ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, just a few minutes after the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, a police helicopter pilot circling the remaining tower reported that the top 15 floors were “glowing red” and said he believed the building would soon implode. Four minutes later, another helicopter pilot also warned that he didn’t think the second tower could last much longer. Most of the police officers in the North Tower heard those warnings and were able to evacuate. But that information never reached firefighters, for a simple reason: Radio systems for the Fire Department, the Police Department, and the Port Authority Police were all incompatible with each other.
And not only could firefighters and police not hear each other; due to technical problems that day, the Fire Department radios, in particular, had very limited range. “As soon as they went five or ten floors up in the buildings, they couldn’t talk to each other,” recalls Chuck Dowd, who was the head of New York’s 911 call center. It got so bad that Dowd says he heard at least one fire lieutenant call 911—instead of using his own radio system—to report that a firefighter was in cardiac arrest and needed immediate help.
One of the fire chiefs in the lobby of the North Tower sent out his own evacuation order after the first tower fell. Some of the firefighters heard the order and were able to escape. Others refused to leave because they were helping injured civilians or fellow firefighters. But, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, firefighters on higher floors never got the message. One fire chief had to resort to using his bullhorn to relay the order, running between stairwells and shouting, “All FDNY, get the fuck out!”