A USA TODAY examination of the disaster in New York finds that practice drills, the design of the towers and luck saved lives

By Dennis Cauchon

NEW YORK — George Sleigh, a British-born naval architect, was on the phone in his 91st floor office when he heard the roar of jet engines. Looking out his window, he had time to think just three things: The wheels are up, the underbelly is white, and “man, that guy is low.”

An American Airlines Boeing 767 was hurtling toward him at 500 mph, loaded with 92 people and 15,000 gallons of jet fuel. The jet exploded into the 93rd through 98th floors of the World Trade Center’s north tower with force equal to 480,000 pounds of TNT. It was 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11.

The walls, the ceiling and bookshelves crumbled. Sleigh, 63, manager of technical consistency at the American Bureau of Shipping, crawled from the rubble. He looked up at exposed steel beams and the concrete underside of the 92nd floor. He didn’t know it at the time, but that concrete floor was the bottom of a tomb for more than 1,300 people. Nobody survived on the floors above him. But on his floor and below, an amazing story unfolded: Nearly everyone lived.

The line between life and death that morning was as straight as a steel beam. Everyone on the 92nd floor died. Everyone on the 91st floor lived.

When a second jet hit the south tower 16 1⁄2 minutes later, the pattern was virtually the same. In each tower, 99% of the occupants below the crash survived. At the impact area and above, survival was limited to just a handful of people in the south tower who made an amazing escape.

Four hundred seventy-nine rescue workers died making the evacuation a success. The sacrifice of New York firefighters and police is well-known. But 113 others, from low-paid security guards to white-collar workers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the buildings’ owner, stood their ground with firefighters and police officers.

From a distance of three months, it is clear that the early picture of what happened inside the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was incomplete and often inaccurate. Many basic details that permeate news reports and the public consciousness are wrong, including the number of deaths, the number of people in the buildings, even the exact times and locations of the two jet crashes.

USA TODAY spent two months finding out precisely what happened in the 1 hour, 42 minutes and 5 seconds from the first jet crash to the last building collapse. The newspaper identified where 95% of the victims worked or were located at the time of the attacks. In addition, it matched floor plans, architectural drawings and photographs to the accounts of survivors and victims.

The key findings:

The evacuation was a success. Nearly everyone who could get out did get out. The Port Authority had revised its evacuation plan for the buildings after a terrorist bomb exploded in a Trade Center garage in 1993. On Sept. 11, those changes saved hundreds possibly thousands, of lives. The buildings, sturdily constructed, exquisitely engineered and equipped with stairwells bigger than building codes require, stood just long enough to give potential survivors a chance to get out.

The number of dead was overestimated. The actual death toll is about 2,800, including rescue workers and the 157 people on the two jets. The New York Police Department’s official estimate has fallen from 6,659 on Sept. 24 to 3,011 on Dec. 18. It continues to decline as police remove duplicate and inaccurate missing-persons reports.

The initial estimates led to claims that Sept. 11 was the bloodiest day in U.S. history. According to USA TODAY’s current count, the death toll from all four hijackings is 3,040, excluding the 19 hijackers. That’s more than the 2,388 who died at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but fewer than the 3,654 who died Sept. 17, 1862, in the Civil War battle at Antietam, Md.

The buildings were half-empty when the jets struck. USA TODAY estimates 5,000 to 7,000 people were in each tower when the attack began. Earlier estimates ranged from 10,000 to 25,000 per tower. But company head counts show many desks were empty at 8:46 a.m. There were few tourists; the observation deck wasn’t scheduled to open until 9:30 a.m.

Most of the dead were in the north tower, the first one hit and the second to collapse. USA TODAY documented 1,434 who died in the north tower vs. 599 in the south tower. (Locations could not be determined for 147 of the building occupants.) An analysis shows that two-thirds of south tower occupants evacuated the upper floors during the 161⁄2 minutes between the attacks. In the north tower, an average of 78 people died per floor at the crash area and above, compared with 19 people per floor in the south tower.

