Remembering 9/11

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A laser scanning expert was called to the twin towers wreckage the day after the planes hit to help determine the extent of the debris above and below ground.

By Frank John Hahnel, III

This month we remember the attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001.  It is amazing how fast the last 10 years have gone by. 

I have always loved New York City.  Both my parents were born in New York, my mother in upstate New York and my father in the city.  My father and his father were both New York City police officers. Although I am a Floridian by birth, I consider myself a New Yorker at heart.

I did not see the planes hit the World Trade Center on that tragic Tuesday morning. For me the day started like every other workday.  I was working in Atlanta, Georgia, as a sales engineer for a laser-scanning manufacturer and was out demonstrating our latest 3D laser scanner with a survey customer.  Because our scanner was limited to a 40x40 degree window, it was going to take some time to scan the surveyor’s office building. 

As we walked outside to begin the scanning process, that office’s secretary said that a small plane had hit one of the World Trade towers.  My immediate thought was that it was an unfortunate accident, and as the report came from the radio on her desk, we didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and walked outside to get to work. 

Just before lunchtime, we came back in to look at the data we had collected.  I noticed the secretary was as white as a ghost.  All she kept saying was that the towers were gone.  I actually laughed at her, thinking she was joking, and then I realized she wasn’t.  She started to cry and tried to explain what had happened.  No one understood yet what was really going on.

On Wednesday, September 12, 2001, my employer received a phone call from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  They required assistance with determining how much debris at the site of the towers remained above ground, which would provide them with a more concrete idea of how much of the buildings penetrated below the ground.  As there was still a raging fire at the site and planes were not allowed to fly overhead, our 3D laser scanner was considered as the only viable option.  I was given the task to drive to New York City, rendezvous with two coworkers, and coordinate workable locations to collect information on the debris piles. 

Obstacles Just Getting to the Site

After a gut wrenching “go” or “don’t go” debate with my wife, my need to help took priority, and I left Atlanta around 8:00 p.m. Thursday night.  There was no one on the road other than a handful of police cars, and I actually got pulled over driving much too fast in Raleigh. I tried to explain myself to the officer, but I was so exhausted that I merely mumbled “Gen. Flowers,” “World Trade Center,” and “I have to get up there right away.”  After running my plate, he let me go with only a warning to slow down.  I asked him to escort me to the Virginia state line, and he laughed.  (It was worth a try.) 

I drove straight through the night until I could drive no farther. After 12 hours I arrived at the hotel just outside of the city, checked in, and collapsed into bed.

I met my coworkers that Friday afternoon to strategize.  Among the three of us, we had two scanners that we could use on the site.  Our designated point-man made the arrangements to get us onto the site the next morning to conduct our evaluation. 

I hardly slept.  I had no idea what was in store for us.  Previously, I had scanned some high-profile projects such as the USS Cole and the CSS Hunley submarine, but no one had done anything like this before. 

We left early in the morning, steel-toed boots and hard hats in hand.  Near the USS Intrepid museum, the FBI had created a staging area inside one of the old buildings on Pier 92, where we gave a short briefing of our plan and immediately received the FBI’s emphatic support. They agreed that our data could potentially provide crucial information and arranged for us three seats on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ boat leaving for Manhattan. 

As we exited the building, I noticed the USNS Comfort docked next to the pier.  I looked up at the huge boat’s aft, no more than 25 feet away, and saw, standing there in full battle gear with an MP5, a U.S. Marine staring right at us.  It hit me yet again how serious this scanning job was. 

Once we arrived, we were escorted by the NYPD to the very long line to check in.  One startling aspect of the location was the lack of sound.  This was New York City, and yet its characteristic cacophony was gone. The second thing I noticed was the smell. The combination of burning concrete, plastic, paper, metal, and other unmentionable things was nearly suffocating, and it was unlike anything I have ever smelled before or since. 

It was already late in the day, and we needed to be able to see the entire site before the sun went down. The three of us found one of the senior commanders on the site for the Army Corps of Engineers and again explained our presence.  Thankfully, he had been informed of our assignment and quickly moved us from the back of the line right to the front. 

After we were signed in and entered the temporary chain link fence, we were told to wait for our site escort in a school cafeteria set up for emergency workers.  The food smelled really good, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat.

