Editor’s Note: The first Al Qaeda attack on the American homeland was the February 26, 1993 bombing at The World Trade Center, a complex owned and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This attack killed six people and injured more than a thousand. It also traumatized millions of people in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.
Even though this was the most destructive bomb attack suffered by American civilians in a time of peace, it took more than 10 years for authorities at all levels of government to admit that America had been attacked by terrorists who were encouraged and protected by foreign nations. It took just as long to admit that the organization that was responsible for 9/11 was also responsible for the 1993 attack.
Patrick Campbell was in the lobby of the NorthTower when the bomb exploded in the basement 20 feet below him. A marketing manager for the Port Authority, Campbell describes the chaos that enveloped the Trade Center in the aftermath of the explosion and the many questions that still haunt him about this terrible day.
At approximately 11:30 a.m., a Ryder van rolled at a leisurely pace northwards on West Street in Lower Manhattan towards the underground parking garage at the World Trade Center, located on West and Vesey streets. Eyad Ismoil was at the wheel and Ramzi Yousef, the terrorist leader, sat beside him. Following the van in a red getaway car was Mohammed Salameh and Mahmud Abouhalima, with Abouhalima at the wheel.
The four men were part of an Al Qaeda terrorist cell based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and they were now completing a mission that they had been working on for the previous five months. Yousef is a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who planned the 9/11 attack.
The van entered the World Trade Center parking garage and Abouhalima continued to drive the red getaway car for half a block and then turned right into Vesey Street, which is the northern boundary of the World Trade Center site. Vesey Street is a very wide street and Abouhalima had no problem double parking while he waited for Yousef and Ismoil to emerge from the garage.
The garage seemed empty as the van arrived on the second level below the street [the Basement 2 level], but for a moment Yousef thought they had a problem when he saw a Port Authority van, the same size and color as the Ryder van, parked in the spot previously selected by Yousef to park the Ryder van. However, the Port Authority van suddenly started up and headed off towards the exit, and Ismoil swung the Ryder van in and took its place.
While Ismoil kept an eye out, Yousef lit four fuses, three of which were back-ups in case the first one failed, and then he closed and locked the back of the van, while Ismoil locked the front doors, and both then strolled across the garage to the elevators servicing the North Tower lobby. When they arrived in the lobby they exited through the West Street entrance and within four minute of lighting the fuse they were in Abouhalima’s getaway car and were speeding away from the World Trade Center. The fuse would burn for another seven minutes and then the bomb would explode. By this time, the terrorists were in the Holland Tunnel on their way to Jersey City.
The van sat undisturbed on the ramp as the lighted fuses edged their way towards the detonators. The van was parked within a foot of the 11th column of the North Tower’s southern curtain wall, which had 21 support columns. Although the tower curtain wall was hidden behind a cinder block wall, Yousef had been able to park the van at the center of the curtain wall.
The underground areas of the Trade Center were huge and had more storage and office space than the entire Empire State Building. The Secret Service stored ammunition and armored cars there; some of the banks in the trade center had bullion and records stored in the area; the heating, air conditioning and electrical controls were located on various below grade levels; the Trade Center mailroom was on the B1 level; there was a huge stockroom on the same level; there was a huge truck dock where scores of trucks made deliveries; the Port Authority located all its plumbing and operations staff in this area; the police had a command post and a fire safety post on the B1 level; there were hundreds of cages on various levels where tenants stored files and computers; there was parking for 2,000 cars; and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Railroad (PATH) linking the World Trade Center with Jersey City had a station on the third level below grade.
There were times when these below grade areas hummed with life, as people went back and forth between the cages; plumbers and electricians went back and forth to their shops; cars entered and exited the facility in large numbers; and thousands of people poured up from PATH on escalators towards the shopping mall and the office complex.
But this was 12 noon, and few were entering or leaving the garage; the PATH trains were operating at an off peak schedule; and the Operations staff were drifting up towards the restaurants on the Mall for lunch.
When the fuse was lit there were seven people in the Port Authority Operations office several feet from the Ryder van, and during the next 10 minutes three of these would leave for lunch, leaving three men and a pregnant woman behind who were eating lunch at their desks. These four and the unborn baby of one of them, Monica Smith, would be the first fatalities of the bomb attack on the Trade Center.
While the below grade areas were relatively quiet in the minutes after noon, the lobbies and the shopping mall began to fill up as people left the office buildings for lunch in the restaurants or to shop on the World Trade Center Mall. Tourists were also arriving in the lobby of the North Tower to get express elevators to the landmark Windows on the World Restaurant on the 107th Floor.
In the lobby of the South Tower, large numbers of people were also coming and going: office workers were exiting the tower to shop and dine; tourists were arriving to go to the Observation Deck, and droves of school children accompanied by teachers were among those heading for the Observation Deck. Huge elevators whisked these groups straight up to the 107th floor.
Another beehive of activity was the Commodities Exchange Building at Four World Trade Center, where billions of dollars of commodities and futures were traded each day at a frantic pace.
In his scouting expeditions to the World Trade Center, Yousef would have absorbed all the activity that took place at the World Trade Center at noon. He would have seen all the little children arriving with their teachers; all the tourists coming from all over the world, including Muslim countries; and noted the multi-racial makeup of the tenant population which represented 100 countries. And a little research would have revealed to him that the chief executive officers of America’s major corporations did not have their offices in the Trade Center, nor was the military industrial complex, or the Pentagon, the State Department or the CIA represented, all of whom were accused by Yousef of waging war on the Muslim world. The bombers could argue later that they were striking a blow at the power structure of America, but they were among the few who subscribed to this view.
