Return Home

Beneath WTC Chaos, Calm on PATH Tubes

Date: September 03, 2003 

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Barely five minutes after the first plane struck, the order went out: Shut down the trains. Offload your passengers. Nobody gets near the World Trade Center, according to this report by John P. Martin that appeared in the Star-Ledger. "Right now, offload everybody," one dispatcher barked to an engineer in New Jersey whose next stop was the Trade Center. "We want people out of the station, not in." 

Transcripts of phone and radio communications released Thursday (Aug. 28) by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH) suggest that while panic gripped the streets above, the people who ran PATH trains below ground responded to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with relative calm, quickly moving to halt the rails and to ferry thousands to safety. 

The transcripts, released under court order following a lawsuit by the New York Times, included transmissions from inspectors, engineers, foremen, trainmasters, desk officers and patrol officers. Many were underground and out of sight, left to rely on others for hours, as the 110-story towers burned above. 

With few exceptions, the transcripts related to the PATH trains don't identify speakers or their locations. The conversations are often abrupt and difficult to understand. At times, the transcripts reflect screams or loud noises in the background. But some scenes become clear. 

More than 60,000 people each day traveled through the PATH center 70 feet below the towers. The trains delivered and collected passengers from Jersey City, Hoboken and Lower Manhattan. Rush hour was not quite over. When the attacks began at 8:46 a.m., thousands were trapped. 

"Rich, what are you going to do with us?" asked a dispatcher at the Trade Center station. "I just unloaded passengers and I'm taking passengers here at four-track, World Trade." 

"Yes, four-track, load passengers," the desk officer replied. "We want people out the station, but not in." 

The desk officer calmly repeated the same instructions to another train dispatcher, telling him to prepare to head for Hoboken.  Then a voice from an unidentified station chimed in: "...    passengers boarding. What do you want me to do with these ...?"   "Take those passengers with you," came the reply. "Don't disembark the passengers at World Trade."  "I will not open my doors," the station officer said. "I'm taking them with me." 

The calm reaction was not without its moments of anxiety. Reports crackled about a cave-in below in one tunnel, about people trapped in the Marriott health club, about a homeless man who initially refused to leave the tracks. "I don't know ... I don't think I'll make it," a conductor at 14th Street tells the PATH control desk. "I'm getting like a panic attack here." 

But most of the conversations suggested people in control. On Track 4, one unruly passenger refused to board the train, a patrol officer reported.  "We've got an extreme situation at the World Trade Center. That passenger will have to board your train," the control
desk responded. "Copy? You'll have to use all means to get
that passenger on your train."  Minutes later, the train was en route. 

That the mass evacuation of the PATH station saved lives became frighteningly clear after the towers collapsed, hurtling thousands of tons of steel into the ground. 

A media walk-through of the underground station two months after the attacks revealed piles of rubble enveloping platforms. On Track 3, debris covered four of the seven cars of the lone PATH train that remained in the station. Its occupants had fled ahead of the collapse. 

Port Authority Police Chief Joseph Morris credited workers' quick thinking -- and the PATH's independent communications system. "That system worked because that system was not located on top of the Trade Center," he said. 

The preceding report by John P. Martin appeared in the Star-Ledger Saturday, Aug. 30, 2003. Staff writers Ron Marsico and Mark Mueller contributed to this report.)

Return Home