September 11th: The Port Authority Police Department Story
Search & Rescue
While Officer Jimeno and Sergeant McLoughlin were trapped 30 feet under the rubble, roughly dead center between the points where the two towers once stood, policemen, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians were coordinating their efforts and organizing search teams. By that evening the PAPD had set up a temporary headquarters in a trailer on West Street. Their input was crucial to the search and rescue efforts because they knew the layouts of these buildings better than anyone. One veteran officer who had been around when the World Trade Center was constructed and had witnessed the collapse of the South Tower predicted that there would be bodies in the lobby area. He was right. Fifty-eight bodies were recovered right where he'd said they'd be.
The rescue workers soon started referring to the ruins of the World Trade Center as "the pile." While it was burning, they also referred to it as "the bitch" as in "the bitch is still burning." The fires burned for three months after the attacks, and temperatures recorded from planes flying overhead reached as high as 2,000 degrees. Even after the external flames subsided, the bitch was insidious. Hollow "box beams" were used in the construction of the towers because they're lighter than solid beams. But when these beams lay haphazardly within the pile, they acted like chimneys for the fires burning underneath and created a dangerous deception. Smoke rising in one place could be from a fire 30 to 40 feet away. Unsuspecting rescue workers often started digging right over hot spots, unintentionally giving oxygen to the glowing embers beneath the surface, igniting sudden geysers of flame.
Fleeing from these flare-ups was often as dangerous as facing the fire. The wreckage was very unstable, like a gigantic set of pickup sticks. Disturbing one steel beam or slab of concrete could easily touch off a collapse. For this reason, the rescue teams that searched through the pile worked in pairs. While one team would go down into the caverns under the pile, the other team would stand by up top just in case the first team had to be rescued.
The PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) train station located deep under the World Trade Center was a big concern for the rescue teams. Thousands of commuters from New Jersey used that rail line every day to get to work in lower Manhattan. Fortunately a PAPD officer ordered all the trains in use out of the station right after the first attack. His quick thinking saved hundreds of lives. By mid-morning every car on the line was accounted for at other stations.
But on the night of September 11, the PAPD received a call from a woman who said that she hadn't heard from her husband, a PAPD officer, since that morning. She claimed that her husband had told her he was with a group of four other PAPD officers paired with five NYPD officers and that they had gone down into the ruins. PAPD rescue teams were immediately dispatched to find these missing officers. Battling the mass confusion that surrounded the disaster site, they checked with the other agencies on the scene to see if any rescue teams were missing. After hours of searching on and around the pile, they were able to determine that none of the rescuers were unaccounted for. The woman's call was a hoax, which infuriated everyone who was working so hard to save lives. Valuable time had been wasted following up on her bogus distress call. Fortunately her call was traced, and the woman was eventually brought to justice. She pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment charges and is now serving a three-year sentence.
Unbelievable as it may seem, that wasn't the only crank call the PAPD received that day. A man called from his cellphone, claiming that he was trapped in a PATH train under the rubble with many other passengers. The initial reports had all cars accounted for, but a recount revealed that one car was indeed missing. Once again a PAPD rescue team was hastily assembled to search the "voids," as they called the caverns under the rubble, for this missing car. Going that deep into the pile was a treacherous undertaking, but the team found the car, crushed almost flat under tons of debris. There was no sign of passengers, dead or alive, inside. Unfortunately investigators were unable to trace the call or locate the malicious individual who made it.