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.

Civil losses

Many of the vehicles in the WTC garages were publicly owned, assigned to Federal and local government agencies. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — which owned WTC until the month before the attack — had its offices in WTC and its car pools beneath.

New York authorities towed or hauled hundreds of damaged vehicles from the streets to a remote lot where Vehicle Identification Numbers of civilian vehicles were recorded. These VINs were fed into computers, which matched them to units insured by insurance companies licensed in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The insurance companies then delicately contacted owners to advise them of the vehicle's location and condition and, when appropriate, counsel them to file a claim. You can well imagine that some persons contacted were, in fact, grieving survivors of those killed or missing in the WTC attack. And some owners will be unreachable — forever.

Altogether, as of November 19, insurance companies have processed 1,250 claims for vehicles lost in the WTC attack, including 1,165 personally owned vehicles and 85 commercial units. That's just for vehicles that have been identified.

[Author update, 9/10/02: The number of 9/11-related auto insurance claims filed has totaled about 4,300, including approximately 300 from the Pentagon crash, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Not all of these constituted total loss of vehicle - some may have simply been for damage from falling debris or even from panic-caused fender-benders as people fled the crash scenes. And some car owners whose vehicles were "totaled" by their insurance companies later petitioned authorities to recover their vehicles. Government vehicles are believed to have been largely self-insured, which means the taxpayers picked up the tab. Insurance companies licensed by the state of New York processed 1,256 vehicle-loss claims, indicating that most vehicles lost at the WTC site belonged to commuters from nearby states.]

There is another universe of several hundred mostly private vehicles, which were parked in nearby parking decks and covered with a thick layer of smoke, concrete and asbestos dust when the Towers and adjoining buildings collapsed. "If these were sealed and locked, many may just need to be cleaned," Crowley told TCC. "But if a window was cracked and the dust got inside, they may have to be totaled because of the fear of asbestos."

"Adjusters are taking a liberal view," he reported. "Insurance companies have tried to streamline the claims process, with the presumption favoring the victims." With documentation gone up in smoke, affidavits are being accepted. "There's always the possibility of fraud in disaster claims," he noted, so each case is considered individually.

Heavy Ford, GM losses

Turning to public vehicles lost, Ford Motor Company was able to provide an exact list of units purchased or ordered to replace attack losses:

New York Police — 187 vehicles, including 126 Crown Vic Interceptors, 20 Explorers, three F-250s, 15 F-550s, 10 Grands Marquis, 10 Sables, and three Expeditions. In September, Ford rushed production of 25 Interceptors at the St. Thomas, Ont., assembly plant as initial NYPD replacements.

New York Fire — 46 vehicles, including 24 Interceptors, six Focuses, eight F-350/450s, one Excursion, five Econolines and two F-250s.

NY/NJ Port Authority — four F-550s.

In addition, Ford reported at least 27 Federal units ordered as replacements, mostly passenger cars for agencies including FBI, ATF, Secret Service, IRS and Indian Affairs. More are expected to be ordered, Ford said, when agencies receive funding and paperwork can be processed. Because office records were lost and units are buried in the underground garages, there still are questions about the exact number of those lost or whereabouts of units normally garaged but which might have been outside in operation.

And that's only for Ford.

General Motors was only able to estimate that some 150 Chevrolet vehicles were lost and being replaced. Most are thought to be Impala police cars, but also included were some older Caprice Police or Fire units as well as an armored Cadillac of the Secret Service. In addition, the Port Authority is believed to be a GM large fleet customer, especially Pontiac, but would not respond to TCC's inquiry about vehicle losses. Chrysler Group did not respond for a request for information either, but NYPD is known to have had 400 Intrepid "plain-clothes" (detective) cars, some of which might have been lost, and doubtless there also were Dodge trucks in the mix of public vehicles possibly destroyed.

Special apparatus

The list of 111 units lost by the NY Fire Department included: 10 ambulances, two EMS Suburbans, 24 Crown Vic or Caprice sedans used by staff chiefs, 17 Suburbans used by battalion chiefs, two heavy rescue units, one tactical support rescue unit (including a 14-foot boat!), two high-rise units, four step vans, one mask service unit, two roadside emergency trucks, one satellite unit with a 2000-gal/min pump and deck gun, three 1000-gal/min squad pumpers, four pumpers with three-stage high pressure pumps, 20 1000/gal/min pumpers, six 75-foot tower ladders and 12 100-foot rear-mount ladders.

A rush order was placed by the NYFD to Seagrave, a 100-year-old traditional high-quality firefighting vehicle company in Clintonville, Wisc. The $25 million order for 54 custom fire trucks meant the average cost was $463,000. Six of these were chassis units, of which one will be used to rebuild a damaged aerial tower ladder and the other five to replace units totally destroyed. Custom units like these usually take 12 months to deliver, but Seagrave is rushing to begin replacements in just half that time.

"Seagrave is committed to the expedited delivery of the New York City orders while maintaining delivery commitments to our existing and future customers," the company said in a statement.

"In a show of patriotism and overwhelming support for the City of New York, many fire departments that had trucks ready for delivery from Seagrave volunteered their units to be supplied to the NYFD immediately. New York City expressed their gratitude to these departments. However, in order to minimize training issues, they elected to order apparatus meeting New York's unique firefighting requirements."

New York area car and truck dealers are, of course, heavily involved in replacing government-owned vehicles, almost all of which were typical Detroit products. They're also replacing privately owned cars and SUVS, with the expected East Coast rich mix of import, especially European, brands.

In addition, dealers such as Gary Flom, president of Manhattan Auto Group (Ford-Mercury-Lincoln-Jaguar-Mazda) are filling attack-generated orders for persons driven from devastated lower Manhattan apartments to the suburbs where, for the first time, they are forced to have cars.

Curiously, there seems to have been only a solitary vehicle lost in the attack on the Pentagon, a U.S. Army "aircraft rescue and fire fighting vehicle" made by Emergency One of Ocala, Fla. The hijacked airliner that struck the Pentagon hit adjacent to the helicopter pad where the Army provided base services, and the E-One Titan 4X4 there was damaged beyond repair. Emergency One was able to replace it within two weeks.

[Photo courtesy Rejuvesite]

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