 feet (2nd tallest in the world)
  • Floor size of towers: 1 acre
  • Rentable space in complex: 12 million square feet
  • Average daily population: 50,000 workers, 70,000 visitors
  • Construction: 200,000 tons of steel, 425,000 cubic yards of concrete, 43,600 windows in the 2 towers
  • Elevators: 99 in each tower
  • Below grade parking capacity: 2,000 cars (**)
  • Shopping: Over 60 stores on the concourse level (streetlevel) and observation deck on the 107 floor of tower 2

(*) Source: Port Authority of New York/New Jersey

(**) Since the incident, parking below grade has been restricted to employees of the Port Authority, and thevarious federal agency employees who work in the complex.There were 2 levels reserved for public parking.