WORLD TRADE CENTER BOMBING
On February 26, 1993, an explosion occurred in the World Trade Center. The explosion caused six deaths, 1042 injuries, and nearly $600 million in property damage. Two ATF National Response
Teams (NRT) responded to assist the NNew York City Police Department and the FBI in the investigation. Also assisting in the investigation were the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Customs
Service, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the New York and New Jersey State Police. An IRT member working with
a New York City Police Department Bomb Squad investigator uncovered the key piece of evidence. Uncovered was a vehicle identification number from a van that had been rented but reported stolen the
day prior to the explosion. Their recovery ultimately led to the identification and indictment of seven co-conspirators, four of whom have been prosecuted. The evidence linked the defendants to the
purchase of chemicals and hydrogen tanks used to manufacture the bomb, to the rental of the shed to warehouse the chemicals and later the bomb, and the rental of the van that contained the bomb.
1993 Explosives Incident Report, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fireams
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The heroism that was displayed by both the police officers of the NYPD and the firefighters of the
FDNY during the rescue of thousands of trapped employees in the World Trade Center has been documented by journalists and the media. This cowardly attack on the innocent people of the City of
New York will be written about for many years. There were thousands of individual acts of bravery that went unrecognized in the confusion and terror of that day. What follows is a bird's-eye view of
some of the events of that day in the eyes of the Commanding Officer of the NYPD Aviation Unit, Captain William Wilkens, NYPD (retired):
OK, I know a lot of people think being the Commanding Officer (C.O.) of the New York City Police Departments Aviation Unit (AU) is a great job (it is), but there are pitfalls. Now that I am retired I
can, for the first time, relate some of these:
My first indication that this was not going to be a nice quiet day came via the car radio as the local news station reported a possible explosion at the World Trade Center, at first thought to be a
transformer malfunction. As I continued driving, more information was coming in: 1) it was in fact an explosion, possibly a serious one, 2) there was a report of injuries, 3) they were considering evacuating
the building, but there was still no indication of the severity of the blast. I still felt confident that my plans would hold as it was definitely not a VFR day (visual flight rules) which would allow a response
by the AU to the canyons of Manhattan.
The weather was nasty. Bitter cold, snow flurries, windy with a low ceiling and bad visibility. Typical
February day. Definitely not a day for flying. There was no doubt in my mind that my command, the NYPD Aviation Unit, would spend a nice quiet day on the ground. I prepared to enjoy my day off
and thought I would surprise my son, Bill, who was a sophomore in high school, by picking him up at school and taking him to lunch.
Suddenly, the announcer switched to a traffic reporter airborne over the New Jersey shoreline
opposite the WTC. His report sent my heart into my mouth and my car into a hard U turn (my time in Highway Patrol as a Sgt paying off) when he said " I am watching what appears to be an NYPD
helicopter circle the building flying in and out of the clouds and the heavy smoke coming from the WTC. It now appears that he is going to attempt to land on the roof of the WTC."
Let's not panic, yet. I'm thinking it will probably turn into a big nothing like these "high rise fire"
responses usually do. Still, my 80 Chevy was reaching limits it shouldn't have to on that trip home. As I opened my front door the phone was ringing, (I'm beginning to fear the explosion is a real
disaster) and I raced to answer. The Aviation Operations Officer rapidly brought me up to date on
what was, unfortunately rapidly developing into "the big one." "Cap, initial information is that there are thousands of people trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade Center which has been
subjected to a major explosion, probably terrorist related, knocking out all power to the entire building." The biggest problem was that no one knew if that was the only bomb or if there were
others waiting to go off.
It was around 12 noon, and my day off was over. My first problem was getting to the WTC. All
streets in downtown were rapidly clogging with emergency vehicle traffic. I knew my trip from Staten Island would bog down probably as early as the Gowanus Parkway in Brooklyn. One big advantage to
being the Commanding Officer of the Aviation unit was that there was another means of transportation available. I told the O.O. "No lost time, hold the 2nd platoon, call in as many pilots as
you can raise and get me a helicopter to our emergency pick up LZ (landing zone) on Staten Island ASAP." I got down there as quickly as possible and was airborne for the WTC in less than 15 minutes.
