Port Authority pilot speaks out on 9/11

 - April 21, 2008, 6:03 AM

I was till recently the chief pilot of the Port Authority police helicopter operation. As such, I was in charge of the day-to-day operations and mission for the Port Authority police department and the support of all the PA entities. Therefore, I was in the middle of the catastrophe on September 11 and the subsequent days, weeks and months. I believe a couple of very important lessons were learned that hopefully can, and will be, addressed by the industry and government.

I would like to state from the start that all thoughts and comments are strictly my own and reflect no official thinking of any kind. I have reached my conclusions from talks with fellow PA employees and extensive reading, as well as 30 years of experience in the New York City infrastructure.

First I would like to thank all of you [engineers and designers]. I owe you my life. You have designed the products that I have been flying for more than 40 years and you have designed them well and insisted on specifications that keep them flying safely with few bugs. We pilots do some crazy things with your products, and they keep on flying.

As a Port Authority employee who flew lots of staff over the years, I have gathered from these folks lots of personal stories from September 11. I would like to start, however, with a simple explanation of how the towers were constructed. As engineers you probably already know this but it will help with my short stories.

The central core of the building was the main load-bearing portio– the central part with a chimney and four stairwells and all the elevators. The area around this central core was open office space. The outside walls were also load bearing.

The towers were actually des-igned to withstand an aircraft impact because of the Empire State Building experience in World War II  [A fully fueled Army Air Corps B-25 bomber lost its way over Manhattan on a foggy spring morning in 1945. It struck the skyscraper, killing 11 in the building and its crew of three.–Ed.]. The type of aircraft the World Trade Center was designed to withstand was a 707 flying at an approach speed between 140 and 160 kt.

The PA aviation department was on the 65th floor of the north tower. A friend of mine was having a meeting in his cubicle looking inward at his visitor. Suddenly the visitor’s eyes got very wide and my friend turned around to a loud roar and the nose of the 767. At the last moment it climbed to hit 15 floors above them. All on the 65th floor got out. The airplane was at a very high speed, with full engine power, and it was much heavier than a 707 and carried much more fuel.

Remember the stairwells and the central chimney? That airplane went right to the core of the building. The stairwells were mostly compromised. One was open for a time. People were burning in the stairs. Fuel from the airplane went down the chimney to the lobby and across the lobby in a burning stream. Elevator cables were severed and the elevators plunged to the lobby or below. One PA employee was trying to get an elevator door open on an intermediate level when the doors blew out and fire enveloped him. One witness saw and heard an elevator come whooshing down and somehow get hung up at the lobby level. The passengers just walked out into the lobby and escaped. They could do this because the doors had been blown open.

My flight coordinator was on the 61st floor in a classroom. Half of the people were knocked out of their chairs from the impact. There was confusion, but all got out safely.

There was a PA maintenance person on the roof working on the window washing machine. He was told to walk down. He can be seen in the initial TV helicopter videos. Had he remained on the roof he could have been rescued. There are many other stories but let’s get to the story of current interest: prior warning. I won’t deal with who didn’t and who did get warned in Washington, but at the Port Authority. 

In 1990 Rick Rescorla, vice president for security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., and a friend surveyed the WTC Towers for weak points. They identified the main columns in the lower parking garages as vulnerable and reported such to the PA. They were told that building security was not a tenant concern and the PA would handle it. In 1993 a huge bomb went off in the garage next to a main column.

In 1999 Rick did another study to assess the buildings’ vulnerabilities. He and his friend determined that they were vulnerable to attack by aircraft. Again the PA, and other agencies, told him it was not his concern. He tried to convince Morgan Stanley to relocate from the World Trade Center–all to no avail. He therefore drilled his people monthly in evacuation procedures. Thirty-five hundred escaped on September 11.

In one of the ironies of life, Rick was interviewed by a video documentarian in his office, and he made that prediction on camera. The video is out there today. The interviewer is the son of a buddy I grew up with. This buddy was in the Ia Drang Valley and is mentioned in the first sentence of the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. His company of soldiers was virtually wiped out the first day of the battle (although severely wounded, he and some others somehow survived), and Rick Rescorla came in the next day with his company to relieve the First Battalion troops. My friend and Rick were very close since then. Rick died in the collapse of the towers.

The airplanes hit the towers, and the towers came down. But what did the helicopter community do and what were my thoughts on that response? My unit personnel called all around for helicopter support, and we eventually had 27 machines on hand at Teterboro Airport and the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. As it turned out there was no need for them. People either walked out and away from the WTC or they were killed. It is just as well we weren’t needed. I have three main thoughts about those first days:

• No one was in charge, but everyone was in charge.

• No communications.

• No plans for such a major event.

In regard to the first, I spoke about this in the Homeland Defense Workshop in Arlington [Virginia] last fall. The major thrust is that every jurisdiction wanted their own turf and control of it, and they were not about to relinquish anything to another authority–period. In New York City there is serious discord between every agency, although they will deny it vehemently.

In regard to my second point, many agencies could not talk to each other and many couldn’t talk with some of their own people. I believe this issue is being worked on, but it will not be simple to fix.

Regarding the last thought, as I said in Arlington, Va., “only Stephen King could have dreamed of this one. But even if the possibility of a pair of large passenger jets slamming into tall buildings had been discussed, it would have been dismissed out of hand as too outrageous.” I did not know about Rick Rescorla at that time. The later revelation proves my instincts, I guess.

What do we do? First and foremost someone has to be in charge. I recommended in November that the National Guard be given this task because they already have the infrastructure and can be put under federal command very quickly. I still believe this. Only federal control can overcome the petty disputes that take place.

What can you in the technical community do to ensure a role for the helicopter in future events? First I would think that you could talk up the need for someone to be in charge at disaster sites whenever you might be in the company of people of power who could help us. Helicopters should also be included in planning. The PA helicopter was not included in some of our airport disaster plans for many years. People forget about us until we are needed, and then they wonder where we are.

Addtionally, I feel strongly that you should design every helicopter with more engine horsepower than you think will be needed and every gearbox to accept more torque than you think will be needed. Remember, I said pilots do all sorts of strange things to your machines. My roommate in Vietnam once evacuated 29 Vietnamese in one lift in a UH-1 (we were undefended, and since the area was very hot we tried to do it in one trip so we wouldn’t have to go back).

We had three CH-47s from the Connecticut National Guard at Teterboro Airport and we were asked if they would go to the WTC site and lift girders from the rubble in the search for victims. We concluded it would have been very dangerous, but stranger things have been done.