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26 November 2001



TO:                 Chief, US Army Corps of Engineers


FROM:           LTC John Lock


SUBJECT:      Lessons Learned from the First Four Days of the 11 September 2001 World Trade Center Terrorist Attack


The following comments are offered based on personal observations and involvement in and around ‘Ground Zero’ of the World Trade Center during the first four days of that event while leading the first Federal Damage Assessment Response Team into Ground Zero and, subsequently, joining the rescuers as an “off-duty service member acting in a private capacity” [on leave] on site in search of potential survivors or remains.


TOPIC 1: Initial Military Role during a Catastrophic Natural or Terrorist Event


DISCUSSION:  Within 24 hours of the terrorist attack against the WTC, a Federal Damage Assessment Response Team worked its way towards Ground Zero in an attempt to locate and coordinate with a centralized command and control organization.  Unfortunately, as a result of the destruction and subsequent collapse of WTC7, New York City’s Emergency Operation Management primary facility had ceased to exist from the initial hour of the attack.  Command and control was further eviscerated when senior fire marshals were killed during the collapse of Tower 1.  A lengthily reconnaissance of the area found the three primary functionalities scattered…the NYPD’s command post located at PS 189 on Chambers and West, the city’s mobile emergency operations center along West Street, and the NYFD’s Field Control at Vesey and West, each unaware of the other’s location.  Furthermore, only the Fire Department’s Field Control site was manned with senior officers who were cognizant of the situation…the other two site’s were primarily manned by ‘clerks’ who only answered the phone.


Along the perimeter, debris removal operations ebbed and flowed, seemingly divided into four uncoordinated sectors with a vast degree of efficiency separating each quadrant.  Within and on ‘the pile,’ itself, there was no organized plan.  Had there actually been survivors within the area of destruction, they most likely would have died prior to searchers finding them in a timely manner.  Companies of firefighters reinforced by NYPD and other volunteers rotated in and out of the area with no briefings or any idea of where they were to go or what they were to do…other than pick an area and begin digging/searching.  No communications or signaling protocol was established which led to a great deal of confusion at times when listening halts were called or directives were issued to leave the pile quickly…generally as a mob believing that they were running for their lives.


Based upon personal observations and feedback conveyed by others, a ‘positive’ command and control of the entire Ground Zero location did not seem to take affect until 48-72 hours following the attack.


Such a delay in establishing an overall coordinated effort need not have been the case had members of the US Armed Forces been authorized to actively participate early on.  Within hours, a US Army Corps of Engineers Division Commander and District Commander were on site.  In support, each had a functional senior staff, in addition to two lieutenant colonels.  Unfortunately, despite the wealth of experience of being trained in the ‘management’ of chaos and given the significant resources available, there was no effort…based upon previous legal and regulative interpretations of current law…to employ them.


The military are trained and prepared for such catastrophic events…be they natural or man-made.  Unfortunately, DOD agencies appear to hesitantly act, out of either misunderstanding or fear of the application of the Posse Comitatus Act (PCA).  The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 was passed by Congress to outlaw the use of federal troops for civilian law enforcement.  The law makes it a felony to willfully use “any part of the Army [and Air Force]…to execute the laws” except where expressly authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress.  The Department of Defense has extended by regulation the PCA’s prohibitions to the Navy and the Marine Corps.  In the nearly 120 years that the PCA has been in effect, there have been no criminal prosecutions under the Act and thus there is an absence of judicial interpretation that has left the parameters of the PCA substantially untested.


However, the PCA does not prevent military assistance in what have been deemed national emergencies…such as disaster relief.  Disaster relief should not be perceived as violating the PCA because disaster relief is not a mission executing the laws…unless one considers a terrorist site a ‘crime scene.’  In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Army led the effort to put out fires and to restore order.  More recently, Hurricane Hugo in Florida resulted in a large military presence during the relief effort.


Additionally, there is a Constitutional exception to the PCA as described by the Department of Defense regulations [DOD DIR 5525.5, supra note 68, encl. 4, Para A(2)(c), at 4-2] based upon the “inherent right of the U.S. Government…to ensure the preservation of public order and to carry out governmental operations…by force, if necessary.”  The Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice has promulgated a similar view, as did now Chief Justice William Rehnquist [Memorandum to Robert E. Jordan III, General Counsel, US Department of the Army, dated 11 May 1970, ref Authority to Use Troops to Protect Federal Functions…] while he was an attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel.


