For years the aeromedical helicopters based in and around New York City and Washington have trained for massive urban disasters. Perhaps not as massive as the holocaust that the World Trade Center became–who could have imagined such a combination of terrorist act and terrifying high-rise fire climaxed by a multiple building collapse of geologic proportions?–but the kind of catastrophes big cities attract. Emergency crews in both cities were convinced that such a calamity would necessarily involve dozens of patients suffering from massive trauma, just the sort of accident victims that aeromedical helicopters are intended to save.
But the grim reality of large, heavily fueled transport aircraft slamming into buildings bore a grisly realization. There were very few injured. Nearly everyone within a given radius of either the World Trade Center or Pentagon terrorist attacks was killed. And all the disaster drills, motivated crews and well equipped aeromed aircraft in the world weren’t going to bring them back.
“At the height of the afternoon [of September 11] we had 26 helicopters on our ramp,” said Jay McGowan, chief pilot for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). “They came from local EMS operations, from police, from the National Guard. There was a contingent of Army Black Hawks down from Sikorsky in Connecticut, there were corporate helicopters volunteering to help and there was the Port Authority’s S-76A+. There just weren’t any patients to help. All day long that entire fleet performed one patient transport.”
Initial reports of hundreds of critically injured people at an emergency triage and treatment center set up in a tent city in Liberty State Park, a vast grassy recreation area on the New Jersey side of the Hudson opposite the World Trade Center, proved an exaggeration in two ways. First, the number of injured was inflated. Second, the scores of ground ambulances and proximity of area hospitals obviated the need for aerial transport. “St. Vincent’s Hospital, a level-one trauma center, is just a few blocks away from the Trade Center,” said McGowan. “Most of the worst cases were just taken there.”
The aeromedical experience was just one part of a day of frustration and maddening helplessness for helicopter rescue crews in the Northeast. The first NYPD helicopter on site could only watch as the billowing smoke from the North Tower completely masked the heliport on the roof of the South Tower, making landings difficult at best. Within minutes, the explosion of the second hijacked aircraft inside the South Tower made such a landing impossible and NYPD crews were forced to watch helplessly as terrified office workers, trapped on the floors above the fires, either awaited their inevitable death by flame or the collapse of the building. Deciding to end their ordeal of their own volition and perhaps less painfully, an uncounted number leapt to their death.
Out at Mercer County Airport in central New Jersey, the New Jersey State Police aviation unit got the call. The state police operate three S-76Bs, one each under the program callsign Northstar and Southstar, based to cover the upper and lower halves of the state, respectively, and another tasked primarily with law enforcement and backing up the other two aircraft. A trio of LongRangers rounds out the fleet. All six helicopters headed for Manhattan.
“As we came up toward New York from downstate, we could see the Trade Center Towers burning,” recalled Captain Bob Davis, “and we all said to each other, ‘This does not look good.’
“They directed us to land at Teterboro. The ramp outside the Port Authority hangar there was packed. Corporate helicopters were there from ITT and Avaya, Honeywell and others. Some of them flew blood in from North Jersey bloodbanks down to Liberty [State Park], but mostly we waited for calls that never came. It was heartbreaking to see so many operators anxious to help and so little for them to do.”
‘We’re Flying into Hell’
At Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Conn., some Navy aviators were looking for a way to help. Problem was, they didn’t have any helicopters. “We’re part of the military programs office up here, overseeing Sikorsky’s fulfillment of its government contracts, and on September 11 we didn’t really have any helicopters at our disposal,” explained Lt. Commander Bob Blake. “But we wanted to do something, and United Technologies [Sikorsky’s parent company–Ed.] called down from Hartford wanting us to do something. Then we got a call from AmeriCare, a healthcare company that had been asked to get some emergency medical equipment and personnel–about 18 doctors and EMTs–downtown as close as possible to the Trade Center and was in need of transport. That’s when we looked out on the ramp and saw seven UH-60 Black Hawks belonging to the Army.”
Adopting the age-old Navy dictum of “Ask forgiveness, not permission,” some military and corporate rules were bent and within an hour the Black Hawks were preflighted, loaded and ready to go, accompanied by Sikorsky’s chase S-76. Since this fleet launched after the national airspace lockdown was implemented, some special procedures had to be followed. “Sikorsky has its own tower at the plant and they ended up calling the New York Tracon, which relayed discrete transponder codes to us. These worked like the IFF system [identification, friend or foe] does in wartime. Squawk the wrong number and you’re gonna get a visit from a fighter.”
Lifting off for the flight to southern Manhattan, Blake told his crew, which like the rest of America had been transfixed watching television coverage of the crashes, fires and collapses, “Hang on. I think we’re flying into hell.”
As it worked out, the first Black Hawk to pull pitch from Stratford for the 30-min flight to the Wall Street Heliport at the very southern tip of Manhattan did get a visit from an F-15. “He made a pass to check us out after asking us who we were on the radio,” Blake said. “By early afternoon, there were military aircraft everywhere.”
There was no problem navigating to the site. The pall of smoke from the Trade Center rose to 25,000 ft or more. Avoiding turbine intake damage from the large amount of airborne grit and approaching the heliport was a concern but “not too daunting,” Blake said. Landing on the sand-covered Wall Street Heliport had its own challenges. “There was three to six inches of sand covering the whole pad surface,” Blake said. “As soon as you flew into it, there was an instant whiteout condition. The procedure is to fly slowly forward and try to land ahead of it. Here, the rotor downwash just cleared it off the heliport surface into the surrounding water.”
One by one the helicopters cleared a landing spot and the crew stepped out into a science-fiction landscape. “We were down there when World Trade Center Building Seven fell, which sent over a whole new cloud of sand and debris. It was like fog. What got to you was the silence. Lower Manhattan with no cars, no airplanes overhead. I’m from Valhalla, N.Y., just north of the city and have been going down there all my life. The streets were completely empty. It was like a movie set. A few pedestrians were walking around and everyone was just in a daze. And no casualties. That was so frustrating. We were on our way back to Stratford by 6:45 p.m.”
In Washington, rescuers had roughly the same experience. U.S. Park Police, National Park Service, District of Columbia Metro Police and local aeromedical helicopters all responded to the attack on U.S. military headquarters, only to find their services essentially unneeded. Lt. Phil Cholak of the U.S. Park Police recalled, “We got the call from the tower at [Ronald Reagan] Washington National Airport that an aircraft had hit the Pentagon just seconds after it happened. We’re stationed across the Potomac at Anacostia Park, not far from the Navy Yard. So we launched Eagle One and Eagle Two, both of our Bell 412s, and headed over.”
Ironically, the Boeing 757 that struck the Pentagon did so on the southwest side directly adjacent to the helipad. Covered with firefighting vehicles, the best helicopter landing site in the area was unavailable. So blocked-off road surfaces, flat lawns, any level surfaces were used. “The triage center was set up right on Route 110,” said Cholak, “and we landed nearby. We moved only two victims to a local hospital. People just weren’t coming out of that building in survivable shape.”
According to Cholak, 11 burn victims died on the site before they could be moved.
Within minutes of arrival, the U.S. Park Police helicopter crews found themselves tasked with another mission. The tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was closing down because of the national emergency, but someone still had to direct the civil rescue and military aircraft traffic arriving and departing the area. “Eagle One became the air traffic control function for the area, flying a slow racetrack pattern over the site and clearing aircraft in and out. We took the Arlington [Va.] fire chief up so he could coordinate the firefighting and we downloaded live video to several government agencies so they could see what we saw,” he said.
“As far as rotorcraft response,” Cholak said, “we had a tremendous capability, but the mission just wasn’t there.”