'Preservation of Life'
By Christine McKenna
Watching a 767 plunge into the South Tower was a horrifying yet edifying moment for Richard Garlock, 34, a structural engineer at Leslie E. Robertson Associates (LERA). At that moment, he says, it became clear that the first plane crash was not an accident; we were under attack. "Suddenly, you don't know if you are going to die. You feel completely exposed. Nothing means anything any more; wealth and status are stripped away. You are forced to think what do you believe in?"
"I believe in Christ, thank God, or nothing would make sense," he says.
LERA's offices are located a few blocks from the World Trade Center on Broad Street. When the first plane hit the North Tower, Garlock was in his office on the 48th floor, talking to his wife by phone about their upcoming vacation to Disney World. "I heard the dull thud. It sounded like a big truck running over a steel plate in the road." Paper began floating past: First it was hundreds of sheets, then it was 1,000s. Looking out, Garlock could see smoke pouring out of the North Tower. The phone rang. It was a colleague calling from the World Trade Center, asking LERA to come and assess the damage.
LERA's founder, Leslie Robertson is the structural engineer of record for the World Trade Center. Its staff worked in the complex for 40 years, first on building designs and then on structural integrity inspections, tenant work, capital improvements and reconstruction after the February 1993 bombing in the WTC parking garage. As such, all of the architectural and structural drawings for the complex were in LERA's offices. These would suddenly become invaluable when the Port Authority's collection was lost in the North Tower on September 11.
Racing towards the WTC, Garlock and other LERA staff had reached Trinity Church when they heard a deafening roar. Looking up, "we saw the plane kind of flash its belly at us and then disappear into the tower." Stepping back to the south, Garlock tried gauge the damage to the exterior wall and interior core of the building. "I saw how many columns were missing," he says. "I was just in awe that the tower was still standing." Torn between going to the towers and evacuating, Garlock returned to the LERA offices. There, he and his colleagues were trying to reach the Port Authority and the Fire Department when the South Tower fell, enveloping the LERA offices in dust and debris.
It would be several days before Garlock could access the WTC site with a team of engineers from LERA. "Everyone wanted to know how we could help," he says. "We knew we had a lot to offer in terms of the drawings and our staff, which had an intense knowledge of the site." Amidst the chaos of those first weeks, this deep understanding of the WTC complex proved vital. In the dogged, desperate search for survivors, rescue workers need information fast. "When we looked at an element on site, we knew what existed, 30, 60, 70 feet below it," says Garlock. "We could use that knowledge to make quick decisions and judgments needed on the site."
It was humbling working with uniform personnel New York firefighters and police, the Federal Emergency Management Administration's Urban Search and Rescue, and the Port Authority police force. Garlock recalls watching in astonishment as they dove into burning structures, digging under smoldering debris to find people. "I definitely had an air of deference," he says. "I was dealing with chiefs. Whether they talked to you tomorrow was a function of how well the information you gave them the day before worked."
There was a constant weighing of risk versus reward. In the early days, the reward was great discovering someone alive but so were the risks. Rescue workers such as Sam Melisi, a firefighter and collapsed building specialist, were willing to hazard those risks if there was even the remote possibility of finding someone alive. With "preservation of life" as the overriding goal, the engineer's job to help them do so safely. Relatively, safely. "I would just say, 'Sammy, if you go in, you have to have an out," says Garlock. "I want you to have a place, where can you go quickly to be protected."
LERA's engineers focused on getting drawings into the right hands to help rescuers navigate the unstable debris. Providing drawings was one step, says Garlock, translating them another. The volume of WTC drawings is massive. He hauls a stack down to the LERA conference room for an interview. Indeed, the collection is as daunting as Garlock's encyclopedic grasp of what's within them.
Using the architectural drawings, the team first directed rescue personnel to areas in the rubble where people might have been trying to exit or escape: stairwells, elevators. Later they looked for structures in the basements where people might have sought shelter from the collapse, areas that could still be intact or where there might be a supply of food and water.