One stairway in the south tower remained open above the crash, but few used it to escape. Stairway A, one of three, was unobstructed from top to bottom. The jet crashed into the 78th through 84th floors of the south tower. A few people escaped from the 78th floor down these stairs. One person went down the stairs from the 81st floor, two from the 84th floor and one from the 91st. Others went up these stairs in search of a helicopter rescue that wasn’t possible because of heavy smoke on the rooftop.

Elevator mechanics left the buildings after the second jet hit. Eighty-three mechanics from ACE Elevator of Palisades Park, N.J., left the buildings when the second jet hit. Dozens of people were trapped inside elevators at the time, according to the Port Authority. An elevator mechanic from another company rushed to the buildings from down the street and died trying to rescue people.

A complex drama

The unscripted drama inside the World Trade Center is a complex story. It involved 10,000 to 15,000 people spread over 200 acres of floor space inside two buildings. There were 99 elevators and three stairwells in each building. Ten bystanders were killed outside by falling debris.

Columbia University scientists recorded the precise time of the attacks on a seismograph connected to an atomic clock. The north tower was struck at 8:46:26 a.m., two to five minutes earlier than in most accounts. The impact registered magnitude-0.9 on the seismograph, equal to a small earthquake. The south tower was hit at 9:02:54 a.m.

The south tower collapsed first, at 9:59:04 a.m. The north tower fell at 10:28:31 a.m.

Nearly everyone’s fate inside the two 110-story towers was sealed the moment the jets hit.

In the north tower, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the 93rd through 98th floors and wrecked the stairwells on the 92nd floor. At the crash and above, 1,360 people died; none survived. Below the crash line, 72 died and more than 4,000 survived. Floors could not be determined for two people who died in the north tower.

In the south tower, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the 78th through 84th floors. The higher wing cut into the offices of Euro Brokers, a financial trading firm. The fuselage tore into Fuji Bank offices on the 79th through 82nd floors.

Of 599 fatalities in the south tower, only four worked below the crash area. Nobody who worked on the 58th floor or lower is known to have died.

Although the official death toll stayed above 4,000 until Nov. 19, the inaccuracy of the estimates became apparent just days after the attack. All major companies with employees in the towers estimated the number of missing and presumed dead within 48 hours of the attacks, and their estimates were far lower than police figures.

Morgan Stanley, the largest tenant in the World Trade Center, occupied 21 floors in the south tower between the 43rd and 74th floors. Of 2,500 employees who worked in the building, only six died, including three security officials who stayed to evacuate the building.

Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, the second-largest tenant, occupied 10 floors in the north tower between the 17th and 31st floors. All but nine of its 1,900 employees survived.

“The evacuation was a remarkable success story,” says Jake Pauls, a safety consultant who is the nation’s leading expert on stairway design and safety.

Design aided escape

That evacuation began on the drawing board.


The World Trade Center had an excellent stair system, much better than required by building codes — both when it was built 30 years ago and now. Each tower had three stairwells. New York City building codes require two.

Stairways A and C, on opposite sides of the building’s core, were 44 inches wide. In the center, Stairway B was 56 inches wide.

The bigger the stairway, the faster an evacuation can proceed. In 44-inch stairways, a person must turn sideways to let another pass — for example, a rescuer heading up. In a 56-inch stairway, two people can pass comfortably.

The World Trade Center stairwells allowed thousands to get out despite panic and smoke.

Lessons learned from terrorists

On Feb. 26, 1993, terrorists exploded a bomb in a parking garage under the north tower. Six people died. The evacuation took nearly four hours in dark, smoky, poorly marked stairwells. Some people were stuck in elevators for 10 hours. The Port Authority made crucial improvements after that attack. The changes saved countless lives on Sept. 11.

