Rescue squabble revives NYC police, fire rivalry

 - May 27, 2008, 7:11 AM

On March 25, 1911, the worst factory fire in the history of New York City erupted in the three floors occupied by the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in a tall building on the northwest corner of Washington and Greene streets in Greenwich Village. The fire began in the cutting room on the eighth floor shortly after 4:30 p.m. and, fed by thousands of pounds of cotton fabric, it spread rapidly.

Panicked workers, all of them women, rushed to the stairs, the freight elevator and the fire escape, and while some escaped, dozens died, unable to force open doors that had been locked to keep workers in and union organizers out.

Some women tried to slide down elevator cables but lost their grip; many more, their clothing ablaze, jumped to their deaths from open windows. When the flames were finally put out, a total of 146 women were dead.

The horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire rocked the city to its roots. Much of the outcry centered on those locked fire-escape doors. The city passed a law against the practice, a law that has been intermittently enforced ever since.

On the southern tip of Manhattan, airliners commandeered by suicide terrorists slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11. The death toll was even more horrific than the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. After the initial shock wore off, questions about the ability of those trapped on the upper floors of the doomed skyscrapers to escape have led to harsh words between New York’s police and fire departments.

Minutes after the first airliner slammed into the Trade Center’s North Tower, two NYPD helicopters, a Bell JetRanger and Bell 412, arrived on the scene. Both surveyed the roof of the North Tower, which, while festooned with small antennas and a 360-ft broadcasting tower, still had enough space for a small, unlighted helistop, an area of the cluttered 110th-story rooftop certified for helicopter landings.

For the pilot of the NYPD Bell 412, the scene was reminiscent of a morning nightmare eight years before. In February 1993, a huge truck bomb went off in the parking garage at the North Tower’s base. While the loss of life was comparatively low, smoke from the explosion filled the stairwells used for evacuation. Some workers, caught in the upper stories of the 1,353-ft tower, opted to go up instead of down.

Hovering over the scene in 1993, NYPD officer/pilot Greg Semendinger spotted the frantic Trade Center workers, lowered two men to the rooftop to remove antenna obstructions, and then proceeded to shuttle 28 people to safety. Semendinger loaded them into the Bell 412 and whisked them to safety at the base of the tower.

But on the morning of September 11, a different scene lay below Semendinger’s helicopter. Through gaps in the thick smoke erupting from the ruptured tower, Semendinger saw no one on the roof. The reason why was brutally obvious: the doors leading to the roof were locked.

No Way Out

These doors were locked by order of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), owner of the Trade Center. They were locked in part because of concerns about suicides, daredevil stunts and possible theft or vandalism of the millions of dollars worth of broadcasting equipment on the roof. Locking the doors also effectively barred any possibility of a rooftop rescue.

Authorization and the means to unlock those heavy steel doors came from a security center located on the 22nd floor. But the security center wasn’t able to help. Falling debris knocked it out almost as soon as the first airliner hit the tower.

According to sources within the city government and emergency agencies, there was another reason the doors were locked: the highly publicized turf wars the New York police and fire departments have been fighting for years. Barred by the city decades ago from operating any of its own helicopters, fire department higher-ups had been incensed by the police-led Trade Center rescues in 1993, decrying them as dangerous, unnecessary grandstanding.

While an official spokesman for the NYPD, deputy commissioner Thomas Antenen, described the controversy as “moot,” maintaining that billowing smoke from the fires below completely obscured the rooftop rescue landing area, Semendinger steadfastly maintains that the wind that morning left a corner of the rooftop relatively clear of smoke and that recovery of at least a few dozen people could have been possible.

A PANYNJ spokesman defended the agency’s position, claiming that “the people above the fire were trapped.” PANYNJ’s overall safety doctrine is to evacuate high rises by moving the people who can be moved down stairwells and away from the danger areas quickly. Current estimates are that some 25,000 people got out of the towers that way and lived.

As for those trapped above the fire? Sadly, according to accounts of many cellphone transmissions received from those trapped in the towers on that hauntingly beautiful late- summer morning, many who were to become victims of the Trade Center collapse did call loved ones to say that they were heading for the roof. While disagreements on the accessibility of landing space on the North Tower persist, all the parties involved agree that South Tower helicopter access was impossible. Any hope of landing there was ruled out by the thick, choking smoke billowing up from the stricken floors of both towers.

Wait for FD Request

Under protocols instituted by NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration since the 1993 Trade Center bombing, police helicopters aren’t allowed to fly directly to blazing buildings to attempt a rescue. Instead, rules call for them to touch down at any of four designated Manhattan heliports, await the arrival of firefighters and ferry them to the fire site. This plan has never been enacted during an actual emergency, probably due to the time it would take to fulfill its various requirements. On September 11 no such call was received.

Only Los Angeles

According to Massey Enterprises, a widely respected fire and building safety consulting company based in Virginia Beach, Va., Los Angeles is the only major U.S. city requiring planning for high-rise aerial rescues. That preparation paid off in 1988 when a fire destroyed four floors of the 62-story First Interstate Bank tower. The fire took place after hours, so few people were directly threatened by the blaze.

Nevertheless, prompt response by L.A. fire department helicopters saved the lives of eight people trapped above the fire. The L.A. fire code mandates that all buildings more than 75-ft tall (roughly seven stories) must have a roof capable of accommodating helicopter landings.

A similar plan that would have resulted in a survey of all New York high-rise roofs usable for helicopter rescue was put forward in the mid-1980s, but was never fully implemented. One rule that was put into force in those days was a part of the New York City fire code requiring that roof doors either be unlocked or be fitted with devices preventing their being locked from the inside.

This would have ensured easier access to the rooftops of the Trade Center towers but for one problem: due to their PANYNJ ownership, the Trade Center towers were the property of New York State, and thus exempt from the New York City fire code.