Von Essen: Sept. 11 Won't Change Firefighting Tactics

Associated Press Writer

April 27, 2002, 3:27 PM EDT

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Strategies for battling high-rise fires probably won't change much due to the World Trade Center attacks, but fire chiefs might be reluctant to send firefighters to upper floors, New York City's former fire commissioner said.

Thomas Von Essen, who headed New York's fire department on Sept. 11, also said firefighters need to be able to communicate with each other better, noting that many of the 343 firefighters who died in the twin towers' collapse never heard the order to get out.

Speaking Saturday at a New Jersey City University forum on the trade center disaster, Von Essen said no major changes are likely to occur in the way firefighters battle high-rise blazes.

"If there was a fire today in a high-rise in New York City, we would respond in the way we have for the last 30 years," he said in an interview before the seminar began.

"This tragedy was so overwhelming that no one could have predicted that, within an hour and a half, both these buildings would collapse. No one prepares for jet planes crashing into their buildings."

An unavoidable consequence of the tragedy is that fire chiefs worldwide will hesitate to send large numbers of firefighters high into burning buildings, Von Essen said.

Many firefighters killed in the collapses were trying to evacuate people from upper floors of the 110-story skyscrapers.

"If you have something of this enormity, if the (Sears) tower in Chicago got hit by an enormous jet plane, the chiefs handling the fire will be very wary about sending people up to such high floors," said Von Essen, who retired in January when Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration took over from Rudolph Giuliani. "Everyone will be second-guessing themselves when they're put in that situation."

Von Essen also stressed the importance of improving ways firefighters communicate with each other during high-rise fires.

When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, radio relay stations within the towers were knocked out. Many firefighters never heard commanders' orders to get out.

"I'm sure there were people that were unaware of the extreme need to get out of those buildings," Von Essen said, conceding it would have been difficult to prepare the buildings' communication system for Sept. 11.

Sept. 11 also demonstrated the importance of having more than one water source for sprinkler systems, he said.

The jetliners that crashed into the twin towers sliced through the vertical pipes that were the sole source of water for sprinkler systems. The sprinklers were rendered inoperable as thousands of gallons of jet fuel incinerated floor after floor.

Michael Hurley, who was the trade center's fire safety director, said a solution might be maintaining rooftop tanks to supply water to fires on upper floors of high-rises.

"It's a lot easier to move water down than up," he said.

He also suggested zoned sprinkler systems with water tanks every five to 10 floors so that a failure in one area would not doom others. But those solutions would have to be considered before a high-rise is built.

Existing high-rises could apply more and better fire retardant materials on and around steel columns, Von Essen said. High temperatures generated by burning jet fuel actually melted steel beams in the trade center, causing floors to collapse.

Some victims reportedly tried to head for the towers' roofs, but helicopter rescues were never considered, Von Essen said.

Years before the attacks, firefighters and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey agreed high winds and multiple antennas made such rescues too risky.

Said Von Essen: "I know it was very upsetting for some of the helicopter pilots to watch the horrors there."