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The rescue effort


The first priority for local responders was to rescue as many victims as possible. For the moment, the rubble at the World Trade Center was hardly regarded as too toxic to touch or breathe, since the pulverized ground and layers of charred debris could still yield more lives.


Time was of the essence. They knew that within the first few minutes, hours and days they had the best chance of recovering human beings and getting them medical help right away. In the hours that followed the morning’s catastrophe, responders were miraculously able to pull several people out of the rubble of the building—but only a half dozen.


The greater miracle was how that so many thousands were evacuated safely from the second largest building in the world, which hours earlier had housed 100,000 workers and visitors each day.

No survivors were discovered in the wreckage after the morning of September 12th,, as health officials were sad to realize, and thousands of lives lost.

 Within several days, the mission of those at the site changed from rescuing survivors to caring for the rescuers and helping to insure their safety, noted Dr. Kenneth Miller, one of the medical experts with the Urban Search and Rescue teams, who traveled from Orange County, Calif. to serve as part of the disaster team.

"The void spaces in the buildings were few and the injuries sustained by the victims were dramatic," Dr. Miller recalled, in an article for the Health Care Agency of Orange County. "Our job changed from helping with the medical management of survivors to what was called the toxicology of building collapse." (5)

But some feel the “rescue” phase may have been too long, as rescuers pushed their hopes of finding people lost in the rubble, and moving to the recovery phase may not have been quick enough. 

So while mayor Rudy Giuliani was praised for taking the helm, displaying leadership and galvanizing the public safety services, as well as wisdom in allowing the rescuers the time to mourn, there was a big cost to the fire department being too slow in winding down its fire-rescue medical response.

The occupational health side of this suffered as a result, wrote Donald Elisburg and John Moran of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “It became very apparent early in the WTC site visit that the WTC site was operating in a search and rescue mode being undertaken by the NYC Fire and Police personnel and Federal personnel such as the FEMA urban search and rescue teams in accordance with the federal response Plan.” There should have been an earlier end to the rescue effort, they wrote, but there wasn’t “owing, no doubt, to several factors, such as the NYC Fire Department bearing responsibility for collapsed buildings and the fact that the fires continued to burn in the site debris pile.”


"Our job changed from helping with the medical management of survivors to what was called the toxicology of building collapse." 


At the Pentagon, by contrast, the fires were put out much more quickly. Within days, Army occupational health specialists found no potential health risks for Department of Defense employees returning to the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. (6)