The first helicopter to arrive at the WTC was one of our smaller, patrol class ships, which scouted out
the situation, designated a possible L/Z (landing zone) and suggested putting the "high rise fire plan" in effect. Immediately, one of our big twin-engine rescue helicopters manned by two pilots and a crew
chief in the back lifted out of Floyd Bennett field with the Emergency Service Officers whose job it would be to rappel onto the roof if necessary.
When the twin towers were built there were small helipads set aside on both towers. However, over the
years, antennae farms had developed on the rooftops making the pads almost useless. The pad on Tower #2 was in the center and on Tower #1 it was on a corner of the roof. Since #1
was the building most in danger the pilot was evaluating the possibility of landing on its pad. It quickly became apparent that there was no way of landing on the pad with all the antennas in place.
The Aviation unit and the Emergency Service Unit had anticipated this problem and we trained over the years for just such a situation. In
numerous "high rise fire drills" and semi annual training at camp Smith, rappelling was always a staple of the training. As the pilot hovered at 1500 ft, far above what resembled a war zone, with dozens of
Police, Fire and EMS vehicles and hundreds of rescue personnel sifting through the debris in the crater
at ground level, the E.S.U. Officers prepared to put their rappel training to it's first real battle use. Of
all times to do a high-rise rappel, we had to be doing it on to one of the tallest buildings in the world! Miraculously, the ceiling had lifted and the snow had let up allowing the pilot to authorize the rappel.
As the helicopter hovered, the ESU Officers looked out the open door on 1500 ft of air. They put their lives in the hands of the pilot and crew chief and exited the aircraft. As the pilot fought the
winds to keep the ship as stable a platform as possible, the Officers slid down ropes they prayed would hold to a small, unrailed corner of the roof. Unlike our training to drop to a 20' high rappel
platform, the ESU Officers dropped to their target, this time 1500ft high! Once on the roof they cleared the obstructions around the helipad giving the helicopter enough space to land.
Shortly after my arrival at the scene I was advised that there were about 200 people on the roof of Tower #2 trapped and in need of removal by helicopter. We then put out a request for additional
helicopters both Police and commercial to assist us in what was shaping up to be the worst high-rise fire disaster in a generation. The helicopter fleet at the scene quickly grew to four NYPD ships, one
from Nassau PD, one from Suffolk County PD, a Port Authority ship and a private commercial heli as well. Fortunately, the 200 people initially stranded on the observation tower were able to get down
inside the building preventing what would have been a very dangerous airlift.
So, now we were in business. We had a clear pad and were ready for action. Meanwhile, Highway Patrol commandeered a large parking lot for Aviation to use as a base of operations with room for
numerous helicopters to land, bring in the injured and take up more rescue personnel to the rooftops. Although the L/Z was very large and clear, it had one drawback: it was frozen solid with a 2" layer of
ice on top of the entire area from a previous rainstorm and subsequent freeze. This made for some unanticipated "run on landings" for the helicopters and made the crew chiefs job assisting the rescued
civilians off, and the rescue crews on the aircraft very difficult.
The first flights brought several ESU Officers to the roof to control the pad and prevent anyone who
might make it to the roof on their own from endangering him or herself or the helicopter. Floor-by-floor ESU began assessing damage and assisting those in need to the roof for removal by the
helicopters. Next, we transported several elevator mechanics to the roof in an attempt to get the elevators running again.
Since most of the EMS personnel were busy at "ground zero" tending to
multiple injured at the WTC street level we had to kidnap a passing ambulance to stand by for "incoming medevacs." However, there was a problem. It was bitter cold at the L/Z,
there was no sheltered site within blocks , and we knew we would be bringing in multiple cases in need of medical care on each flight. Since there were a couple of Highway Patrol
Officers at our location assisting us I asked one to "get me a bus , as clean as possible, anyway you can." As
usual, Highway came through big time. Within 15 minutes we had a brand new NYC Transit Authority bus with a great heater on site complete with a driver who had no idea what he was doing
there and since he was at the end of his shift and going on overtime was happy to help anyway he could. This bus became our "emergency triage area" giving the EMS personnel a warm, somewhat
comfortable area to treat the incoming injured while awaiting the few available ambulances.
