A miracle amid the devastation?

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2001

NEW YORK -- With the World Trade Center death toll shrinking to somewhere around 3,000, many hesitate to speak of a miracle or a success. But those are the words they are using when they remember that thousands of others got out alive before the towers collapsed.

Many officials say the loss of life would have been many times higher if not for three factors: the timing of the attack, before the buildings had filled to their usual workday peak; emergency-evacuation improvements prompted by the 1993 terrorist bombing of the trade center; and the urgent reaction of workers, many of whom had been through the earlier attack.

On Sept. 11, perhaps 18,000 people by one estimate evacuated the two 110-story towers in less than two hours.

''It looks like maybe 90 percent of the people in the buildings survived that day. It's amazing,'' said Alan Reiss, the trade center's former director.

Reiss and others do not discount the devastation of the terrorist attack or the grief felt by the families of the dead.

Yet in the initial hours after the attack, many feared that tens of thousands had been killed. Even weeks later, city officials estimated nearly 7,000 people had lost their lives.

After fixing errors and removing duplicate names from the casualty lists, city officials say the death toll stands at about 3,000 and may drop further. The figure includes about 500 people who were not in the towers at the time of the attacks -- rescue workers who entered afterward and the people aboard the hijacked planes.

''Three-thousand people died, and one has a hard time saying anything about it is a success,'' said Michael Cherkasky, president of Kroll Associates, a security company that helped the trade center's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, revamp evacuation procedures after the 1993 bombing.

''Having said that, it is a remarkable story from the perspective of how the Port Authority was able to organize itself -- the success it had in evacuating the building in comparison to '93, and the heroic efforts of the police and firefighters.''

In 1993, it took six hours to evacuate most of the occupants of the trade center after terrorists detonated a bomb in an underground garage, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

This time, there were some missteps, such as conflicting announcements over when and whether to evacuate. But the evacuation time was reduced by several hours.

The time of day was a factor, too.

Just before lunchtime on a typical work day, the towers would have held about 50,000 people, said Reiss, who was at the trade center on Sept. 11, helping with the transition to a new management.

Reiss estimated just 20,000 people were at the trade center when an airliner smashed into the north tower at 8:48 a.m. The south tower was hit just after 9 a.m. The south tower collapsed in less than hour, at 9:55; the north tower at 10:29.

During the 1993 evacuation, workers crammed into pitch-black exit stairways, bumping into walls and each other in the smoky darkness.

''It took a very, very long time to get down, back in those days,'' said Robert Davidson, who worked on the 73rd floor of the north tower as chief architect for the Port Authority. ''As you moved down the stairs you went about half a flight and stopped for while. That was the trip all the way down.''

After the bombing, however, batteries were added to every other light fixture in the stairwells in case power went out as it did in 1993. Handrails were painted with yellow glow-in-the-dark paint, which also was used to mark a continuous stripe down the middle of the staircases. A public address system was added, enabling fire command stations to address tenants.

And having been through one emergency, employees listened to what they should do in the case of another, Reiss said.

''We always had a fire drill every six months, but people wouldn't come out of their offices, the higher-ups wouldn't leave meetings. That sort of stopped after '93,'' Reiss said. ''People paid a lot of attention to fire drills.''

At Mancini Duffy, an architectural firm on the south tower's 22nd floor with 140 employees, the policy in any emergency was leave first, ask questions later.

''From the experience of '93, whenever there was an unusual noise or sound or smell, they were instructed to leave the building regardless of what was being said,'' chairman Ralph Mancini said. ''That's why we got out so fast.''

Mancini said some employees were on their way out before the second plane hit when they heard -- and ignored -- announcements over the public address system telling south tower workers they could return.

Allen Morrison, a Port Authority spokesman, said some people may have heard multiple announcements from various sources, such as individual companies addressing their employees with bullhorns.

''We cannot verify who said what or what announcements were made, and we know that some of the people who may have made announcements are now deceased,'' Morrison said.

He added that the Port Authority decided to evacuate the south tower moments before the second plane hit, but could not say whether the announcement was heard.

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