The reality was that the World Trade Center was nothing more than a gigantic office complex where major corporations had branch offices, and the vast majority of the workers were either civil servants or middle management executives who had no connection at all to the war in the Middle East.
A Soft Target
The World Trade Center was just a soft target, and Yousef said later that he believed he could topple the towers and send them plunging into Wall Street. He believed that in the process he would make himself a folk hero among Islamic extremists.
Yousef told the FBI after he was captured that his “hoped-for” casualty count was 250,000 men, women, and children. These numbers were revealed to the FBI after his capture in the Philippines. And the fact that he would be murdering numerous Muslim men, women, and children did not seem to concern him at all. He thought it all part of “God’s will.”
I was in the lobby of the North Tower shortly after noon talking to a Japanese public relations executive named Katsuya Abe who was attempting to persuade me to give him a contract to create promotions directed at the Japanese business community in New York. The Port Authority would like to attract additional Japanese tenants to the Trade Center and Abe claimed he could be very effective at enticing more Japanese companies to set up a branch in the World Trade Center.
I told him I would consider recommending to the director of the World Trade Center that he be given a contract, but I insisted that he demonstrate to me that he had all the abilities he claimed he had by bringing in at least one major lead, which we could turn into a World Trade Center tenant. But Abe did not want to bring in any leads until he had a contract, so we debated the issue without coming to a resolution.
We were standing near the West Street entrance to the lobby of the North Tower as we had our discussion, while Ramzi Yousef was busy directly below us setting up the bomb that he believed would send Abe, myself and all the other World Trade Center tenants and visitors to kingdom come. A few minutes later, Yousef and Ismoil may very well have passed within feet of us as they walked across the lobby from the parking garage elevators and exited the tower lobby from the West Street entrance.
We finished our conversation at around 12:15 and I walked a dozen feet to the elevator lobby that serviced the 35th floor, and Abe headed across the lobby to the elevators that brought him down to the parking garage.
A Catastrophic Explosion
The bomb exploded at 12:17 while I stood in the elevator waiting for the door to close, and the explosion brought hell on earth to the World Trade Center. The bomb first disintegrated the van into thousands of shreds of metal and burning plastic at a speed of 5,000 miles per second, and then struck the cinder block wall surrounding the tower foundation turning it into powder. After that, the force hit the steel tower foundation, ripping a huge 12-foot steel brace weighing 14,000 pounds from the foundations and propelling it like a guided missile through the wall of the World Trade Center Operations Office, instantly killing the four operations people inside: Bob Fitzpatrick, mechanical engineer, Steve Knapp, mechanical engineer supervisor, Bill Macko, a mechanical supervisor, and Monica Smith, an assistant to Steve Knapp.
Yousef would claim afterwards that all Americans were equally guilty of the murder of Muslims by American Armed Forces, and therefore those killed in the basement deserved to die.
The bomb’s force did not destroy the foundations; it only twisted one huge support beam. But the force was magnified two-fold when it struck the foundations and then bounced back, and this magnified weapon of destruction then roared through the underground areas, killing a salesperson named John Di Giovani who was about to exit the garage, and a hotel employee named Wilfredo Mercado in a sub-grade storeroom, and maiming anyone that got in its way. Had the blast occurred during rush hour in the basement area, either in the morning or in the evening, hundreds might have been killed.
A score of workers in various locations throughout the sub-grade areas were seriously injured during the first five seconds as the rampaging ball of uncontrolled energy set fire to scores of cars; blew down walls, ripped plumbing and electrical pipes out of floors and ceilings, destroyed the heating systems and the network of hot and cold water pipes, and created a huge crater 150 feet in diameter where the van had been located.
Into this crater, tumbled burning cars and a multitude of other debris set on fire by the explosion.
The force then went on a rampage on the floors above and below the B2 level: it punched a huge hole right through the floor and ceiling of the B1 level and erupted into the hotel and lobby level of the North Tower with a tornado of smoke, hot air, and debris from the crater.
When there was a catastrophic explosion out in the lobby, I exited the elevator and went out into the lobby to see what had happened. I could not believe the change that had taken place in the 30 seconds from the time I had entered the elevator bank to the time the bomb had gone off. Debris of all types: broken glass, marble tiles, chunks of concrete and strips of aluminum were all over the floor. People were lying on the carpet screaming, and an ugly column of putrid black smoke poured out of a hole in the lobby floor and swirled towards the ceiling, 70 feet above.
An employee of an airline ticket counter in the lobby of the North Tower had been picked up and thrown 30 feet. She was injured but survived. Some victims thought that they were being attacked by someone firing a machine gun. I was stunned, not knowing what had happened, but I helped injured people get off the floor and out onto West Street. However, within a few minutes I was driven out by the black smoke that filled the lobby.
I stood outside the North Tower for a few minutes breathing clean, crisp February air, and then I headed down the street to the entrance to the Vista Hotel, which was part of the complex, looking for Charles Maikish, the director of the World Trade Center. A few minutes earlier Maikish had hurried past me in the tower lobby talking on his mobile phone and I heard him say that he was setting up a command center in the hotel to deal with a transformer explosion.
When I heard him mention the transformer explosion, my initial reaction was that this was not a transformer explosion deep within the underground areas of the complex. I had heard an explosion like that many times before, when I was a young man working in tunnels being driven deep under mountains in the Highlands of Scotland for hydro-electric projects, and I recognized the whiplash intensity of the sound and the immense power released that had shaken the tower. This was the sound made by a powerful explosive in a very confined space, and an exploding transformer could never match that effect in intensity.
I had no idea at this point what had caused the explosion, but what I did know was that the World Trade Center was in very big trouble. As I stood on West Street I could see people peering out the windows on the floors above me trying to make sense of the sound that shook the building and the smoke that was erupting from the buildings out onto West Street.
