Sunday, September 10, 2006

Highrise Security and our post 9-11 reality

I live in the countryside now; I'm a country boy at heart. Even so, I have spent most of my adult life living in cities, working in highrise buildings. And for most of that time, I worked in highrise security.

It wasn't something I planned. When I dropped out of college in Boston, I got a job as a hospital security guard. When I moved to San Francisco, I discovered that in security work, speaking English and bothering to show up for work were considered job skills. Many people in San Francisco were too snobby to do that kind of work, so there were always jobs available. It was my work history, and it paid well, so I ended up doing it for 12 years.

For three of those years, I was a "float" guard; I filled in at various places. I got to work all over the city, in office buildings, corporate headquarters, hospitals, condominiums, museums, retail complexes, hotels, parties, conventions, radio and TV stations. It was a great way to get to know the city, and meet lots of people.

Eventually I was given a permanent assignment, at a multi-tenant 20 story office block on Montgomery Steet (the Wall Street of the West). I started off on night shift and worked my way up to day shift supervisor, Sergeant/Lead Officer. By then I also was publishing a monthly newsletter for the building, too.

An office building can be like a little community; each office is pursuing their own business interests, but they are all neighbors in a common neighborhood. The newsletter was about local items of interest, like free lunchtime concerts, lobby art exibits, for sale ads and wanted ads, coupons for local restaurants, space for rent, security tips, recipies, horoscopes, etc.

The newsletter would also cover the annual life-safety seminars the building management conducted every year, to familiarise tenants with safety procedures in the event of any emergencies, such as fires or earthquakes, etc. Part of the seminar would involve emergency relocation drills, where I was required to get on the public address system and instruct the tenants where to relocate, as directed by the fire department.

After 7 years I left that job to take a new job with one of the tenants in the building, at a law firm that sublet some of it's offices as executive suites. I continued to do the newsletter for the building management, and I was also still involved with building security, this time from the tenants point of view. I was one of two people designated as an emergency floor warden for the 19th floor. I had to attend the annual life-safety seminars, and it was my job to make sure everyone knew were the exits were, and that in an emergency everyone on our floor got out if needed, or otherwise knew what to do.

During the life safety seminars, the tenants could ask questions. Often someone would ask, what would happen if an airplane hit the building? The answer depended on the size of the airplane. A large airliner like a 747, hitting a building of our size (20 stories) would probably precipitate the collapse of the building. But since we were in a no-fly zone, it was considered extremly unlikely to happen, an no one worried about it too much. It was the 1990's, and nobody believed anyone would be crazy enough to do what the 9-11 killers did eventually do.

I left the lawfirm after 5 years to start my own business, a restuarant, with my two partners. That is the business I was in, when 9-11 happened.

It was unbelievable to me. Having grown up in Connecticut, I'd been to NYC several times, for school field trips (broadway shows, the Guggenheim), I even went to a Star Trek convention once, where I met up with a penpal from NJ.

On my last visit to NYC before moving to California, I went with a college friend who was from Stuyvesanttown. His family kindly showed me around, including a visit to the WTC. I had an 8mm movie camera, and still have the footage I took; a beautiful summer afternoon; many workers out on the plaza, sitting on the edge of the fountain pool, eating lunch and reading or just enjoying the scene.

Watching the 9-11 destruction was devastating. I had worked with the SF Fire Department dealing with some small fires, so I had a good idea of what the NYC Fire Department was trying to do.

When the SF earthquake happend in 1989, I had to walk up 20 flights of stairs while the power was out. I slowly walked up to the top, without stopping. I took my time, and carried nothing heavy. By the time I got to the top, I was completely winded; my feet were numb, my knees shook. I could imagine what it was like for those NYC fireman, walking up 60, 70, 80 flights of stairs, in crowded, smoke-filled stairways, wearing heavy coats and carrying heavy equipment. And then, when they got to the fire, what they found there...

I had learned all kinds of things about the dynamics of fires in office buildings, how they spread, and ways to fight and contain them. But burning jet fuel high up in a broken building... is a nightmare that breaks all the rules.

And the people jumping to their deaths... is not unfamiliar to me. At one of the office buildings I had worked at, there were luxury condominiums on the top floors, with balconies. One night, an old woman in her 90's, who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decided to end it all. At 2:am, she jumped off the balcony of her daughter's 23rd floor condo.