Shortly thereafter the first helicopter bringing in injured civilians landed at the L/Z. The first aided out
of the helicopter was a pregnant woman who was obviously in great difficulty . Although not thrilled with having her first helicopter ride under these conditions she knew she could never have attempted
the 110 flights of stairs. After a quick evaluation by EMS she was put on another helicopter and airlifted to a nearby hospital where she gave birth soon after. She later thanked the Aviation Unit on a
television magazine show for assisting her to have a normal, safe delivery in the hospital.
And so it went. Helicopters landing with people from the WTC, unloading and returning to the
rooftops (by now both WTC Towers were being utilized) with Police and EMS rescue personnel. Although our "Joint High Rise Fire Plan" which we had trained for with the FD, called for firefighters
to respond to the L/Z and be airlifted to the roof, the FD had committed their personnel to ground level entry. There were many surprised and exhausted Firefighters who, after climbing up 80 flights,
were met by fresh Police rescue teams coming down the stairs.
Later in the evening, after darkness set in and power was gradually being restored to Towers #1 and 2, I was approached by a high-ranking Member of the Service. He said that the "Chief" wanted Aviation
to fly Police Officers from the Task Force (TF) to the roof so they could "sweep" each floor. My initial response was positive and I awaited what I thought would be a rescue group of 10-15 TF
Officers. Shortly thereafter, I was tapped on the shoulder by a ranking Officer from the TF. When I turned, I was shocked to see a group of 150-200 Task Force Cops lined up for what seemed like a
block. This would have called for 15-20 additional landings in total darkness, in a far less than desirable area, blinded by the lower level lights, and after the real emergency was already over. I
thought this a bad idea and I said so. I was immediately directed to the "Chief" to explain my reservations. His response was "Captain, (he declined to call me by name even though we worked
together before) you're the CO of Aviation, if you don't think it's safe, don't do it." I didn't. This decision would have a major negative impact on my career in the future.
Nevertheless, the Aviation unit did a fantastic job; 40 landings bringing 125 emergency personnel to the rooftops (a really great feat on miniscule pads) and 135 people removed to safety. Fifteen hours
later, as I flew back to the Aviation hanger for our after briefing and critique, I was extremely proud to be the Commanding Officer of the Aviation Unit.
The next day a critic, who shall remain nameless, made allegations that the Aviation Unit had acted "recklessly" landing on the rooftops of the Towers. This was picked up by the media and was
plastered across the front page of most major NYC papers. The headlines were accompanied by photos, taken from ground level, of one of our rescue helicopters landing on the corner of Tower #1.
To the untrained eye, landing a helicopter on a small pad on the top of a 1500 ft high building may seem a risky venture but I can assure you the Aviation Unit never took unnecessary risks. This was
the type of mission the pilots, crew chiefs and ESU Officers had spent hundreds of hours training for. Every flight done for the duration of the WTC disaster was done 1) only if needed, 2) at the total
discretion of the PIC (pilot in command) 3) with final approval of every flight being my difficult decision. Each flight was evaluated taking into consideration visibility, wind, light conditions and of
Although the WTC disaster was our biggest rescue effort ever and will certainly remain as one of the
most challenging assignments in the history of Police Aviation it wasn't the last major effort of 1993 for the AU. Soon after we would once again battle the elements and the darkness attempting to locate
and rescue several hundred illegal immigrants whose ship (the "Golden Venture") had run aground on the beaches of Rockaway. 1993 was a banner year for the AU. In addition to numerous rescue
operations, we had a new high in hours flown, more arrest assists and a sizable decrease in down time for maintenance thanks to a superb effort by our maintenance staff (all sworn personnel, unique in
In recognition of our achievements that
year the unit received the Police Departments highly coveted "Unit Citation" for 1993 and was the recipient of the first Chase Manhattan Banks award for heroism. As the song goes "It
was a very good year."
Copyright © 2000 William Wilkens
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