As we reconned the site with our escorts, a coworker and I both had video cameras, and every police officer and firefighter we passed wanted to know who we were and why we were filming. I felt horrible that we were upsetting them. Time and time again either NYPD or NYFD would start to walk up to us, and the Army Corps would stop them and explain what was going on, that we were there trying to help, not interfere. 

Obstacles on Site

As we continued our trek around the site, we recorded good positions to set up our scanning equipment and discussed many of the challenges we faced, the very least of which was the lack of power.  When the towers collapsed, one of the main electrical junctions for Manhattan was destroyed, entirely cutting power to that area of the island. Verizon Wireless had set up portable cell towers that worked off of generators to help with cell signals, but we unfortunately didn’t use Verizon service.

As we rounded the final side of the twin towers’ site, I pointed out that one of the steel beams in a debris pile was glowing red hot.  Since none of us had ever scanned such a hot object before, we debated the results of an attempted scan.  We also noticed several theodolites set up at different areas of the site, one which wasn’t leveled correctly and several others unmanned.  All of the theodolites pointed at the shell that remained of the twin towers and towards the buildings that once surrounded them.  We observed no total stations or any other advanced surveying technology on site.

Frustrating Conclusions

By nightfall, we had finished our recon and video of the World Trade Center site and felt we had all of the necessary information we needed.  We met with the incident commander of the NYFD to discuss options and ascertain his needs. He was concerned that, as the debris was moved and removed, the shell might collapse on his firefighters below.  He further worried that one of the surrounding buildings could collapse as well.  He also expressed doubts that the antiquated equipment on site could provide the adequate information needed to protect his men, although he agreed that our findings might decrease the odds of further loss of life. 

Our meeting abruptly ended when the police chaplain arrived to ask the commander to go directly into the debris with him.  He reported that wreckage of one of the planes had just been uncovered, and it contained victims still strapped into their seats. The commander was certainly needed more there than with us.

As we headed back to our hotel, we discussed our options, and we all came to the same frustrating conclusion.  There was no way anyone could easily set up scanners on an active recovery operation like the one we had just come from.  There were people, large equipment, and trucks everywhere, constantly moving.  By the time we would be finished scanning one area, the area would have changed due to the constant digging and removal of debris.  We also felt limited by our technology, as the 40x40 degree laser scanner needed to be relocated countless times to encompass the enormity of the site. 

Reluctantly, we contacted our boss and told him the news. Although he didn’t initially agree with our decision to abort the scanning, he trusted our judgment on the ground. 

I left the group to clean up in my own hotel room, and I decided to call my boss and reiterate that we had made the right decision.  I wanted him to understand that no one could comprehend the situation without being there.  The site was a hellish nightmare.  After we hung up, I collapsed on the floor of my hotel room sobbing.  I have never cried so hard before or since in my life.

The next morning, I said my goodbyes to my coworkers and headed to my aunt and uncle’s house on Long Island.  I needed some family time.  My uncle was a chaplain at the time with the Wantagh Fire Department, and he had known several of the firefighters killed in the towers.  I got there early enough to see everyone, go to church, and have an early-afternoon dinner.  It was comforting to be surrounded by my loved ones, and I knew I wanted to get back home to my wife.  I made it home late Monday afternoon. 

I barely remember the drive as I was lost in thought most of the time.  I wished our technology had been more advanced—if only it had a larger field of view.  I recounted all of the faces I encountered over the weekend, and I wished I had been able to do something to help.  
Somewhere along the drive, I did receive a phone call from the architect of the United States Capitol.  They needed help and right away.  He fired off many questions about the scanner and its capabilities.  Would the green light be visible?  How big is the equipment?  Will it attract attention? 

He revealed that the U.S. Capitol had been the target for the fourth plane, and the U.S. government urgently wanted to have a complete set of drawings, just in case rebuilding became a reality.  I had no idea that this was just the beginning of nearly a year of helping my government. If only I had today’s technology 10 years ago....
Frank John Hahnel, III, was born and raised in Winter Park, Florida, and has worked in the laser scanning industry for 12 years.  His background is in land surveying.  He is currently working with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the military and private firms, in accident investigation and reconstruction.

The author describes his work on the Capitol and Pentagon in future PSM issues. 
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