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October 25, 2007

A Top Consultant Discusses the Bombing of the World Trade Center

Written by  Ed Devlin, CDRP
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A powerful explosion rocked the two 110-story World Trade Center towers at 12:17 p.m. EST, Friday, February 26, 1993. The explosion was caused by a bomb; the bomb was located in a vehicle on the B-2 level; the force of the explosion caused significant damage to six floors of the Trade Center; six people were killed and over 1,000 people had to be treated for injuries.

Mohammed A. Salameh has been arrested after claiming a security deposit for the van used in the bombing. He said it was stolen at a Shop Rite parking lot in Jersey City. The rental receipt he gave contained traces of nitrates, a chemical that indicates the presence of explosives. Authorities searched his apartment and found “tools and wiring...circuitry and electro-magnetic devices” that constitute evidence of a bomb-maker. According to the newspapers, he is a devout follower of a radical Moslem cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.

What Lessons Were Learned?

One of the lessons learned is familiar. Those of you who attended the 1992 Disaster Recovery Journal Conference in Palm Springs may remember during my presentation that “Mechanical systems designed to protect companies do not always work as planned.” In that presentation, I pointed out that in the One Meridian Plaza Fire on Feb. 23, 1991, a great many fire safety systems failed.

On Friday, Feb. 26, 1993, a similar situation occurred. Many of the people working in the buildings did not hear any alarm bells sound. They felt the building move, but they did not know what was happening. They didn’t know if they should evacuate or stay in the building. No public address announcements were made. When they did decide to evacuate, they found the stairwells were filled with a thick, choking smoke. Some of the stairwells had no emergency lighting.

The World Trade Center did have an emergency plan for the evacuation of workers and visitors and they practiced it two to three times a year. But, - the evacuation plans were rendered useless because the explosion destroyed the Port Authority’s command and operations centers. It knocked out the electricity, telephones, closed-circuit television monitors and public-address system.

According to one newspaper, Eugene Fasullo, the Port Authority’s chief engineer, said “the bomb had been placed where it would do maximum damage to the safety and utility system.” High tension cables running to five of eight Con Edison electrical feeders had been severed by the blast. The remaining feeders were subsequently turned off while the fire was extinguished. Without power, the building’s ventilation system also failed. This caused the thousands of office workers to leave the building wheezing, their faces covered in soot as though they had just emerged from a coal mine.

Were Safety Precautions Ignored?

The Port Authority management has been criticized in different newspapers for not implementing the recommendations made by its terrorism task force six years ago to protect the trade center from a car bomb. Port Authority officials acknowledged the report’s existence, but spokesperson Allen Morrison said he could not comment on specific recommendations without reviewing a copy.

According to the newspapers, the report was prepared by Port Authority police and civilian engineers and was reviewed by an outside engineering consultant who approved the recommendations.

The newspaper said the recommendations included: elimination of public parking from the WTC’s garage to prevent terrorists from placing a bomb where severe damage could be done; protecting the building’s power supply by moving the main and backup electrical systems farther apart so one blast could not knock everything out; moving the police station and emergency command center farther part; and also installing battery-powered emergency lighting in the stairwells.

How Was Business Recovery Conducted?

Over the weekend, tenants were escorted into the twin towers for 30-minute visits to retrieve documents, computers, rolodexes and personal items.

On Monday the futures exchanges were operating in their 4th floor trading room in 4 World Trade Center. Salamon Bros. was back in operation in their location as well. But many of the 350 businesses will operate from temporary locations.

The Port Authority worked all weekend trying to find temporary locations for these companies. Obviously at this point in time, little information is available on the successful recovery operations going on within the 350 companies. They are most interested in resuming business, not talking about how they did it.

Companies that had Business Resumption Plans have provided some information. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., Dai-Inchi Kango Bank Ltd. are operating at other company locations. Seven companies are operating out of commercial hotsites.

Only Fiduciary Trust has allowed their name to be used. Brown & Wood, a law firm, is working at other law firms who kindly offered to make space available in both New York and New Jersey. I’m sure we’ll be receiving a lot more information in future weeks.

How Should Other Companies React?

My suggestion is that companies should enforce the security procedures they have in place now, rather than propose new controls and procedures in a knee-jerk reaction.

The final lesson we should learn from this tragedy, is “that it can happen.” When it does, hopefully you’ve planned for the worst scenario, not the best.

Security directors and building managers should meet with the Executive Committee and review the strengths and weaknesses of the current controls and procedures.

The Executive Committee should take action on weaknesses that pose risks that are not acceptable. The Executive Committee should also consider issuing an awareness memo reiterating the “policies” of the company, identifying what employees should do during and after an incident such as the one at the World Trade Center.
Finally, plans involving “floor wardens” may have to be modified in order to give them direction on what to do in a “worst case ” situation similar to Friday’s when there were no directions coming from the Command and Control Center.

According to one newspaper report, a fire marshal from the 44th floor said, “the people from the building that trained us told us again and again that in case of fire we should take people to the stairways because that’s where the emergency lighting is. Well, that certainly was not true. The stairs were dark. People measured each step and groped for the walls (to keep from falling). People were coughing and vomiting. The building was totally unprepared.”

A Public Apology and Hats Off To....

We know the evacuation of the WTC towers did not go as planned. According to television interview as and newspaper reports, it took many of the workers an hour-and-a-half to two hours to get down the stairwells. The people already in the stairwells were being stalled in their efforts to evacuate by new people entering the stairwells from the floors below. No one panicked, no one pushed and no stampede erupted. The people who were stalled in those stairwells responded to the emergency with a kindness and consideration that totally surprised this consultant.

I apologize for all the bad things I’ve said about New Yorkers in the past. I take my hat off to all the people and especially those that assisted in carrying out the disabled co-workers, to the people who made room for the pregnant women to pass them on those crowded stairwells, to the people who helped carry the workers who fainted and to the people who kept up the morale of those who were beginning to fall apart.

The final lesson we should learn from this tragedy, is “that it can happen.” When it does, hopefully you’ve planned for the worst scenario, not the best. Look for an update in the next issue.

Note: Information for this article was obtained from the following newspapers: the Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Daily News, the New York Post and the West Chester Daily Local, the Deseret News (Utah), the Chicago Tribune and the USA Today as well as the Newsweek and Time magazines.


Ed Devlin, CDRP, is one of Disaster Recovery's most experienced and respected consultants.

This article adapted from Vol. 6 #2.

Read 2156 times Last modified on October 11, 2012