As I walked towards the entrance to the Vista Hotel, a fire engine from the station on nearby Liberty Street turned into West Street and pulled up in front of the hotel. The initial alarm that went out came from the Vista Hotel and the explosion was characterized as a transformer explosion beneath the hotel, so the fire engine headed for the hotel first.
As the fire engine pulled up in front of the hotel it was evident to the crew that there was more than the hotel involved in the incident because thick columns of black smoke were pouring out of the entrance to the parking garage and out of other vents that were connected to the below grade areas.
Then, several Port Authority police officers ran up the ramp from the parking garage that exited on to West Street and told the firefighters that this was not a transformer fire, that there were no transformers in the area of the explosion, and that a bomb had caused the fires. They said there was a huge crater directly below the hotel; people had been killed; others were injured and trapped; and that scores of cars were on fire. This information was immediately relayed by the firefighters to headquarters and this in turn generated a massive response from all over the city and from across the Hudson River in New Jersey as well.
To add to this dangerous situation, a Secret Service agent emerged from below grade and told the firefighters that the Secret Service had an ammunition depot a short distance from the fires, and this posed an even greater threat to the firefighters than the roaring flames, because if the flames reached the depot thousands of bullets would soon be ricocheting around the garage.
For years, the Secret Service had parked armored cars at the World Trade Center basement and kept a huge supply of weapons and ammunition on hand, so that the agency was prepared for any emergency that might occur during a Presidential visit.
Several members of the Port Authority Police then entered the hotel and let Charles Maikish know that a bomb caused the explosion and there were casualties and extensive damage underground.
The Secret Service agent accompanied the firefighters down to the B2 Level and pointed out the ammunition storeroom, which at this point was not being threatened by the flames. The firefighters decided to keep a careful eye on this area until the fire was under control.
A Scene from a Horror Movie
According to Captain Timothy H. Dowling of the New York Fire Department, the scene that greeted the firefighters on the B2 level was out of a horror movie. Numerous cars were on fire and their tires and gas tanks continued to explode as the flames enveloped them. Other cars were ripped to shreds as if torn to pieces by a shredder. In addition, in the center of this bizarre scene was a huge crater that glowed like a furnace as it consumed all the debris that fell into it from all the storage areas on the floors below B2. A thick, putrid multi-colored smoke boiled throughout the area and gravitated towards the crater and then vented up towards the lobbies of the buildings above. This smoke also raced up the elevator shafts that linked the basement with the towers and very quickly the tower offices had become polluted with this poisonous brew from the basement.
Yousef told the FBI after his arrest that he planned to poison all the workers in the towers with the cyanide gas he had included in the bomb and he would have been successful with this plan if the cyanide had not been consumed in the fireball that erupted after the explosion. Even though the people in the towers were exposed to a toxic brew that sent more than 1,000 to the hospital, the catastrophe could have been much worse if the cyanide had not been destroyed.
The most important tasks facing fire engine crew was to extinguish the fires, which were sending volcanoes of smoke and fumes up into the towers. The firefighters worked in the worst possible conditions. They had to drag hoses over the debris and across floors that were slick with oil that had leaked from car engines. The smoke blinded all of them. During the initial moments below grade, the firefighters rescued three badly burned men who were wandering around disoriented. They also offered assistance to scores of others who were fleeing in panic from other floors below grade.
One firefighter, Kevin Shea, slipped on the slick floor and tumbled into the crater, but he was lucky to fall all the way to the bottom, where the fires had not yet reached and he suffered only a few injuries. Nevertheless, it took almost an hour to rescue him.
The car fires were attacked first and the arrival of more engine companies brought greater manpower and water to focus on suppressing the inferno. However, it took almost two hours of intense activity to put the fires out and to rescue those who had been injured below grade.
Assessing the Damage
At the Port Authority Command Center in the hotel, Maikish initially tried to make contact with his senior staff through standard phone lines but all lines were dead. However, he was surrounded by Operations managers within a few minutes anyway, because there were emergency plans in place on what to do in a worst case scenario – managers were to rendezvous at the hotel – and this was a worst case scenario: the World Trade Center was on fire; the communications were dead; and as many as 30,000 people were trapped in the towers, which were rapidly filling with smoke.
After a staff member confirmed police reports that it appeared to be a bomb that caused the explosion, the top priority for this emergency task force and the fire department personnel who were already arriving at the site, was to put out the fires so that the occupants of the complex could be safely evacuated.
When the fires had been extinguished, Maikish ordered a rapid exploration of the buildings and the below grade areas to determine the extent of the damage and the number of casualties. After that, Port Authority engineers would determine the amount of physical damage inflicted on the complex and if the integrity of the buildings were at risk.
The question of the integrity of the buildings was of primary importance. Maikish believed that the towers were so strongly constructed that no internal explosion could bring one of the towers down. But he had to be sure, and he had to know the situation with the five other buildings in the complex which did not have the strength of the towers.
The Port Authority staff that had gathered around tables in the Vista Hotel Ballroom was calm and professional. They were organized into groups and given chores to focus on.
The situation analysis ordered by Maikish was not an easy chore to carry out. While the inferno raged in the basement it was impossible to send engineers down to access the damage, and the smoke-filled towers proved to be an even more difficult problem, because panic-stricken tenants were pouring down the stairways while firemen were attempting to climb the stairs in order to rescue them.
This was a situation that existed well into the evening hours. If a similar situation had existed on 9/11, there is a probability that 20,000 would have been killed, because after an hour the towers would have collapsed on the fleeing office workers and firemen.