She hit the ground with such force, that it broke the white marble sidewalk. Everything burst like an explosion. Emergency services picked up the largest chunks with a shovel. The day janitor had to be called in early, to hose down the sidewalk and the building front, to wash the blood and the smaller bits into the gutter. I've got a pretty good idea of what happens to a human being who jumps off a highrise building, it's not an abstract concept for me.

I also have a fear of heights. Working in highrises, I just had to deal with it, and avoid situations of being too near to the open edge of anything as much as possible. Things like a wall-to-ceiling window on a 35th floor were a nightmare; I just made sure I didn't stand too close, or look straight down. It was scary that there was nothing but glass between you and the abyss, but at least the glass was there.

I spent 12 years of my life learning about, and working to, keep people safe in highrise buildings. A great deal of care and thought has gone into designing buildings and security and safety systems to acomplish this.

In 9-11, the magnitude of the attack simply broke through all that, literally. It was also the suprise of the attack; people in the 2nd tower were told to stay there. That is standard procedure in a fire emergency; the authorities don't want people milling about in the way. No one yet understood that the 1st plane wasn't an accident, but an attack, and that a second was on it's way. So even more people died.

That was understandable then; but now we know. Yet today some people still can't see that a "second plane" is still coming; they are clinging to a 9-10 world that no longer exists.

Someone made a post on Free Republic called "What it was like to jump from the World Trade Center". Reactions to it were mixed; some felt that it was needed to "never forget", and to galvanise our resolve in the WOT. Others felt it was morbid and in bad taste.

I think it was ALL of those things. Murdering people in terrorist acts is morbid and in the worst bad taste possible. I would certainly rather spend my time occupied with other things. But ignoring and not dealing with these things is precisely what led up to 9-11. If we continue living in a 9-10 world, what will come next? If we can't look at the ugly truth, how are we going to respond to it effectively?

The future belongs to survivors. And survivors are survivors, because they learn and adapt. They do that by facing things they way they are, and then proceeding to deal with it.

I don't show these ugly, horrible photos because I like them or that I like morbidity. I show them because I want to stop it. I want us all to face reality the way it IS, and pull together to stop it.

People didn't jump from the towers because they "gave up hope"; the heat and flames FORCED them to jump. Burning jet fuel in a broken office building, with no escape. That's the ugly reality.

Let's make sure it doesn't happen again. It's time to adapt or die.

Related Links:

What could be more upsetting? Seriously?
Sorry, more terrible photos. If it makes you angry, I suggest directing your disapproval at the PEOPLE WHO CAUSED IT.

The Path to 9/11 Update
LMC has a great post about the controversy surrounding the docu-drama.


Porta's Cat said...

thanks, Chas.

Chas said...

This was a very difficult post to do. The photos, it's like watching your worst nightmare come true; and seeing everything I ever learned about highrise safety and security rendered useless.

And the falling people... I hate calling them "jumpers", as I doubt any of them had a choice. I've seen even worse pictures than these, of burned and burning people falling.

Some people were accidently pushed out, as people behind them struggled to get to the windows for air. Some of the people tried to make parachutes out of table cloths and drapes. The force of air as they fell ripped those from their hands.

It's estimated that they struck the ground at a speed of about 150 mph. On average each fall lasted for 10 seconds.

"Jumping" implys and act of will, yet I'm sure none of these people CHOSE this.

As horriffic as it is to see it, there is a need to bear witness to what they suffered. To turn away is to not acknowlege that it did happen... leaving the door open for it to happen yet again. To close that door, we have to face the truth first, because if we don't, nothing we do in response will be right.

As Michelle Malkin says, "there should be no flinching today".

Jonibobs said...

Thank You, This answered most of my questions I have been curious to know, the main one being, "would I of jumped", backed into a corner no way out and the last conscious decision you`l ever make is to jump or burn, jump or burn, Im afraid I would of jumped.
If you have ever burned or scolded yourself in any way even with a match, lighter, or boiling water you will know there's no greater pain, and Id be clinging on to the fact that I once read about a guy who jumped off the 40th floor of a building only to be blown back in by a freak gust of wind a few floors down, then there's story's of people who jumped out of planes who`s parachutes failed yet they hit the ground and lived. Even though it be a chance in a million Id take it, luckily enough at that time I wouldn't of read your statistics on speed length of time falling and power of impact.

Im sure some people did make a conscious decision to jump, I do agree there must of been just as many who had it forced on them by the need of air, being pushed, or the instinct to flee danger. While we can only imagine the horror of it all, the reality must of been ten times worse.

RIP, We will remember you always.