The Port Authority put reflective paint on stairs, railings and stairwell doors. It added bright arrows to guide people along corridors to stairway connections. It installed loudspeakers so building managers could talk to people in their offices as well as in hallways. It gave every disabled person an evacuation chair that would let two husky men carry them down stairs. One evacuation chair was used to carry a man down from the 67th floor.

In the 1993 attack, the explosion knocked out the main power source, its backup and the fire-control command post. The Port Authority added a second source of power for safety equipment, such as fire alarms, emergency lighting and intercoms. It built two duplicate fire command posts, one in each tower. The Port Authority also put batteries in stairwell lights so a power failure wouldn’t blacken the escape route. Overall, the improvements cost more than $90 million. Sprinklers, added before 1993, helped suppress fires.

Most important, building management took evacuations seriously. Evacuation drills were held every six months, sometimes to the irritation or amusement of occupants. Each floor had “fire wardens,” sometimes high-ranking executives of a tenant, and they were responsible for organizing an evacuation on their floors.

“They had done a great job,” says Brian Clark, a fire warden and executive vice president of Euro Brokers, located on the 84th floor of the south tower. “People knew where the stairs were.”

Not fully occupied

The World Trade Center was only half-full when the first jet struck. at 8:46 a.m. That took pressure off the stairwells.

Previous estimates of the number of people in each building ranged from 10,000 to 25,000. USA TODAY found that the actual number appears to have been between 5,000 and 7,000 per tower.

Many companies did head counts after the attack to determine how many employees had been in the buildings. Although a complete accounting is not possible, counts from more than 50 floors indicate the buildings were barely half full.

For example, Marsh & McLennan, an insurance company, had offices on the 93rd through 100th floors in the north tower. About 1,000 worked there; 295 were at work at the time. All died. Fred Alger Management, a money manager, occupied most of the 93rd floor. Thirty-five of 55 employees were in. They all died.

Only 25 of 55 employees were in the New York Metro Transportation Council’s 82nd floor office. Three died. The receptionist was the only person in the office at the 16-employee law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath on the 89th floor. She lived.

Several factors kept desks empty. Some people voted that morning in New York City’s mayoral primary. Others took children to the first day of school. Some were on sales calls or business trips. But the biggest factor was the early hour: Many simply hadn’t arrived by 8:46 a.m.

Many floors in the two 110-floor buildings were not occupied. Twelve floors in each tower were dedicated to mechanical equipment and a giant lobby.

In addition, dozens of Asian investment firms in the World Trade Center had closed their offices or cut employment sharply because of the recession in Asia.

Other offices were leased but empty or under renovation. The Atlantic Bank of New York had moved out of the 106th floor of the south tower in July but was still paying rent.

Tourists were sparse at 8:46 a.m., too. The observation deck, on the 107th floor of the south tower, wasn’t scheduled to open for another 45 minutes. Outside the buildings, the TKTS booth, which sold half-price tickets to Broadway shows, hadn’t opened either. Most stores in the World Trade Center’s busy underground shopping center were still shuttered. USA TODAY identified only one tourist who died.

Elevators: The quickest way out

Sixteen minutes, 28 seconds. That was the length of time between the first and second crashes. The fate of more than 2,000 people on the south tower’s upper floors was determined by what they did during that time. Most made the right decision: They left soon after the first jet hit the north tower.

The elevator system was the hero. Built by Otis Elevator and modernized in the 1990s, the World Trade Center’s elevator system was one of the biggest and fastest in the world. The 99 passenger elevators in the south tower moved several thousand people out of harm’s way before the second crash.

The elevators on the highest floors took people down to the 78th floor. In the 78th floor elevator lobby, people transferred to giant express elevators that sped to the ground in 45 seconds.

These room-sized express elevators held up to 55 people each. Every two minutes, a dozen express elevators could move 500 people from the 78th floor to the ground.

(Two giant express elevators ran non-stop from the ground to the 107th floor in each building, but they were not in service. The elevators went to the not-yet-open observation deck in the south tower and the Windows on the World restaurant in the north.)