I was ordered to contact our advertising agency and instruct them to hire a video crew and send them to the World Trade Center immediately to make a video record of the damage done to the underground areas of the Trade Center. I would have to meet the crew when they arrived and escort them underground to the damaged areas, once the fires had been extinguished.
I was glad to get the assignment because up until that moment I had no role to play. All the engineers and operations personnel were quickly given chores that were within their sphere of expertise, but marketing skills were just not needed at that point in time.
I had no fear of leading a video crew down to the bomb site. In fact I was very curious to see what damage this horrendous blast had inflicted in the parking areas of the complex. I should have been apprehensive, since flames were erupting out of the garage and smoke was filling the towers, but I suppose like all of the Port Authority personnel on the site I was suffering from some degree of shock, and this seemed to have immunized me from normal fears.
When large numbers of firefighters and police became involved in evacuating the buildings, and the major fires were put out in the below grade areas, Port Authority engineers and architects put on masks and went down to the bomb-affected areas to determine the nature of the damage and to see if there was any threat to the integrity of the buildings.
Their initial survey revealed that the Vista Hotel was in danger of immediate collapse, because the foundations of the north end of the hotel had been badly damaged. The bomb had exploded in an area adjacent to the north end of the hotel, destroying support columns to the point that this end of the hotel could topple into the crater.
Word was immediately relayed to the Port Authority Task Force in the Command Center in the hotel ballroom, which was located directly above the crater, to evacuate all guests from the hotel and to move the Task Force area to a restaurant out in the Mall, far away from any threat of collapse.
An equally serious problem was the devastation caused by the blast to the floors within the basement of the North Tower. These floors acted as braces to keep the curtain walls of the towers from collapsing in on one another. Indeed, the floors all the way up the towers were very much part of the design that made the towers a strong flexible square tube of immense strength.
The bomb had destroyed and weakened walls in the basement and this was not only a threat to the integrity of the North Tower, it was a threat to the integrity of the entire complex, since these walls also were used to brace the huge retaining wall that circled the Trade Center site – a retaining wall that kept the Hudson River out of the below grade areas.
Since the bottom of the below grade areas – the B 6 Level – was 70 feet below the level of the river a collapse of these retaining walls would be devastating; such a collapse would not only flood the Trade Center it would flood the PATH tunnels under the Hudson and many of the New York City subways that ran near or under the Trade Center. It would be a catastrophe for New York City.
It was also determined that all the immense air conditioning equipment that supplied climate control for the entire complex had been put out of commission. All this equipment had been buried under hundreds of tons of rubble, and until this rubble was cleared away it would not be possible to determine if any of the equipment could be salvaged.
Another group of engineers reported that all the floors in both towers had been contaminated with a layer of soot, and that the employees of the hundreds of companies in the complex could not return to work until every square foot of every floor in both towers had been scrubbed clean.
When the Port Authority engineers returned to the Task Force, they immediately focused on the critical chore of designing supports for the retaining walls and to erecting temporary supports under the hotel to prevent its collapse. Architectural plans were pulled out of storage, consultants were called in, and contractors were put on standby to begin the work immediately.
Even as the tenants continued to pour down the stairs, planning and designing of the repairing of the Trade Center got under way and would continue every day and every night until the job was completed. In addition to repairing the floors of the basement and bracing up the foundations of the hotel, plans were drawn up to bring several thousand cleaning personnel into the Twin Towers to clean up the mess left by the smoke.
To accomplish this task a company called the Restoration Company was brought on board which would employ 3,000 cleaners to work around the clock in shifts until the 220 floors in both towers, a total of 8.8 million square feet, were scrubbed clean.
Arrangements were also made to hire several hundred dump trucks to haul thousands of tons of debris out of the basement to a landfill.
Maikish and other top executives were determined, even in the early hours of the crisis, to not let the terrorists who committed this act think they had crippled the complex, and they were going to get the Trade Center back in business as quickly as possible.
One of the great ironies of the terrorist attack was that Ramzi Yousef was very disappointed in the hours immediately after the attack by the fact that the bomb had not knocked the towers down and that the tenants had not been massacred by a cyanide attack. But as he packed his bags and prepared to flee the country, he was not aware that he had almost brought down the hotel; that his bomb almost resulted in Lower Manhattan being flooded by the Hudson River, and that it was his failure to take into account the initial fireball that prevented the cyanide from becoming a weapon of mass destruction. He had, in fact, come very close to slaughtering countless thousands of people and creating a disaster far larger than 9/11
The Curious Arrival of the FBI
One of the most controversial events in the first hour after the attack was the arrival of senior FBI officials in the complex 15 minutes after the bomb went off, during a period when the Port Authority officials believed that a faulty generator was the cause of the explosion.
These officials told startled Port Authority management that they had been walking in the neighborhood when they heard the explosion and had come into the complex to see what was going on. The officials were followed into the complex by scores of agents from the New York office of the FBI, and within a few hours scores of other agents arrived from Washington.
In the months that followed questions would be asked about the rapid response of the FBI, but the only explanation given by the FBI was that its agents had arrived so soon because they just happened to be in the neighborhood when the bomb went off.
The arrival of droves of FBI agents at the same time as the arrival of the firefighters was puzzling to me and other members of the Port Authority staff. The early arrival of the FBI generated urban legends that the FBI had advance knowledge of the bombing and were waiting around outside the Trade Center for the bomb to go off.
An even more puzzling image was presented later when ATF agents headed down towards ground zero wearing the type of biological hazard suits used to face a biological threat. When it was revealed a few weeks later that sodium cyanide had been found in a terrorist storage locker in Jersey City, this created another urban legend: that government agents knew all along that a poisonous brew had been unleashed in the Trade Center, but neglected to tell Port Authority staff about it.
