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Part 1. A Day of Disaster

 

 

I

t was America’s longest day. Beginning at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, the world stood aghast as jets, transformed into missiles, leveled the highest towers in the nation’s capital of finance, one after another, then as another jet an hour later sliced into the Pentagon. In the flames and collapse of steel and concrete, the terrorist attacks left thousands dead, urban landscapes physically devastated, and the country as a whole in a state of psychological shock. People were to witness an unfolding environmental health disaster.

 

The North Tower as seen from a NYC police helicopter.
Photo: EPA

 

In the wake of the tragedy, people everywhere marveled at the bravery of those who rushed in to the wreckage to rescue survivors at the disaster sites. Who can ever forget the firefighters, police officers, and volunteers of all kinds who converged on New York and Washington to lend a hand or whatever help they could?

 

From the beginning, too, experts in environmental health and public health were operating behind the scenes, having been called upon to try to size up the dimensions of the unprecedented disaster and act decisively to protect rescue workers and the general public. Although their actions captured no headlines or documentary photos that day, some of these people also risked their lives that day.

 

Minutes after the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, New York City Police Captain Terrence Revella, a commander with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, was on hand among the rescuers who rushed to the scene and able to employ his several functions and assets as a domestic first responder.

 

The crushing force of the first building’s collapse was strong enough to literally blow the police captain and several other officers clear across the West Side Highway, a distance of perhaps several dozen feet.

 

 

Wearing the second of his two “hats,” he was on duty as a police officer helping evacuate people from the buildings. Thousands of people were streaming past him, terrified as they escaped the burning buildings, he recalls. “Windows were coming down around us and bodies falling out of buildings,” Revella remembers.  Outside was sheer terror—people screaming, diving for cover, running dazed, covered in dirt, weeping and gasping for air.

 

There was a tremendous sucking sound heard by those standing by, just before the first tower started to fall. The crushing force of the first building’s collapse was strong enough to literally blow the police captain and several other officers clear across the West Side Highway, a distance of perhaps several dozen feet.

 

Even that didn’t stop him from heading back to the South Tower to help evacuate more people. When the second tower came down, he only escaped its collapse by running into one of the standing buildings there, Building 7, as it, too, was teetering on the edge of collapse around him. “None of us ran until the very last second,” he says.

 

Many have praised the rescue effort that succeeded in safely evacuating so many thousands of people. At the World Trade Centers, an estimated 18,000 people were evacuated in less than two hours between the first plane hitting and the North Tower collapsing—a remarkable achievement; thousands more were evacuated at the Pentagon, the largest office building in the world.

 

While the industry still has a lot of work to do with the new reality of terrorist threats, we should also take pride in the knowledge that the emergency procedures in place in the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon on September 11th, and the implementation of those plans by building management, were instrumental in saving tens of thousands of lives when tested against an attack that no one could have foreseen,” wrote the Building Owners and Managers Association. (1)

 

That first day, the extent of destruction was such that just surviving the immense crash and rescuing as many people as possible was the utmost priority. And in this regard, scholars of disaster dynamics and response agree, New York City got high marks. Office workers, helped by emergency responders, evacuated the building in rapid, orderly, helpful fashion—showing amazing calm. In this they’d had planning, training, and experience with the earlier 1993 bombing. (2)

 

A veteran responder--of everything from tractor-trailer truck overturns with hazardous materials, to chemical fires and explosions, to West Nile Virus sprayings--says 200 disasters didn’t come close to equipping him for the impacts of 9/11.

 

Yet soon local and federal officials would be absorbed with managing the short and long-term environmental and health consequences of the tragedy.  When it came to this, New York officials had little past experience to go on.

 

“It was a long, long day,” says Revella wearily, recalling the sequence of events of what was undoubtedly the most remarkable of his life. A veteran responder of some 200 disasters of all kinds, Revella says his experience with everything from tractor-trailer trucks overturning with hazardous materials, to chemical fires and explosions, to West Nile Virus sprayings didn’t come close to equipping him for the impacts of 9/11. “It was phenomenal,” he says.