High Rise Evacuation Expert
Questions 9-11 Death Toll
by William Thomas
Saddened that so many families lost loved ones in the destruction of the World Trade Center,
a Canadian expert in evacuating high-rise buildings nevertheless questions why there were not many more casualties from the
Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
In his capacity as government consultant on fire safety and physical security in government
buildings faced with fire or bomb threats, Eamonn O'Brien journeyed to San Paulo, Brazil in 1972 to examine the aftermath
of the largest high-rise fire in the world up to that time. In at least one stairwell O'Brien reports, "people were
Initial televised reports from Manhattan estimated early casualty figures from the two aircraft
strikes on the Twin Towers at 22,000 dead. In the week's following attacks that stunned the world, the World Trade Center
death toll was steadily revised downward to a final official figure around 3,300 fatalities.
O'Brien says the number of exits and the volume of people, including disabled, per floor
would determine the maximum number of evacuees in a given amount of time.
"Remember," says O'Brien, " at the first alarm, the automatic elevators would have been shut
down." Looking at official occupancy figures, O'Brien says there should have been 38,500 people in both Trade Towers by 8:30
that morning. That early, he adds, there would have been at least 10 percent additional visitors in those buildings for a
total occupancy he estimates around 41,000 people. This figure does not include the thousands of tourists and New Yorkers
exposed to flying glass on the streets directly below.
In Ottawa, O'Brien was in charge of evacuation procedures for a five-building government
complex. Occupied by 27,500 people, the tallest building in Place du Portage is less than 25 stories tall. One Wednesday afternoon
in the late 1970s, O'Brien pulled the fire alarm to all five buildings without prior warning.
Though he had permission from his superiors to conduct a snap drill, O'Brien did not inform
them in advance of the test. Instead, he quietly notified all disabled persons to clear the buildings 20 minutes before he
pulled the alarm. They did so without attracting attention.
"We didn't even notify the fire department," O'Brien says. "When we want to test the system
we don't tell anybody." Instead, fire safety staff members inconspicuously placed on every floor monitored the drill, which
O'Brien directed from a nearby security personnel control center.
"With no smoke, no fire," O'Brien recounts, "it took 48 minutes to evacuate buildings one-third
the size with one-third the number of stairwells available as the World Trade Center."
Struck by a jumbo jet at 9:06 am with an impact explosion estimated to be the equivalent
of 480,000 pounds of TNT, the south tower of the WTC collapsed within 40 minutes. Though the north tower had been hit 20 minutes
before, evacuation of its "twin" adjacent tower was delayed by a security message urging everyone to return to their desks.
There was also a natural reluctance to run out into streets exposed to a blizzard of broken glass.
"The walls of those buildings were glass," O'Brien recounts. "A penny falling from 50 stories
can kill. A large pane of glass can cut a car in half."
A Morgan Stanley executive was in the foyer on the 44th floor near the express elevator of
the South Tower (Two) when Security came over the loudspeaker. "Remain calm, damage is in Tower One. We appear to be
okay."Everyone was joking, he recalls, repeating the word, "appear" when the second plane hit his building.
"We heard the engines of the plane and felt the shock after it hit. But there was no urgency,
even though the building continued to shake for five minutes afterwards," Dr. Alan Sokotow remembers. "I only first started
to get nervous when we could begin to smell jet fuel in the air conditioning ducts."
Based on his findings in San Paulo and his experience in Ottawa, O'Brien says of the Manhattan
terror attacks, "There should have been eleven-and-a-half to 16,000 dead for that occupancy, the size of the towers, the damage
incurred, and the response."
He should know. O'Brien worked on a committee responsible for drafting the procedures currently
in place for evacuating high-rise buildings across Canada. He says that on the morning of the attacks, the World Trade Center
must have been "less than 30 percent occupied." Yet those buildings housed global financial trade centers. There is no way,
O'Brien says, those buildings happened to be largely unoccupied by a "slow day" at work. He pauses. "Those sons of bitches
Somebody knew of the attacks in advance. In 1974, after the first FBI-assisted bombing of
the World Trade Center, the head of the FBI's Anti-Terror Division promised Congress that corporations would be notified if
any terror threats to their employees or buildings were received by the FBI.
On Aug. 28, the FAA sent a warning to airlines and airports that passengers with links to
terror networks intended to fly on U.S. airlines. Also that week, a Pakistani student at Brooklyn's New Utrecht High School
pointed at the Twin Towers during a heated political argument and declared, "Look at those two buildings. They won't be here
Several days before the attack, a Jersey City student of Middle Eastern origins also warned
classmates not to travel into lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11. Members of a Bronx mosque were also warned
to stay out of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11.
Corporations and U.S. federal departments were also tipped by a "worldwide warning"
issued by the State Department. A copy of the Sept. 7 memo received by former Secretary of State George Schultz at his San
Francisco office warned that Americans "may be the target of a terrorist threat [from] extremist groups with links to Osama
bin Laden's al Qaeda organization".
An even more timely bulletin reached airports, where at least one prestigious passenger was
warned off. When San Francisco's mayor called on Sept. 10 to check the status
of a flight he was planning to take into New York the following day, a return call from a person Willie
as an "airport security man", told him to be "extra cautious about air travel" on Sept. 11.
In Tokyo the day before Sept. 11, the giant Goldman Sachs investment firm circulated a memo
advising employees to avoid government buildings because of a possible terrorist attack. Goldman Sachs was the second biggest
tenant in the World Trade Center, occupying some 22 floors. On Sept. 11, a Goldman Sachs vice-president decided to take the
day off to go surfing. The firm suffered only 17 casualties.
Morgan Stanley, the World Trade Center's biggest tenant, reportedly lost none of its 3,500
employees spread over some 50 floors. Neither did Oppenheimer Funds. SEC officials are still probing why Morgan Stanley, with
a daily average of 27 "put" contracts betting on the movement of its share prices, saw 2,157 "put" options purchased three
days before "Black Tuesday". These financial futures contracts bet the company's stock would fall by October. Benefiting from
advance knowledge of the WTC attacks, their purchasers stood to make at least $1.2 million.
If thousands of employees were sent to seminars or on spurious errands, or asked to stay
home why have no survivors spoken up? "If you and I were friends, and you died and I didn't, it would be difficult for me
to come forward," O'Brien observes.
Photographs taken in the stairwells during evacuation of the World Trade Center show stunned
office workers exiting in an orderly single-file, leaving room for firefighters hauling bulky equipment past them up the stairs.
At least 350 firefighters and emergency response personnel died in the sudden collapse of the Twin Trade Towers. Each of New
York city's tallest office buildings came down in 15 seconds.
Eamonn O'Brien shakes his head. "There is no way only 3,300 people died if those buildings
have been fully occupied," he says.
The former security expert is haunted by a scene in the movie "Independence Day," which shows
an alien spacecraft blowing up a big building. A huge dustball rushes down the street as panicked people run toward the camera.
"It's the same street," says O'Brien. "The same street as the WTC."
Excerpted from "All Fall Down: The Politics of Terror and Mass Persuasion," and interviews
with Eamonn O'Brien.