But it was obvious that whatever these agencies knew about the cyanide, they were keeping it to themselves, but their cautiousness at the bomb site made Port Authority staff, who had gone underground looking for survivors as the fires raged, very uneasy. Had they been exposed to something poisonous?
However, Port Authority staff continued to maintain a presence in the beleaguered complex, only pausing for a group prayer when four stretchers were carried through the lobby bearing the bodies of four of their colleagues. It was a moment none of us would ever forget.
Power was restored to the towers later in the day and the towers once more lit up the New York skyline. With the power restored many of the TV and radio stations with antennas on the roofs began to broadcast again and those who had remained inside the Trade Center and had access to radios and TV sets began to get an idea of how the situation was viewed in the outside world.
The coverage was mainly inaccurate and very fractured. There were reports that the Serbians had bombed the Trade Center in retaliation for the bombing of Serbia, and Saddam Hussein was blamed because it was the two-year anniversary of the Gulf War.
And even though it was being reported that the FBI and the ATF were all over the Trade Center, the FBI was not coming right out and stating that this was a terrorist attack; the agency was instead claiming it had to look at the evidence first, before it came to any decision.
Chaos in Lower Manhattan
Although the Port Authority personnel working in the Command Center in the hotel worked quietly and with a sense of urgency, the situation in the rest of the World Trade Center and throughout Lower Manhattan was chaotic.
I went on a tour of the perimeter of the World Trade Center site as I waited for the video crew to arrive and was amazed at the pandemonium in the streets adjacent to the site.
The area around the Trade Center was choked with police cars from a dozen different jurisdictions and police helicopters were hovering over the towers, apparently plucking desperate people off the roof. Firefighters were pouring into the Trade Center and were setting up their own command centers from which they would launch a rescue of the people trapped in the complex.
Smoke was pouring out of broken windows in the towers, and frightened people were peering out from windows far above the street calling for help.
Hundreds more people were stumbling out of the tower lobbies after walking down the stairs, their faces black with smoke, each one gasping for air.
Traffic of any kind except emergency vehicles was banned from lower Manhattan, and the streets were choked with people trying to get out of the area.
Fifty-six ambulances with crews had come in from New Jersey and were helping transport the injured to hospitals all over the city. An emergency generator from the Jersey City Police Department was being used to bring light to some of the sub-grade areas.
Only one lane of the Holland Tunnel was open – the other lanes were used for emergency vehicles only. The skies were so full of helicopters, some official, some television news helicopters, that Lower Manhattan looked like a set from a major war movie.
I walked around the ground floor of both towers watching the incredible sight of thousands of people stumbling out of stairwells their faces blackened with smoke. I had no idea about the extent of the casualties or the fatalities and I was worried about all the colleagues I had left behind on the 35th floor. I had no way of contacting these colleagues because it was impossible to go up and check on them, as the stairwells were choked with firemen on their way up and with office workers on their way down.
I had no way of contacting my family because all the phones in the Trade Center were out of commission. I had to walk 10 blocks to find a phone that worked in order to call the advertising agency. My own home phone was busy with relatives calling my wife every time I called, and hours passed before I eventually got through.
The top officials in the Fire Department who were on the site organized the firefighters into different groups, each of which was given a specific assignment. The towers were divided up into zones and groups of firefighters were assigned to each zone to help with the evacuation and to search for survivors.
Since the telephone and public address system had been knocked out, the tenants were evacuating themselves. Many of those who emerged from the buildings initially were exhausted and filthy with smoke and they were critical of the Port Authority for not communicating with the tenants once the bomb had gone off. These people were not aware that the bomb had destroyed the towers’ communications system and the reality was that Port Authority staff was just not able to communicate with the tenants.
The lack of effective communications at all levels became the greatest single problem during the crises. When the blast knocked out the phone system and the aerials on the roof for the mobile phones, tenants had no way of contacting the Port Authority.
These tenants also were unable to call home to let their families know they had survived the blast. Their families in turn were unable to call in to the Port Authority Police unit at the Trade Center because the bomb had wrecked the police command center in the basement.
No useful information was available on radio and TV in the initial stages of the crisis because all stations with aerials on the roof of the North Tower had been knocked off the air when the bomb cut off all electrical power to the World Trade Center. Those radio and TV stations that were broadcasting were unable to get reporters anywhere near the beleaguered complex to let the public know what was going on.
In addition, even if the reporters had been able to make contact with Port Authority personnel for information, the situation was so chaotic in the first hours that few really knew the extent of the damage or had any idea about the extent of the casualties.
So, rumor and speculation took over about who had been responsible for the bombing, and these rumors were fed by callers to the media claiming responsibility – callers who said they were Serbians, Cubans or drug dealers, all of whom promised further bombings in the days ahead.
Matters were made worse for the tenants by the on-air reporting of CBS TV, whose reporters painted inaccurate portraits of what was going on in the buildings. CBS was the only New York TV station not knocked off the air when the blast cut the power to all the TV masts on the roof of the North Tower, so the account of their reporters raised the panic level in the towers, where there were battery-operated TVs available.
This TV coverage became dangerous when the reporter urged people in the towers to break the windows and let the smoke out, which was the worst possible advice. The broken windows gave the smoke a place to vent out, but these broken windows also sucked more smoke and fumes into the space and made the smoke threat even greater. The Fire Department called the station and CBS had to go back on the air and tell the tenants to seal the windows, doors, and vents.
Since the only access the media had to ground zero was within several blocks distance, and the only images the media could broadcast around the world were images of people stumbling out of the towers, black-faced from the smoke, it was assumed that the entire complex was full of panic-stricken, injured people. This was not entirely the case.
