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Elevators were disaster within disaster
The elevators were a tragic exception to an otherwise successful evacuation that resulted in the survival of 99% of the people who worked below the floors where the jets crashed.USA TODAY has identified 21 people who were trapped behind locked elevator doors and fought their way out. About 80 other people in elevators survived because the doors happened to be open just as the jets hit or opened automatically without the assistance of passengers.USA TODAY could not find an instance in which emergency workers successfully rescued people from elevators, although some firefighters died trying.Poor communications among rescue workers meant elevators were ignored even after trapped passengers used intercoms to report their locations, sometimes only a few feet from firefighters. Most passengers could not save themselves: Safety devices designed to prevent people from falling down shafts locked people inside elevators the moment the elevators malfunctioned.And when the second jet hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m., 16½ minutes after the attack on the north tower, the World Trade Center's elevator mechanics decided to leave the buildings. They expected to return later to help firefighters but never did.In one way, the elevators played a heroic role that morning. They helped thousands evacuate the south tower before the second jet hit. But the elevator shafts also became the circulation system of the disaster, carrying death and destruction throughout the towers.Elevator shafts worked like chimneys, funneling unbearable smoke to floors above the crashes. The shafts also channeled burning jet fuel throughout both towers. Fire moved not only up and down but also side to side, from shaft to shaft, unleashing explosions in elevator lobbies and in restrooms next to the shafts.USA TODAY made an intensive effort over the past six months to determine what happened to the World Trade Center elevators. Reporters interviewed more than 50 people who were in elevators at the time the jets hit or moments before. The newspaper also reviewed 2,500 pages of accounts written by survivors and reports in other media outlets, examined architectural plans and spoke to elevator experts and mechanics who worked at the Trade Center.The result is the first in-depth look at an important but neglected part of the World Trade Center disaster.USA TODAY found:
"She was stepping off the elevator when the plane hit," Wertz recalls. "There was an explosion on top of the elevator as if someone had thrown a hand grenade. I jumped out, fell to the floor and looked behind me. I saw the elevator disintegrate in a ball of flames and fall down (the shaft). There was a big hole in the ceiling above the elevator. I saw the cables fold up as if they'd become detached. It took no more than two seconds."That empty elevator probably plummeted 14 floors into a pit on the 77th floor. Wertz and Lawrence evacuated safely down the stairs, as did 18 other people from the 91st floor.Cantor Fitzgerald tax lawyer Harry Waizer, 50, was alone in a burning elevator that performed as it was programmed to do in an emergency: It returned to its lowest floor — the 78th — and opened its doors. Waizer survived with burns over 40% of his body. He walked the rest of the way down.Why elevator rescues failedOn Sept. 11, people fought their own way out of elevators or they died. USA TODAY could not locate any professional rescues of people stuck in elevators. The Fire Department of New York and the Port Authority also could not cite successful rescues.Rescue attempts were underway when the buildings collapsed. Firefighters from Ladder 4 and Engine 54 — which shared a firehouse at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue — used the Jaws of Life tool to rescue people trapped in an elevator in the south tower lobby. The firefighters died when the tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. Their bodies were found near an elevator and their Jaws of Life.The elevator rescue effort was run from a fire safety desk in each lobby. Consoles digitally showed the location of every elevator. The fire safety desks also had an intercom system to speak to people inside the elevators. The fire department had set up command posts next to the fire safety desks.In each tower, a Port Authority supervisor tried to make contact with each elevator.Bobbitt, the Port Authority supervisor contacting elevators in the north tower, says he spoke to people in about 10 stalled elevators. He contacted about 75 of the 99 elevators in the north tower before the other tower collapsed and he evacuated. Bobbitt could not contact about 20 elevators located above the 78th floor. The console showed no reading for those elevators, suggesting they were most likely destroyed.When Bobbitt located people trapped in an elevator, a colleague, Don Parente, wrote down the elevator number and its location. "We found out the information and gave it to the firemen," Bobbitt says. "A couple different firemen grabbed a couple different lists, but I don't know what happened after that."For reasons that are unclear, even the easiest rescues — releasing people trapped in elevators in the ground floor lobby — were not attempted. For example, Chris Young, a 33-year-old temporary worker, escaped on his own a few feet from the fire department's command post in the north tower just five minutes before the building collapsed. He had twice reported his location via intercom. And passengers who escaped from an adjacent elevator told firefighters they had spoken to the trapped man. He was able to open the doors only when the power