Standard evacuation procedures for fires in the World Trade Center called for evacuating only the floors immediately above and below the fire, as simultaneous evacuation of up to 50,000 workers would be chaotic.
Firefighters from the New York City Fire Department rushed to the World Trade Center minutes after the first plane struck the north tower. Chief Joseph Pfeifer and his crew with Battalion 1 were among the first on the scene. At 8:50 a.m., an incident command post was established in the lobby of the North Tower. By 9:00 a.m., the FDNY chief had arrived and took over command of the response operations. Due to falling debris and safety concerns, he moved the incident command center to a spot located across West Street, but numerous fire chiefs remained in the lobby which continued to serve as an operations post where alarms, elevators, communications systems, and other equipment were operated. The initial response by the FDNY was on rescue and evacuation of building occupants, which involved sending firefighters up to assist people that were trapped in elevators and elsewhere. Firefighters also were required to ensure all floors were completely evacuated.
Numerous staging areas were set up near the World Trade Center, where responding fire units could report and get deployment instructions. However, many firefighters arrived at the World Trade Center without stopping at the staging areas. As a result, many chiefs could not keep track of the whereabouts of their units. Numerous firefighters reported directly to the building lobbies, and were ordered by those commanding the operating post to proceed into the building.
Problems with radio communication caused commanders to lose contact with many of the firefighters who went into the buildings. The repeater system in the World Trade Center, which was required for portable radio signals to transmit reliably, was malfunctioning after the impact of the planes. As a result, firefighters were unable report to commanders on their progress, and were unable to hear evacuation orders. Also, many off-duty firefighters arrived to help, without their radios. FDNY commanders lacked communication with the NYPD, who had helicopters at the scene, or with EMS dispatchers. The firefighters on the scene also did not have access to television reports or other outside information, which could help in assessing the situation. When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., firefighters in the North Tower were not aware of exactly what had happened. The battalion chief in the North Tower lobby immediately issued an order over the radio for firefighters in the tower to evacuate, but many did not hear the order, due to the faulty radios. 343 firefighters died in the collapse of the towers.
The command post located across West Street was taken out when the South Tower collapsed, making command and control even more difficult and disorganized. When the North Tower collapsed, falling debris killed Peter Ganci, the FDNY chief. Following the collapse of the World Trade Center, a command post was set-up at a firehouse in Greenwich Village.
The FDNY deployed 200 units (half of all units) to the site, with more than 400 firefighters on the scene when the buildings collapsed. This included 121 engine companies, 62 ladder companies, and other special units. The FDNY also received assistance from fire departments in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester County, and other neighboring jurisdictions, but with limited ability to manage and coordinate efforts.
Dispatchers at the 9-1-1 call center, who coordinate EMS response and assign units, were overwhelmed with incoming calls, as well as communications over the radio system. Dispatchers were unable to process and make sense of all the incoming information, including information from people trapped in the towers, about conditions on the upper floors. Overwhelmed dispatchers were unable to effectively give instructions and manage the situation.
EMS personnel were in disarray after the collapse of the South Tower at 9:59 a.m. Following the collapse of the North Tower at 10:29 a.m., EMS commanders regrouped on the North End of Battery Park City, at the Embassy Suites Hotel. Around 11:00 a.m., EMS triage centers were relocated and consolidated at the Chelsea Piers and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Throughout the early afternoon, the soundstages at the Pier were separated into two areas, one for the more seriously injured and one for the walking wounded. On the acute side, multiple makeshift tables, each with a physician, nurse, and other healthcare and civilian volunteers, were set up for the arrival of mass casualties.
Supplies, including equipment for airway and vascular control, were obtained from neighboring hospitals. Throughout the afternoon, local merchants arrived to generously donate food. Despite this, few patients arrived for treatment, the earliest at about 5 p.m., and were not seriously injured, being limited to smoke inhalation. An announcement was made around 6-7 p.m. that a second shift of providers would cover the evening shift, and that an area was being set-up for the day personnel to sleep. Soon after, when it was realized that few would have survived the collapse and be brought to the Piers, many decided to leave and area was closed down.
The New York City Police Department quickly responded with numerous Emergency Service Units (ESU) and other responders after the crash of Flight 11 into the North Tower. The NYPD set up its incident command center at Church Street and Vesey Street, on the opposite side of the World Trade Center from where the FDNY was commanding its operations. NYPD helicopters were soon at the scene, reporting on the status of the burning buildings. When the buildings collapsed, 23 NYPD officers were killed, along with numerous Port Authority police officers. The police department helped facilitate the evacuation of civilians out of Lower Manhattan, including approximately 5,000 civilians evacuated by the Harbor Unit to Staten Island and to New Jersey. In ensuing days, the NYPD worked alternating 12-hour shifts to help in the rescue and recovery efforts.
Some firefighters and civilians who survived made cell phone calls from voids beneath the rubble, though the amount of debris made it difficult for rescue workers to get to them.
By Wednesday night, 82 deaths had been confirmed by officials in New York City.
Rescue efforts were paused numerous time in the days after the attack, due to concerns that nearby buildings including One Liberty Plaza were in danger of collapsing.
Volunteers quickly descended on Ground Zero to help in the rescue and recovery efforts. At Jacob Javits Convention Center, thousands showed up to offer help, where they registered with authorities. Construction projects around the city came to a halt, as workers walked off the jobs in order to help at Ground Zero. Ironworkers, welders, steel burners, and others with such skills were in high demand. By the end of the first week, over one thousand ironworkers from across North America had arrived to help, along with countless others.