But it was little wonder that there was widespread panic among families in the metropolitan area who had family members in the Trade Center. It was well into the evening before the vast majority of them were eventually contacted and told that their relatives had survived the blast.
Four hours after the blast, a video crew arrived in the World Trade Center Mall.
There were four in the crew and they were very excited and nervous about the project. One of the crew said radio and TV stations had been saturated with horror stories about casualties in the Trade Center and I think they must have been expecting to see dead bodies all over the place.
At this point I knew of only one fatality, a salesman named DiGiovanni, but I knew there was four Port Authority Operations staff that were missing and presumed dead. However, I did not know of any other fatalities at this time because a search of the towers was still under way, but I knew there were scores trapped in elevators, and hundreds were injured, some seriously.
Some members of the crew asked me questions about the project they were about to shoot, but I told them the job would become self- evident once they got down to the basement area. Actually, I did not really know what the job involved since I was going down there for the first time myself.
As we prepared to go down the stairs to the B2 level we were joined by Douglas Karpiloff, a colleague from my department, who told me that FBI agents, who had been on the site since shortly after the bomb went off, wanted a copy of every video or photo taken below. Charles Maikish had appointed Karpiloff as a coordinator with the FBI, and Karpiloff was told to get all the documentation requested by the FBI.
When I led the crew down to the B2 level, Port Authority electricians were already setting up emergency generators that would bathe the whole area in light. This lighting would be needed for any forensic analysis of the site the following day.
The chaos on the B2 level was incredible. All the open areas were filled with incinerated cars that had been burned to a crisp by the fire ball. Some smoke and fumes still oozed out of the wreckage, and, unbelievably, some of the car batteries were still working and they powered horns which continued to bleat and parking lights that continued to blink. It was like a scene from a horror movie.
The center of this scene was dominated by a huge crater, 150 feet in diameter, that had been ground zero for the bomb, and out of this crater drifted an eerie glow from the material that continued to smolder in this pit that reached all the way down to the sixth basement level 50 feet below the B2 level.
The video crew scanned the entire B2 level, focusing on the broken walls and ceilings, on the twisted pipes and the burned out cars. The force used to create this mayhem seemed incredible. I had been thoroughly familiar with this parking area prior to the blast, but I could no longer get my bearings because all the cinder block dividing walls had been blown away and all the signs had vanished.
As the video crew was taping the area, my attention was drawn to an area adjacent to ground zero. The cinder block walls that had partitioned of this area of the parking lot had been blown away and the huge steel girders that supported the massive tower above were revealed. One of the girders was twisted like a giant strand of spaghetti, and it was obvious to me that this was the exact spot where the bomb had been located. I walked cautiously around the crater to get a closer look at the south curtain wall of the tower and it appeared to me that the bomb had been placed at the exact middle of the wall. I counted the girders and found that there were 11on each side of the damaged girder. Whoever placed this bomb knew exactly where the center of the tower wall was, even though it was hidden behind a concrete wall. And I immediately came to the conclusion that the bomber had placed the bomb in this spot hoping to bring down the tower.
This conclusion caused me more apprehension than the gaping hole in the floor and the putrid smoke drifting around the area. How had the bomber known where the exact center of the wall was? I worked in the Trade Center and I would not have been unable to locate this spot, so how did the bomber manage it? This was a question that I would like to have answered.
Next the video crew moved down to the levels below ground zero using flashlights to guide us down crumbling stairs with missing steps and over heaps of debris that were piled on floors everywhere.
The giant coolers and pumps that operated the Trade Center air conditioning and heating seemed undamaged although they were covered in debris, but no determination of damage could be made until the power was restored.
A decision already had been made to try and find temporary heating and air conditioning equipment that could be used to provide needed temperature control within the Twin Towers, because if the equipment in the basement were badly damaged the Trade Center could not reopen until this equipment was repaired.
On the B6 level, I noticed that water was spouting out of several areas of the huge retaining wall that kept the Hudson River out of the site, and I pointed this out to an engineer who had come with us to view the damage.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “The pumps will pump out the water.”
I pointed out the fact that the pumps were not working, but he said the Port Authority Command Center was aware of the problem and would get temporary pumps down as quickly as possible. Then the holes in the wall could be repaired.
When the video survey in the below grade areas was complete, Karpiloff told the FBI agent in charge that the footage would be developed overnight and delivered in the morning. The agent inquired about the scope of the areas photographed and he listened carefully to the explanation.
The agent then wanted to know if we had made a photographic and video record of the walls of the crater all the way down from the Plaza area to the sixth level below the Plaza. Since the walls of the crater were extremely unstable, with pieces of automobiles and other debris hanging precariously from the sides and no apparent way to gain access to the inside of the crater, Doug Karpiloff said no attempt had been made to make this video record, a response that the FBI agent found unacceptable.
When Karpiloff approached the video crew and asked them if they could figure out a way to make a video record of the inside of the smoking crater, they looked at him as if he were insane and told him it was impossible.
They also told him that if they had known just how dangerous the below grade area really was before they arrived they would not have accepted the assignment. All the enthusiasm they had displayed when they first arrived at the site was replaced by a sullen fear of the environment. “We were hired to photograph some damage not to act like war photographers. Nobody told us the job was going to be like this,” said the leader of the video group.
Karpiloff, who was an ex-Army captain, was used to giving orders and taking orders, and he tried to motivate the video crew into taking on the crater assignment by calling them wimps, but they were having none of it and they just left the site, after handing over the spools of film.
