Fireball greeted rescuers


A jet-fuel fireball furiously shot down a bank of elevators, exploding into floor after floor of the north tower as thick, black smoke enveloped the skyscraper's upper floors.
The lights were still on and the air was clear in the lobby when an FDNY battalion chief and two ladder and engine companies rushed into the tower, minutes after the first hijacked jet hit at 8:46 a.m.

But the rescuers quickly encountered badly burned civilians. Floor-to-ceiling windows had blown out, and huge marble tiles had fallen from the walls.

Above them, hundreds of civilians already lay dead. Hundreds more were trapped alive.

In the 567-page final report of the 9/11 commission, a scant 43 pages are devoted to the horror and heroism of the World Trade Center attacks.

Despite the brevity, the pages dramatically retell the harrowing 102 minutes between the impact of the first jet to the collapse of the north tower.

"We had a very strong sense we would lose firefighters and that we were in deep trouble, but we had estimates of 25,000 to 50,000 civilians, and we had to try to rescue them," FDNY Chief Peter Hayden told the commission.

Another chief said he knew the chances of extinguishing the inferno were all but zero.

"We determined very early on that this was going to be strictly a rescue mission," he said. "We were going to vacate the building, get everybody out, and then we were going to get out."

The report calls the response that killed 403 rescuers the "largest and most complicated rescue operation in city history," and concludes it succeeded at saving the vast majority of the civilians in both towers.

It praises rescuers and civilians for doing "their best to cope with the effects of an unimaginable catastrophe, for which they were unprepared in terms of both training and mindset."

But the pages also recount the widespread confusion that gripped the towers, hindering the evacuation and contributing to the death toll. Among the problems cited are:

Few heard the first orders to evacuate and some who tried to escape were told to stay put.

Critical information about the extent of the catastrophe and the potential of a collapse was not shared between firefighters and cops because of a lack of coordination and problems with their radios.

911 operators knew little about what was happening and often told callers to "stay low, remain where they [were]."
"People watching on TV certainly had more knowledge of what was happening a hundred floors above us than we did in," one fire chief said. "Without critical information coming in ... it's very difficult to make informed, critical decisions."

And while some fire and police officials anticipated a partial collapse, no one believed both towers would crumble.

One of the first fire chiefs to arrive said such a scenario was "beyond our consciousness."

The pages retelling the attack end with cautionary words and the prediction of another strike.

"Because no one believes that every conceivable form [of] attack can be prevented, civilians and first responders will again find themselves on the front lines," the report states. "We must plan for that eventuality. A rededication to preparedness is perhaps the best way to honor the memories of those we lost that day."

Originally published on July 23, 2004