High Rise, High Risk. Twenty-Two Years After 9/11, Where is the Fire Safety?

The surprising history of airplanes crashing into New York City's tall buildings

A special edition of “60 Minutes” aired on Sunday, September 10, 2023. It was the eve of the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 and the celebrated CBS news team devoted the whole hour to the New York firefighters who lost their lives that day. We see people running down a stairwell. It is madness. The people are panicking. The firefighters are running up against them. Everyone is confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Rushing in against all odds, knowing their firefighters might not come out, was Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) Ladder Company 3. Their ladders were useless for anything but a few lower floors. The first plane had crashed into the North Tower. Instantly, flames engulfed floors 93 to 99. They watched incredulously as a second plane slammed into the the South Tower, lighting up 

“Our aim was to get above that fire and get those poor people out that were calling,” said Daniel Nigro, then New York City Fire Commissioner.

One of those people was Melissa Cándida Doi, a 32-year-old financial manager, calling for help from the 83rd floor of the South Tower. “We’re on the floor and we can’t breathe,” Ms. Doi was recorded saying to a dispatcher.

“The dispatcher told them we were coming. We like to keep our promises,” said Nigro. But it was a promise he could not keep.

The Engine 6 Company was also coming. But their fire hoses were useless. All told, 121 engines, 62 ladder companies, 100 ambulances and 750 FDNY firefighters converged on the scene. They would be joined by Peter Ganci Jr, fire chief for the City of New York, who raced over the Brooklyn Bridge from FDNY headquarters.

It was Division One Commander Peter Hayden who told “60 Minutes” what became the “order of the day:” “to search and evacuate as many people as we could out of there and then we were goanna back away.

“I thought we would have enough time to get the people out. All except those at or above the impact of the plane. We were pretty much sure they were either dead already or going to die,” said Hayden with quiet resignation.

Melissa Doi was never rescued. She was one of 1,355 people trapped above the fire, according to “60 Minutes.”

Flee or Stay Put? The Jury Is Out

America’s reckoning with living in high rises was 22 years ago. Surely, by now, there must be a plan to evacuate high rises in New York City. But we can find nothing. Three years after the event, the city is “struggling” to complete guidelines for an evacuation as demanded by a city law that will take effect on the tragedy’s 3-year anniversary, which requires owners of tall buildings to train staff and run full evacuation fire drills, according to a August 2004 New York Times article.

But 10 years later, the matter has become quite a bit less urgent. A 2014 New York Times article questions taking to the stairs during a high-rise fire and advises residents to “stay put” in a report about a fire on the 20th floor of a 42-story building in which a couple in a stairwell died from smoke rising up from the fire after firefighters opened doors to rush in.

The couple would have been alive had they stayed in their apartment, said officials who are quoted in the article.

“One thing you don’t want to happen is evacuate people into a worse situation,” said Donald P. Bliss, director of the National Center for Infrastructure Expertise talking to the New York Times. “If there’s a secondary device, or some type of biohazard or other problem, you want people to stay sheltered in the building.”

Never mind that the only ones who lived in 9/11 were the ones who ran for the stairs. That only briefly switched off the “stay put” recommendation to its opposite. The consensus has returned to “stay put,” as if to say, that the lesson you learned from 9/11 was: “Fugget about it. That was an isolated case. That will never happen again.”

Building Changes

A 2004 study of 9/11 led by Patricia J. Lancaster, the commissioner of the New York City Buildings Department called for evacuations and building changes, like emergency lighting in staircases, sprinklers, among other changes, to come later.

But recommendations to widen staircases and install “fire tower stairs,” special stairs encased in 4-inch-thick concrete with airlocks, have not been well received by owners and real estate agents—those who cannot sell the space that those stairs would take.

On 9/11, the impact of the airplanes and the resulting fire left only one of the six stairways intact.

Had there been fire tower stairs in the World Trade Center Towers, how many of the 1,355 people on the floors above the fire could have survived?

But the interest in preventing the next disaster dwindles over time from the last one. This lapse into complacency may be referred to as post-traumatic amnesia by those looking in, and is taken as a measure of resilience by survivors—for example, here is San Franciso, which rebuilds after earthquakes. There is New Orleans, which dries out after hurricanes. Other cities and towns survive and stay put after cyclic floods, tornadoes, fires, droughts and other disasters.

With New York City, the threat is in the high rises—from fires, and more than a few times, from aircraft.  The deadly combination that reached its worst possible outcome on 9/11 is a combination that is often repeated.  

They don’t make them like they used to. The Empire State building, completed in 1931, survived a B-25 crash and King Kong with no structural damage.

At least it’s not King Kong. The Empire State building, completed in 1931, survived a B-25 crash with no structural damage.

In 1945, the last year of World War II, a U.S. Air Force North American B-25 Mitchell bomber flying in fog crashed into the Empire State Building, hitting the 78th to 80th floors, leaving an 18 ft by 20 ft hole. An engine fell down an elevator shaft and started a fire, which firefighters were able to extinguish in less than an hour. The crash killed 3 of the crew and 11 people in the building.

Less than a year later, another U.S. Air Force Beechcraft C-45F Expediter crashed into the 58th floor of the 40 Wall Street building (aka, the Bank of Manhattan Trust building, which has been owned by Donald Trump since 1995), killing all five aboard the airplane.

Since 9/11/2001, New York high rises have caught fire on multiple occasions:

  • A 7-alarm fire broke out on the 17th story of the 39-story Deutsche Bank building in August 2007.
  • A fire broke out on the 20th floor of the 42-story luxury high rise in Hell’s Kitchen in January 2014.
  •  One57, a supertall building, then the tallest residential building in New York City, suffered a fire on the loading dock in March 2014.
  • The 58-story Trump Tower on 5th Avenue had a fire from the 25th to 27th floors during its construction in 1983.
  • A helicopter crashed into the Axa Equitable Center roof in June 2019, causing an evacuation of the entire building.
  • The 19-story Twin Parks North West, a public housing project, caught fire during the January 2022 Bronx fire, causing 17 deaths.
  • A fire caused by a lithium battery in the 37-story RiverCourt building left 38 people injured.

New York is certainly not alone. Cities all over the world with high-rise buildings have suffered fires. But none have been as disastrous as 9/11 and the World Trade Center. No other high-rise disaster has hit triple figures in deaths (2,753), no other high rises have risen so tall and collapsed so completely.

Fire Escape

U.S. patent for a fire escape issued in 1887 to Anna Connelly.

U.S. patent for a fire escape issued in 1887 to Anna Connelly.

In 1860, a bakery on the ground floor of a tenement building caught fire. Ladder trucks rushed to the scene but could only reach the 4th floor. People trapped above jumped out from the building, hoping to land on sheets or safety nets. Many stayed put and perished.

The tragedy inspired Anna Connelly, a Philadelphia-born inventor, to create the fire escape. Adopted begrudgingly at first because they violated architectural aesthetics, fire escapes went on to become law. At least for a while. Every building above 6 and a half stories, that is, 6 stories and a basement, was to have a fire escape and have it inspected every 5 years.

But the advent of fire stairs, in effect indoor fire escapes, replaced the wrought iron outdoor fire escapes. New York City would adapt its building code in 1968, with concessions made to business pressures over the safety of its residents. Gone were the requirements for fire stairs. Cut back severely were the number of stairways required. The 1968 changes allowed the World Trade Center towers to go up with three stairwells each—after initial plans had called for six.

By contrast, the Empire State Building, built 1931, had nine staircases at its street level.