Karpiloff then tried to contact the chief Port Authority photographer, Al Belva, who had a lab in the World Trade Center, but this photographer had been evacuated. However, Karpiloff reached him at home and told him to report back to the Trade Center the following morning, the earlier the better.
When Belva was told to arrive the next morning at 7 a.m. for the assignment he tried to quiz Karpiloff about the nature of the assignment, but Karpiloff would not give him any details because he did not want Belva to have a sleepless night.
But this was not going to be an easy task to carry out. Karpiloff had to find some means of lowering this cameraman down through the crater, making a detailed record of what he saw on the way down.
Karpiloff had a meeting with Port Authority engineers to talk about how this project would be achieved. The engineers decided Karpiloff would need a small mobile construction crane brought down from the street level on the ramp used to let cars into the below grade area, and then he would need a basket or bucket which could be lowered by the crane down the crater on a cable. The photographer would sit in this basket and then shoot “around the clock” as he was being lowered down. We agreed to this plan.
The Evacuation of the Towers
The evacuation of the Towers continued long into the evening. Communications became a major problem for the command posts of the police, the fire department and the Emergency Services, because these posts were swamped with more calls than they could handle.
Most of the people made their way out of the towers without incident, and the inside of the Trade Center was like the eye of a hurricane, quiet and orderly while chaos swirled around the outer edges.
Some tenants who eventually made it out to the street and were able to call home were surprised at the hysteria that the media had created among their families. Many of these tenants had experienced an orderly evacuation down the stairs later in the day with the help of firefighters, and there was little panic and tenants had little sense that their lives were in imminent danger because the firefighters assured them that the fires were out.
Initially, it was the smoke that was a problem and those who were all black-faced and coughing as they emerged were hurried away to the nearest triage areas that had been set up, or sent in ambulances to the nearest hospital.
The major problems faced by those who were evacuating the North Tower came during the first hour, when those descending one of the three sets of stairs in the tower descended into the mezzanine of the North Tower, and found it black with smoke that prevented them from finding an exit. For a brief period, these evacuees thought they were doomed.
However, the firefighters solved the problem by smashing the huge lobby and mezzanine windows facing West Street, allowing torrents of clean cold February air to sweep much of the smoke out of the lobby and the mezzanine.
The negative public perception of what was happening inside the Trade Center was not helped by the decision of the New York City police chief to involve police helicopters in the rescue effort. When these helicopters began to rescue people who had made their way up to the roofs of the towers, these images suggested that terrible things were happening inside the Trade Center and that there probably had been horrendous casualties.
The firefighters in the towers were unhappy with the intervention of the police department helicopters into an area they thought fell under their jurisdiction, and they asked that the police helicopters cease activities because if one of the helicopters had an accident on the roof and plunged down onto West Street scores of people could be killed. Furthermore, the firefighters argued, that rooftop rescues were just not necessary.
I was aware of the friction between the police and the firefighters and so were all of the other Port Authority personnel present, but Port Authority staff stayed out of the dispute because they believed they would not be allowed to act as mediators.
But in spite of the complaints of the Fire Department, the Police Department Aviation Unit continued with the rescue: the unit made 40 landings on both roofs and brought 135 injured people down for emergency treatment. The helicopters also brought 135 police on to the roofs, where they deployed throughout the higher floors, providing assistance to handicapped people trapped on the high floors. Many of the firemen who were arriving up on the higher floors, exhausted after climbing up 100 floors, were astounded to see fresh police teams on their way down from the roof.
However, when Captain William Wilkens, the commanding officer of the Police Aviation Unit, was asked by a high-ranking police official to ferry 200 more officers onto the roof late in the afternoon when it was getting dark, Wilkins refused to carry out the order even though it had been ordered by the chief. Wilkens thought further flights were dangerous and unnecessary, because he believed most people had been evacuated at this point, and that landing on the dark roofs of the building would be too dangerous.
The primary function of the firefighters in each of the towers was a search, rescue, and evacuation mission. Each floor, each room, each closet had to be searched to make sure that nobody had been left behind. There were scores of handicapped people in wheelchairs with no elevators available and these people had to be carried down the stairs. When the tenants left their offices they closed the door behind them and the firefighters faced with these closed doors had to break down 4,000 doors to search inside.
There were 210 elevators in the Trade Center and many of them were occupied when the power went out. All of these elevators had to be searched for people who might have suffocated in the elevator cars which had become prisons. None were suffocated but 10 unconscious people were rescued from one elevator, a dozen unconscious people were rescued from another and 100 school children were taken out alive from the express elevator to the Observation Deck. And in both towers scores of people trapped in other elevators made their presence known.
By late evening all of the office workers had been evacuated and the towers were empty except for the police and firemen who continued to methodically search every inch of the complex for survivors. By 10 p.m. the search ended and control of the World Trade Center was handed back to the Port Authority when the police and firefighters withdrew. The known death toll was five adults and an unborn child. Two weeks later the body of another victim would be found.
Silence of a Graveyard
After the last New York City police officer and the last firefighter left the complex, the ground floor of the World Trade Center looked like a dirty, abandoned hulk that had been through a world war. The elegant 70-foot high lobbies with their crystal chandeliers and expensive marble finishes were filthy, and the shopping mall was without lighting and was littered with debris.
But anyone viewing the complex from the outside would have no idea the extent of the mayhem created by Yousef’s bomb, because all the lights were on in the towers and the complex maintained its dominance of the New York skyline.
The Port Authority staff whose responsibility had been to operate the building in an efficient and safe manner was traumatized by the catastrophe which had overtaken them, although few of them displayed any signs of emotion.