The bottom wing of United Flight 175 ripped through the south tower’s 78th floor elevator lobby. The floor exploded in flames. Walls crumbled. More than 100 people lay dead or wounded from the initial impact.

AON Corp. senior vice president Judy Wein was thrown across the lobby and broke her arm. Her boss, who had been standing next to her, died. Another colleague’s legs were broken. “Goodbye, Judy, I love you,” he told Wein before he died, according to her first-person account in Ladies Home Journal.

“A man with a red handkerchief over his face seemed to appear out of nowhere and pointed to the stairs. ‘Anyone who can get up and walk, get up now,’ he urged the other people on the floor,” Wein wrote.

A small number, perhaps 10, escaped down Stairway A at the northwest corner of the building. If the jet had hit just 10 feet higher or had not tilted sharply at the last moment, the crowded elevator lobby would have escaped most of the carnage.

USA TODAY identified 76 people who worked below where the jets struck and died. Some victims were obese or frail, unable to finish the long walk down. Others were trapped in elevators. Some were just unlucky.

General Telecom, in an 83rd floor corner office in the north tower, suffered most. Everyone survived from the four other companies on the 83rd floor, 10 floors below the impact zone, but all 13 General Telecom workers in the office at the time perished.

After the crash, half the employees went through a kitchen and a telephone equipment room to reach an exit, General Telecom chief operating officer Bill Callahan said. The door was blocked by debris or jammed shut from the crash’s impact.

When the workers turned around, the kitchen ceiling collapsed, trapping them in a 15-by-15-foot equipment room. Others were trapped in another part of the office.

The employees were in communication with the outside world throughout, sending a pager message shortly before the collapse.

On the 64th floor, five to 10 Port Authority workers gathered in a security command post equipped with video cameras and communication equipment.

“They talked about what to do and felt safer staying put than leaving the building,” Port Authority spokesman Allen Morrison said. After the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., they tried to get out. They did not make it.

First Union, a bank, lost four employees who worked on the north tower’s 47th floor. One woman tired during the descent and stopped. Three men got outside but died when the south tower collapsed.

At Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, nine employees and two consultants died. Some deaths are understood: One man, for example, stayed on the 27th floor with a disabled friend; both died. Other deaths remain a mystery. “We suspect some were in elevators” when the plane hit, vice president Deborah Bohren said. “But we don’t really know.”

One survivor’s story

On the north tower’s 92nd floor, one floor below the crash, 69 employees from Carr Futures found themselves trapped. Most, perhaps all, survived the crash’s immediate impact. But, in phone calls to loved ones, the employees reported that the stairwells were impassable.

They crowded together in corner rooms as the floor filled with smoke. People appear to have lived until the building fell. By phone, a mother told her son that the south tower had collapsed.

One floor lower, on the 91st floor in the north tower, the story was different.

At the American Bureau of Shipping, George Sleigh and his co-workers counted heads after the crash: 11 of the 22 employees were in the office. All were unhurt. Other than Sleigh’s area, the office was remark- ably intact. Sleigh went back for his briefcase.

The closest stairway was blocked. The second was open. The status of the third was unknown. “It was quiet and peaceful at first” in the stairwell as the employees made their way out, Sleigh recalls. “Nobody was behind us.”

A few minutes later, Sleigh’s office was engulfed in flames. Fifty minutes after the crash, Sleigh was out of the building.

Bruised, bloodied, covered in dust, separated from his colleagues, he was loaded into an ambulance. A police officer shouted: “Get out! Get out! The building is coming down!”

The south tower was collapsing. It was 9:59 a.m. The north tower’s highest survivor was on his way to Beth Israel Hospital.

“Sometimes, I think it was God’s providence that spared me,” Sleigh said. “Other times, I wonder why me and not others. I realize I am a very fortunate man.”

Contributing: Cheryl Phillips, Barbara Hansen, Anthony DeBarros and Paul Overberg

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