The New York City Department of Design and Construction oversaw the recovery efforts. Beginning on September 12, the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEAoNY) became involved in the recovery efforts, bringing in experts to review the stability of the rubble, evaluate safety of hundreds of buildings near the site, and designing support for the cranes brought in to clear the debris. The City of New York hired the engineering firm, LZA-Thornton Tomasetti, to oversee the structural engineering operations at the site.
To make the effort more manageable, the World Trade Center site was divided into four quadrants or zones. Each zone was assigned a lead contractor, and a team of three structural engineers, subcontractors, and rescue workers.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United States Army Corp of Engineers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) provided support. Forestry Incident Management Teams (IMTs) also provided support beginning in the days after the attacks to help manage operations.
A nearby Burger King was used as a center for police operations. Given that workers worked at the site, or The Pile, for shifts as long as twelve hours, a specific culture developed at the site. Leading to workers developing their own argot.
Numerous volunteers organized to form "bucket brigades", which passed 5-gallon buckets full of debris down a line to investigators, who sifted through the debris in search of evidence and human remains. Ironworkers helped cut up steel beams in to more manageable sizes for removal. Much of the debris was hauled off to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island where it was searched and sorted.
Some of the steel was reused for memorials. New York City firefighters donated a cross made of steel from the World Trade Center to the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Company. The beam, mounted atop a platform shaped like the Pentagon, was erected outside the Shanksville's firehouse near the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93.
Twenty-four tons of the steel used in construction of USS New York (LPD-21) came from the small amount of rubble from the World Trade Center actually preserved for posterity.
Morale of rescue workers was boosted on September 14, 2001 when President George W. Bush paid a visit to Ground Zero. Using a bullhorn, Bush addressed the firefighters and rescue workers, and thanked them. Bush remarked, "I'm shocked at the size of the devastation, It's hard to describe what it's like to see the gnarled steel and broken glass and twisted buildings silhouetted against the smoke. I said that this was the first act of war on America in the 21st century, and I was right, particularly having seen the scene.
At some point, rescue workers realized that they were not going to find any more survivors. After a couple weeks, the conditions at Ground Zero remained harsh, with lingering odors of decaying human remains and smoke. Morale among workers was boosted by letters they received from children around the United States and the world, as well as support from thousands of neighbors in TriBeCa and other Lower Manhattan neighborhoods.
Louisiana donated a firetruck to New York, at a football game, naming it the "The Sprit of Louisiana." New York gave back the firetruck to Louisiana in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina.
Immediately following the attacks, members of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) were called up to help respond. Northeast Region Commander Colonel Richard Greenhut placed his region on alert mere moments after he learned of the attack. With the exception of CAP, all civilian flights were grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration. CAP flew aerial reconnaissance missions over Ground Zero, in order to provide detailed analysis of the wreckage and to aide in recovery efforts, including transportation of blood donations.
The National Guard supplemented the NYPD and FDNY, with 2,250 guard members on the scene by the next morning. The U.S. 69th Infantry Regiment (The Fighting 69th) from Manhattan was the first military force to secure Ground Zero, it formed the core of a task force consisting of local units including Bravo and Charlie companies of the 1/105 Infantry Battalion. The 69th armory on Lexington Avenue became the Family Information Center to assist persons in locating missing family members.
Eventually thousands of Soldiers and Airman from the NY National Guard participated in the rescue/recovery efforts. They conducted site security at the WTC, and at other locations. They provided the NYPD with support for traffic control, and they participated directly in recovery operations providing manpower in the form of "bucket brigades" sorting through the debris by hand.
Additionally service members provided security at a variety of location throughout the city and New York State in order to deter further attacks and reassure the public.
Workers at the Ground Zero pit worked without proper respirators. They wore painters' masks or no facial covering. Specialists claim that the only effective protection against toxins such as airborne asbestos, is a special respirator. New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health industrial hygenist David Newman said, "I was down there watching people working without respirators." He continued, "Others took off their respirators to eat. It was a surreal, ridiculous, unacceptable situation."
The local EPA office sidelined the regional EPA office. Dr. Cate Jenkins, a whistle-blower EPA scientist, said that on September 12, 2001, a regional EPA office offered to dispatch 30 to 40 electron microscopes to the WTC pit to test bulk dust samples for the presence of asbestos fibers. Instead, the local office chose the less effective polarized light microscopy testing method. Dr. Jenkins alleged that the local office refused, and said, "We don't want you f---ing cowboys here. The best thing they could do is reassign you to Alaska."
Increasing numbers of Ground Zero workers are getting illnesses, such as cancer.
On January 30, 2007 Ground Zero workers and groups such as Sierra Club and Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes met at the Ground Zero site and urged President George Bush to spend more money on aid for sick Ground Zero workers. They said that the $25 million dollars that Bush promised for the ill workers was inadequate. A Long Island iron-worker, John Sferazo, at the protest rally said, "Why has it taken you 5 1/2 years to meet with us, Mr. President?"
Firefighters, police and their unions, have criticized Rudy Giuliani over the issue of protective equipment and illnesses after the attacks.An October study by the National Institute of Environmental Safety and Health said that cleanup workers lacked adequate protective gear. The Executive Director of the National Fraternal Order of Police reportedly said of Giuliani: "Everybody likes a Churchillian kind of leader who jumps up when the ashes are still falling and takes over. But two or three good days don't expunge an eight-year record. Sally Regenhard, said, "There's a large and growing number of both FDNY families, FDNY members, former and current, and civilian families who want to expose the true failures of the Giuliani administration when it comes to 9/11." She told the New York Daily News that she intends to "Swift Boat" Giuliani.