9/11: The Auto Aftermath

September 10, 2010

This story ran for the first time on TheCarConnection on November 28, 2001, and was written by Mike Davis.

For a rolling memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, see John Holmgren's 18-wheeler.

The world is still reeling from the unthinkable terrorist attacks September 11 on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the thousands of innocent people thus murdered in cold blood.

Yet there is an amazing story, untold until now, of vehicles lost. TheCarConnection, after all, is a car magazine whose readers look for the automotive stories they can't find elsewhere, where the concentration naturally has been on the human aspects of the attacks.

According to American Heritage magazine, the terrorist attacks may have produced the greatest loss of life — thought at first to be 6000, now estimated at fewer than 3000 lives – in America in a single incident since the Battle of Antietam in 1862. And the World Trade Center losses represent the largest aggregate claims in the world history of insurance.

Significantly, according to this writer's research — and until now not published elsewhere — the WTC attack also resulted in the largest number of vehicle losses in a single incident, easily exceeding 3000 cars, trucks and SUVs. The vast majority of these were privately owned vehicles, but the largest dollar losses were in firefighting equipment of the New York Fire Department.

Incomprehensible destruction

Firefighting rigs such as tower units to reach tall buildings can cost in the vicinity of $750,000 each and take up to a year to deliver. The NYFD lost 54 such firefighting trucks and 57 other vehicles in three instants within an hour and a half on the morning of September 11: from flaming debris falling from the second airliner impacting the South Tower, from the collapse of that tower, and from the collapse of the North Tower shortly afterwards. The New York Police Department likewise lost upwards of 200 vehicles in the same three incidents.

But for ordinary drivers in the streets around the WTC, the destruction had started 15 minutes earlier, when the first hijacked airliner hit the North Tower. Motorists — private, chauffeured, taxi, delivery — in traffic, waiting at traffic lights, at curbs or against WTC loading docks were deluged with broken glass, airplane parts, office debris and, most damaging, flaming jet fuel which in a flash set their vehicles afire. Some drivers abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot, according to P. J. Crowley, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute.

By the time the second plane hit at 9:03 a.m., police on the spot had likely blocked civilian vehicles from entering the area, preventing further motorist carnage. But thousands of parked cars were trapped at curbs or in parking garages when the two towers collapsed between 10 and 10:29. According to the architectural firm that designed the WTC complex, Yamasaki Associates, the WTC itself had some 2,000 parking spaces in several layers of underground garages. There were additional hundreds of spaces in other nearby private garages, to serve the many commercial and apartment buildings that had sprung up near the WTC in lower Manhattan.

Until the WTC block is totally excavated, there is no way to know how many of the Center's 2,000 spaces were filled when the buildings collapsed. Crowley of the Insurance Institute thinks at that hour of the morning — New Yorkers typically come to their offices a bit later than workers in lunch-bucket cities like Detroit and Cleveland — perhaps only half were filled. But no one knows; all records and relevant personnel were lost.

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