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20 Years After 9/11: Revisiting an Army Corps Disaster Response Like No Other

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - New York District
Published Sept. 10, 2021

Managing the many hazards of the debris pile became an important part of the Army Corps emergency response. Technology was used to pinpoint danger areas and where fires were still burning to reduce risk for search-and-rescue personnel.


An Army Corps emergency support vehicle assists search-and-rescue personnel at the debris pile. On 9/11 and days afterward, New York District vessels brought supplies and equipment to Lower Manhattan enabling recovery operations to continue 24/7.


Army Corps personnel in Lower Manhattan in the days immediately after 9/11. Eventually, some 300 Army Corps personnel would be working at the site supporting New York City and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


An Army Corps employee overseeing work at the debris pile. In all, some 1.6 million tons of steel, concrete and furniture were hauled away to the Staten Island Landfill.


The New York District's vessel, HOCKING, heading towards Lower Manhattan on 9/11 to rescue people stranded after the attacks and the Towers collapsed. Over several days, Army Corps vessels evacuated more than 3,000 people to safety in New Jersey.


New construction currently underway in Lower Manhattan, September 2021.


The Army Corps vessel, GELBERMAN, ferrying evacuees to safety after the attacks in Lower Manhattan.

In 1882, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide disaster relief to flood victims. Since then the Corps has responded to hundreds of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. Every bit of that experience would be tested in 2001.

Morning of Chaos

September 11 marks 20 years since the worst terror attack in U.S. history: A morning of chaos when hijackers crashed airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and Pentagon in Washington D.C. The Towers collapsed within hours, the world was changed forever, and the Army Corps of Engineers embarked on a disaster response like no other.

Narrow Escape

Joseph Seebode, then New York District harbor programs manager, narrowly escaped Lower Manhattan after the first Tower collapsed ─ a rush of smoke and concrete dust chasing him up Broadway as heavy objects fell around him. He quickly pivoted into disaster-response mode: Within 24 hours he was at the site organizing the recovery. A few days later Seebode was named liaison to the City of New York, engaging numerous state and federal agencies coordinating the response.

Seebode explains: “Within a few days of September 11, 2001, we had well over 100 Corps experts in New York working on rescue and recovery operations. Our people showed the true meaning of esprit de corps, and I’m proud of our response efforts at a time when the Nation needed us most.”

Lower Manhattan Goes Dark

The Towers’ collapse knocked out power in Lower Manhattan, including District Headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza that was evacuated after the first Tower fell. Employees worked from field offices in New Jersey, Brooklyn and at home. It would be several months before employees could safely return: Nearby buildings were damaged or closed and air quality was poor from smoldering fires.

Nationwide Response

The Army Corps’ emergency response mission supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ─ a U.S. Government agency tasked with responding to major disasters. Resources were drawn from all 41 Corps Districts across the U.S.: Experts in debris removal, structural analysis, urban search and rescue, and emergency electrical power were brought in. At the height of the mission some 300 Army Corps employees were involved. Due to air-travel restrictions, many drove long distances to New York.

Evacuations & Supplies

On the day of the attacks and several days after, Army Corps’ vessels from Caven Point Marine Terminal in New Jersey ferried 3,000+ people stranded in Lower Manhattan to safety; on return trips they brought emergency equipment and supplies for first responders ─ enabling search-and-rescue efforts to continue 24/7. In addition, the Army Corps’ 249th Engineer Battalion ─ experts in electricity ─ helped restore power to Lower Manhattan by installing 50 1,500-kilowatt generators for the City.

With much of New York City’s police, fire and tactical/communications vehicles destroyed in the attack, two Rapid-Response Vehicles and two Deployable Tactical Operations Centers (DTOC’s) were brought in for command and control purposes. At the time, City officials were working from card tables.  

Thomas Creamer, then Acting Chief of Programs Directorate, was at a meeting in Atlantic City when the first plane hit. He immediately returned to New York and, later that day, was appointed as Civilian Incident Commander supporting the overall Army Corps response.

That evening Creamer met with Brig. Gen. Stephen Rhoades, then Commander of North Atlantic Division. They defined four tasks: a) define the response mission; b) maintain relations with the customer (FEMA); c) augment its communication capability; and d) working with the news media.

Creamer said it was easier for him to respond during the first few days as he had been through a similar event: He was working in the Twin Towers in 1993 when terrorists set off a truck bomb in the basement parking garage of the North Tower. The blast killed six people, injured1,000, and 50,000 people were evacuated as smoke and flames spread upward into the buildings. 

Debris Removal & Inspection

The largest task of 9/11 was removing the 60-foot high pile of rubble from the Towers’ collapse ─ 1.6 million tons of steel, concrete and furniture. The volume of wreckage and congested roadways made removal by truck impractical. To that end, arrangements were made for emergency dredging of the Hudson and East Rivers to allow barges to transport debris to the Staten Island Landfill where the District’s Construction Division provided oversight for the debris inspection. Some 10,000 tons of debris were removed each day.

This mission was made more difficult as the Towers’ debris was part of an ongoing criminal investigation involving dozens of federal, state and local government agencies combing debris for human remains, personal effects and evidence related to the attacks. All told, police officers recovered 90,000 pieces of personal property and human remains and identified 150 victims.

On this topic Creamer noted: “What’s most important was watching the Corps create the largest forensic crime scene investigation laboratory on Staten Island. Every piece of debris was checked twice and identified belongings returned to loved ones.”

Search and Rescue

While debris was being removed, first responders were searching for survivors in the huge pile of rubble that contained many hazards. To mitigate risk, New York City and FEMA used the Army Corps’ Geographic Information System (GIS) to create maps from aerial photos, pinpointing exact elevations. Thermal imagery showed locations of fires still burning and other danger areas. In addition, images were compared daily to determine changes in the debris pile. Critical data was provided to search-and-rescue personnel before working at the site.

The District’s Real Estate Division was also busy. One of the U.S. Armed Forces recruiting stations near the site was closed for safety reasons. Staff quickly made alternative arrangements to maintain recruiting operations without major disruptions.

Beyond the Response

The disaster response would last nearly a year until summer of 2002. Much was accomplished to execute a difficult mission, but the Army Corps’ work was not complete: An assessment after the mission documented lessons learned and areas to improve. The main conclusion acknowledged there will always be man-made disasters that occur without warning and no time to prepare. Since then, the Corps has been practicing for those incidents and held more frequent trainings. As a result ─ across the work force ─ personnel are better prepared to respond quickly.

Remembering Victims

Every year on September 11, a ceremony is held at the site honoring the 2,780 victims ─ each name recited individually before relatives, loved ones, response agencies and City and elected officials. In addition, the National September 11 Museum and Memorial opened in 2014 at the World Trade Center complex with artifacts and videos of the events of 9/11.

Outside the museum is the 9/11 Memorial with two reflecting pools built on the footprint where the Towers once stood. Designed as a place of peaceful reflection, it contains the largest man-made waterfalls in North America and all 2,870 victims’ names inscribed on the sides of the pools.

One World Trade Center

After eight years of construction, One World Trade Center opened to tenants in 2014. At 1,776 feet, it’s the tallest building in the United States, Western Hemisphere, and the sixth-tallest in the world. One World Observatory (floors 100-102) offers 360-degree views of New York City and is a major tourist attraction with hundreds of thousands visiting each year.

One World Trade Center by the numbers:

40,000            Metric tons of steel used in construction

 1,776             Feet tall

   104              Stories high

    55               High-speed elevators

    23               Top speed of elevators (MPH)

   3.9               Billion dollars to construct

      8               Number of years to build

      3               Million square feet of office space