failed and the motor holding the doors shut stopped working.Elevator mechanics leftOn Sept. 11, ACE Elevator of Palisades Park, N.J., had 80 elevator mechanics inside the World Trade Center.Following the Port Authority's emergency plan, after the first jet hit the north tower, elevator mechanics from both towers reported to the fire safety desk in the south tower lobby for instructions from police or firefighters. About 60 mechanics had arrived in the south tower lobby and others were in radio contact when the second jet struck that building."We were standing there trying to count heads when the second plane hit (the south tower)," said Peter Niederau, ACE Elevator's supervisor of the modernization project. "Parts of the lobby and glass were coming down around us, so we all got out of the lobby as fast as we could."They left in different directions. Some went through the underground shopping mall. Others went out onto Liberty Street. Had they stayed, they would have been about 30 yards from the two express elevators where firefighters tried unsuccessfully to save people. Another mechanic was in the north tower's 78th floor elevator lobby — where Savas and other people were trapped — when the first jet hit. The mechanic was knocked across the lobby, then evacuated safely, the ACE Elevator supervisors say."(We) went out to the street to assess the damage and come back in as needed," says James O'Neill, ACE Elevator's supervisor of maintenance. The plan was to return to the building later in the day to help with rescues. The strategy had worked after the 1993 terrorist bombing, when many of the same mechanics — working for Otis Elevator, which had the contract then — were hailed as heroes.On Sept. 11, the mechanics left on their own, without instructions from police or fire officials. ACE Elevator supervisors say this was consistent with the emergency plan. All the mechanics survived. "We had a procedure. We had a procedure to follow, and they (the mechanics) followed it," Niederau says.But the Port Authority says the emergency plan called for mechanics to stay and help with rescues. "The manuals consider many emergency scenarios and describe the role of the mechanics in detail in responding to them," Port Authority spokesman Allen Morrison says. "There was no situation in which the mechanics were advised or instructed to leave on their own. They were, depending on the situation, to be dispatched to various emergency posts or to respond to various passenger entrapments and to assist police, fire and other rescue personnel."About 9:45 a.m., from the south tower lobby, Port Authority elevator manager Joseph Amatuccio radioed the ACE Elevator supervisors on their private radio channel. O'Neill recalls him asking: "Can you mobilize to come inside and see what's going on? Because I'm here with the fire department, and they're asking me questions I don't know."O'Neill radioed John Menville, an ACE Elevator supervisor trained in rescues, and both tried to get back in the building. The supervisors had special ID badges with red stripes that allowed them behind police lines. The badges had been issued after the 1993 bombing.As Menville approached, the south tower collapsed. Amatuccio and his colleagues were killed. Bobbitt and other firefighters began evacuating the soon-to-collapse north tower.The elevator rescue effort was over.Data analysis by Paul Overberg. Contributing: Staci George and Nafeesa Syeed
By Dennis Cauchon and Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
The World Trade Center had one of the world's great elevator systems — 198 of the biggest, fastest elevators ever built. On the morning of Sept. 11, this technological marvel turned against the people who worked there. USA TODAY estimates that at least 200 people died inside World Trade Center elevators, the biggest elevator catastrophe in history. Some people plunged to their deaths after elevator cables were destroyed by the hijacked jets that crashed into the buildings. Others burned to death as flames shot down shafts. And some who were trapped inside stalled elevators died when the buildings collapsed.
|Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer works at a command post in the north tower lobby, in this photo from the CBS documentary 9/11. The elevators in the background were not checked.|
- Newly installed safety devices condemned many people to death.
- Few elevators performed properly. Most elevators, even those on low floors, stopped functioning the moment the jets hit.
- Elevators were not systematically checked for trapped passengers.
- Elevator mechanics left the buildings.
- Door restrictors dropped a steel rod, like a deadbolt, into the mechanism that opened the elevator's doors. The lock was activated when a properly working elevator left a landing. If the elevator stopped suddenly or lost power, the restrictor made it impossible to open the inside door more than 4 inches. The lock could be released — and the doors opened fully — only from the elevator car's roof.
- On all elevators, both those with and those without door restrictors, pressure from the motors kept doors closed until elevator cars were near a landing. Several strong men could overpower these motors. A loss of electrical power also could free the doors.
- All of the outside or hallway doors had locks called "interlocks" that prevented opening the doors. This made it difficult for bystanders to help people stuck in elevators. But it was possible for people in an elevator to release this lock, if they had been able to open the inside car door first. The release mechanism for the interlocks was on the shaft side of the door.
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