WTC and Choppers
April 25, 2006 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Why was there no effort made to rescue those trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade Center with helicopters?

This has been bothering me for some time, and now with United 93 out, it's back on my mind. I have never heard or read a good explanation of why this was not possible. If it wasn't feasible to land a chopper on the roof, why not lower a basket or roped ladder to pull up survivors to safety (it's done with water rescues). Ideally, this would happen with a rotating fleet of helicopters dropping off survivors nearby and then returning to get more.

Too little time to stage such a thing? Perhaps. But in the hour or so that those buildings remained standing, surely dozens if not hundreds of people could have been saved. Why not even try?
posted by terrier319 to Society & Culture (19 answers total)
I don't have a source -- probably the NYT's coverage -- but seem to recall helos could not approach the area over the towers because of the radio/tv masts and the extreme wind currents generated by the fires.
posted by docgonzo at 11:12 AM on April 25, 2006

Wind sheer would make helicopter rescues very risky, and twirling blades of metal crashing into the building would make the situation very worse, as well as endanger folks on the ground who were previously "safe".
posted by jwells at 11:14 AM on April 25, 2006

Like docgonzo, I've read in several places that winds and the thick smoke prevented helicopters getting anywhere near.
posted by jamesonandwater at 11:15 AM on April 25, 2006

Also, I believe the doors to the roof were locked. I don't recall anyone actually got to the roof of either building.
posted by mojohand at 11:15 AM on April 25, 2006

They didn't have a huge amount of time to work with, either. The south tower stood only 57 minutes after it was first hit (got hit 9:02, collapsed 9:59). The north tower had a bit more time -- 102 minutes (got hit 8:46, collapsed 10:28). Yeah, I imagine they could've gotten helicopters moving in that time, but the short timeframe probably didn't give them enough time to figure out ways to work around the problems described above.
posted by WCityMike at 11:27 AM on April 25, 2006

Didn't the FAA ground all aircraft fairly quickly after the crashes? If so, pilots who may have wanted to try this type of rescue (disregarding the smoke/wind conditions previously mentioned) would have been in violation of the grounding order. Any pilot violating the grounding order would certainly have lost their license, not to mention (in the confusion of the day) possibly being accidentally shot out of the sky by patrolling Air Force jets.
posted by JigSawMan at 11:28 AM on April 25, 2006

I suspect the biggest reason no such rescues took place is because most first responders assumed the towers would remain standing.
posted by nomisxid at 11:31 AM on April 25, 2006

wind currents, very very very hot air flying upwards, etc. made it impossible, apparently, for copters to fly there
posted by PenguinBukkake at 11:33 AM on April 25, 2006

I'd agree with Normisxid. I don't think anyone expected the towers to actually fall.
posted by chunking express at 11:37 AM on April 25, 2006

From Aviation Industry News:

Minutes after the first airliner slammed into the Trade Center’s North Tower, two NYPD helicopters, a Bell JetRanger and Bell 412, arrived on the scene. Both surveyed the roof of the North Tower, which, while festooned with small antennas and a 360-ft broadcasting tower, still had enough space for a small, unlighted helistop, an area of the cluttered 110th-story rooftop certified for helicopter landings.

For the pilot of the NYPD Bell 412, the scene was reminiscent of a morning nightmare eight years before. In February 1993, a huge truck bomb went off in the parking garage at the North Tower’s base. While the loss of life was comparatively low, smoke from the explosion filled the stairwells used for evacuation. Some workers, caught in the upper stories of the 1,353-ft tower, opted to go up instead of down.

Hovering over the scene in 1993, NYPD officer/pilot Greg Semendinger spotted the frantic Trade Center workers, lowered two men to the rooftop to remove antenna obstructions, and then proceeded to shuttle 28 people to safety. Semendinger loaded them into the Bell 412 and whisked them to safety at the base of the tower.

But on the morning of September 11, a different scene lay below Semendinger’s helicopter. Through gaps in the thick smoke erupting from the ruptured tower, Semendinger saw no one on the roof. The reason why was brutally obvious: the doors leading to the roof were locked.

These doors were locked by order of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), owner of the Trade Center. They were locked in part because of concerns about suicides, daredevil stunts and possible theft or vandalism of the millions of dollars worth of broadcasting equipment on the roof. Locking the doors also effectively barred any possibility of a rooftop rescue.

Authorization and the means to unlock those heavy steel doors came from a security center located on the 22nd floor. But the security center wasn’t able to help. Falling debris knocked it out almost as soon as the first airliner hit the tower.

According to sources within the city government and emergency agencies, there was another reason the doors were locked: the highly publicized turf wars the New York police and fire departments have been fighting for years. Barred by the city decades ago from operating any of its own helicopters, fire department higher-ups had been incensed by the police-led Trade Center rescues in 1993, decrying them as dangerous, unnecessary grandstanding.

While an official spokesman for the NYPD, deputy commissioner Thomas Antenen, described the controversy as “moot,” maintaining that billowing smoke from the fires below completely obscured the rooftop rescue landing area, Semendinger steadfastly maintains that the wind that morning left a corner of the rooftop relatively clear of smoke and that recovery of at least a few dozen people could have been possible.

Lots of stuff on high-rise rescues and helicopters here.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:37 AM on April 25, 2006

The doors were locked after the first bombing in 1993.

Which is funny becuase thats how they rescued people during the 1993 bombing. from the roof. Also i heard about some conflict between nypd, and fdny about the rescue efforts, that prevented them from trying a roof rescue.
posted by xospecialk at 11:38 AM on April 25, 2006

There was a helipad on the roof of WTC2.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:41 AM on April 25, 2006

To summarize my earlier post, for those that don't like italics:

-Helicopters were on the scene, but nobody was on the roof
-The roof was empty because the doors were locked because only the security office on the 22nd floor had the key, and the decision had been made to lock them for a variety of reasons, including turf battles between the NYPD and FDNY, but also because room access was assumed to be dangerous.
-Even had the doors been open, NYPD says there was too much smoke to land. One of the helicopter operators thinks he could have gotten a few dozen people off before the tower collapsed.

Given the speed and unexpected collapse, it wouldn't have made much difference in the scale, but it is possible that 50 people or more might have been saved.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:44 AM on April 25, 2006

I also want to point out the hind-sight is a wonderful thing, but nobody thought the buildings were going to collapse until they did. All the rescue personal probably thought it was a horrible tragedy, but there was time enough to rescue the people in the buildings.
posted by JigSawMan at 11:47 AM on April 25, 2006

As far as roof access doors are concerned, at all of the highrises i have worked at (as a maintaince guy) the roof door is locked for oblivious reasons. However they were only locked from the inside because the fire code required someone on the roof to always be able to enter the stairwell.
Smoke , wind and fire aside, someone landed on the roof should have been able to enter.
posted by blink_left at 12:01 PM on April 25, 2006

the roof door is locked for oblivious reasons

Now there's a Freudian slip.
posted by briank at 12:05 PM on April 25, 2006

This question has bothered me a lot too... I'm glad it's being discussed.
posted by rolypolyman at 12:55 PM on April 25, 2006

Thanks, blahblahblah! That was helpful.
posted by equipoise at 2:57 PM on April 25, 2006

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