These observations and comments are not meant to denigrate NYC’s response in any manner, way, or form.  Overall, few nations, much less a city, could have responded as heroically as the ‘Big Apple’ did during those initial cataclysmic days.  There was, nonetheless, room for improvement and that improvement could have been provided by elements of the US Armed Forces.  Within the first 24 hours, a command and control element led by those Corps of Engineer officers on the ground could have:


  • Centralized city, fire, and police control centers at a singular location.

  • Established and coordinated ‘commanders’ within grid areas to supervise all operations within those areas.

  • Coordinated and initiated aerial reconnaissance of Federal assets (aircraft, satellite) to obtain a visual ‘map’ of the overall destruction.

  • Employed reconnaissance products to establish a coordinated search pattern within the pile.

  • Developed and implemented a Search & Rescue briefing to be delivered to all prior to movement into ‘Ground Zero’…to include safety, issuance of safety equipment (such as was available), where to search, communications, emergency signals and actions, employment of heavy equipment, where to place removed debris.

  • Developed and implemented a debris removal plan along the Ground Zero perimeter…to include a traffic management program.

  • Developed and implemented a site security plan.


The Armed Forces of the United States are an invaluable resource depended upon in times of trouble by the citizens of this nation.  During times of emergency, the US military should not be forced to stand by on the sidelines, handcuffed by administrative and bureaucratic regulations and perceived legalities, when time is of the essence.




  1. The Department of Defense needs to review the relevance of the Posse Comitatus Act and seek a legal reevaluation of the Act’s applicability during times of natural and man-made emergencies.

  2. Review as part of the Homeland Defense initiative the US Armed Force’s role in this ‘war against terrorism’…particularly in response to a terrorist attack.

  3. Seek legislative reaffirmation of the fundamental principle behind the PCA with added guidelines that focus on PCA exceptions regarding non law-enforcement missions.  The exceptions should meet the following criteria:

  • The military’s use must be triggered by an emergency, which is defined as any occasion or instance for which Federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe…generally a sudden and unexpected event.

  • The military’s use must be beyond the capabilities of civilian authorities

  • The military’s use must be one limited in duration and not one that addresses a chronic, continuing issue or problem.

  1. Develop and establish MOAs/MOUs between Corps Districts/military installations and state/city governments.  Address within the document the nature of the emergency, type of resources, command and control provided, and duration of military involvement.


TOPIC 2:  Leadership of Initial USACE Specialty Teams


DISCUSSION:  Within 24 hours of the attack, a four-man USACE Damage Assessment Response Team arrived to provide FEMA with feedback regarding Federal assistance.  Given the chaos of the site following the terrorist attack, city agencies…EOM, NYFD, NYPD…were scattered about.  It took assertive actions on the part of a uniformed US Army LTC to work through the devastation and confusion to identify and to locate senior city leaders who could be of assistance in a timely manner.  During times of turmoil, senior rank on the uniform of an aggressive Army officer open doors and obtain answers that would, otherwise, remain closed or unanswered.


RECOMMENDATION:  While GS personnel are most certainly competent and efficient within their own area of expertise, they are not, necessarily aggressive leaders when and where it counts the most…in an area ruled by anarchy.  USACE Specialty Teams, particularly those establishing initial contact must be led by an aggressive, uniformed field grade officer during initial reconnaissance or coordinative efforts.


TOPIC 3:  Composition of USACE Specialty Teams


DISCUSSION: During the USACE Damage Assessment Response Team’s initial assessment, the NYFD requested assistance in evaluating the structural damage to a building that was burning.  One team member was released to assist and evaluate…leaving us with a three man team and no other structural engineering expert.  Later, assessments needed to be made on 1 Liberty Plaza, a 60-story skyscraper that towered over the WTC site and which appeared to have been damaged during the collapse of the southern Tower 2.


RECOMMENDATION:  In the event of catastrophic events, USACE must make an initial assessment to determine what ‘subject matter experts’ may be quickly needed on site and ensure that they begin initial deployment to the disaster site ASAP.  In this case, or any future events involving large buildings or edifices, additional structural engineers would have been of great…and timely…assistance.


TOPIC 4:  Emergency Tools


DISCUSSION:  Perhaps the most sought after tool on ‘the pile’ was the military entrenching tool.  Those searchers who had such a tool refused to release them and those who did not have one, sought them from those of us in uniform.  Other than the e-tool, there were few other tools that provided search and rescuers a small enough implement to work within the confines of the debris field.


RECOMMENDATION:  In anticipation of such future needs, a cache of tools should not only be identified…CIFs, Clothing Sales, Unit S4s, Army/Navy stores…but also purchased and stored as part of an initial push package.


Comments and questions can be addressed to the undersigned.


Original Signed



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