Although the World Trade Center was a public complex owned by the states of New York and New Jersey, the Port Authority staff that operated the Trade Center operated as if they were owners of the facility. Managers who managed certain areas of the complex often referred to their area as “my Mall; my Observation Deck; my lobbies” as if they were shareholders in the facilities. The majority of staff who managed the Trade Center in February1993 had devoted their working careers to the complex.
Charles Maikish, the director of the World Trade Center, began his career with the Port Authority as an engineer involved with the construction of the project, and his deputy, George Rossi, had a similar background of long service. Indeed the vast majority of senior executives in World Trade Center Operations and Marketing were long-term employees with 30 or more years of service. I had more than 30 years of service with the Port Authority by 1993.
Now, on February 26, 1993, the Port Authority staff was faced with the partial destruction of its headquarters, and was forced to stand on the sidelines as an army of police, firefighters and other New York City officials took over the Trade Center and assumed control of it. It seemed like the Port Authority had been the victim of a coup.
I knew that the attack by terrorists was the primary reason why this invasion was taking place, but the way that firefighters smashed the huge windows in the lobbies and the mezzanine, and the quarreling between the Fire Department and the Police Department about who was really in charge during this operation left senior Port Authority staff uneasy.
I toured the ground floor of the Trade Center late in the evening and the empty lobbies and the mall had the atmosphere of a graveyard. Usually, at 10 p.m., there was a considerable number of people around the mall and the lobbies: customers coming and going to Windows on the World restaurant on the top of the North Tower; or sightseers exiting the Observation Deck on the South Tower. There were also people streaming through the Mall from the Wall Street area heading for the PATH station. The Trade Center itself had a considerable late night population, as some tenants were in operation twenty-four hours, and also there were armies of cleaners mopping floors and cleaning up offices.
Now, the Observation Deck was closed; Windows on the World was closed; PATH was shut down; and the army of cleaners and tenants on the night shift were all at home, and the ground floor of the Trade Center was dark, grimy with smoke, and full of debris. Only the Port Authority Police were on hand, circling the public areas keeping an eye out for stragglers.
George Rossi, deputy director of the World Trade Center, walked around the ground floor of the complex with me, depressed at the sight of this filthy, empty facility which was usually sparkling clean and throbbing with life at all times of the day and night. I had worked with Rossi since the World Trade Center was in its planning stages and we had a relaxed relationship. Rossi, a 30-year veteran, said that he never imagined the day would come when the Trade Center would look like this.
“I hope we can catch up with those who did this,” he said. “They have murdered people here today, and they must pay for it.”
But the chief culprit, Ramzi Yousef, was in a plane high above the Atlantic and it would take years to catch up with him.
The Blind Sheik
I headed home to Jersey City shortly after touring the ground floor of the Trade Center with Rossi. It was 11 p.m. and I had to be back in the Trade Center at 7 a.m. to meet Al Belva, the Port Authority photographer who had a date with the smoking crater. I was not looking forward to this meeting.
The Port Authority Trans Hudson trains were not operating between the Trade Center and Jersey City, so I hailed a cab and asked him to take me to Christopher Street, where another PATH line linked Jersey City and 33rd Street in Manhattan.
It was shortly after midnight when I arrived in Journal Square Jersey City, one mile from my home. As I left the PATH station, I could see the Trade Center four miles away, on the eastern bank of the Hudson River, which separated Jersey City from Lower Manhattan. Director Maikish had ordered that every available light in the Twin Towers be turned on in order to let the bombers know that they had achieved little – that the Trade Center was alive and well.
I decided to walk home as buses ran infrequently at that time of night, and anyway I decided my lungs need some clean fresh air after breathing in smoke and fumes all day long. I walked along Kennedy Boulevard past closed stores and a variety of Christian churches. There was a synagogue on the route, and a mosque operated by a radical blind Imam. All were closed.
When I approached a cross street named Kensington Avenue, which was two blocks from my own street, I noticed that a Jersey City Police car with flashing headlights had blocked off Kensington Avenue to traffic.
Curiosity got the better of me and I crossed the street to see what was going on. As I approached the police officer standing beside the car, he seemed about to wave me away until he saw I was wearing a heavy Port Authority jacket which had been issued to all staff working in the towers late in the evening to combat the freezing cold that had gripped the complex since the heating system had been destroyed.
Instead, he greeted me politely and when I asked him what was going on, he said that federal agents were searching buildings at the far end of the block looking for those who were responsible for the World Trade Center bombing. I stared at him hardly believing what I was hearing.
“They know who the bombers are?” I said.
“They seem to. I heard talk about Muslim extremists who are led by the Blind Sheik who operates the mosque further up Kennedy Boulevard.” Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman was known as the Blind Sheik.
I asked him when the FBI had arrived on the block, and he said they had arrived in the afternoon and had been there since.
All day I had been hearing from FBI agents at the Trade Center that they had no idea what had caused the explosion, and if it was a bomb they had no idea who placed it in the parking garage. They said they would only be able to come to a conclusion after a thorough investigation which could take weeks. And I left the Trade Center that night without the slightest idea about who was responsible for the blast, only to discover a policeman in my own neighborhood seemed to know all about the bombers, even who the leader was. And this information came courtesy of the same FBI agents who were going on TV claiming they still were not sure a bomb had gone off. I left the police officer at his post on Kensington Avenue and walked two blocks to my home, thoroughly confused.
Eileen and my daughter Nora were full of questions about the bombing, and were very disappointed when I had no information that I wanted to share with them. All day long they had been listening to detailed coverage of the blast on radio and TV, much of it contradictory, and they were sure that when I got home I would be able to provide the inside story. After all, I had been at ground zero all day.
Now, I was home but I had little news to tell them. I was unwilling to talk about the deaths of the four Port Authority staff members or the fact that I saw their bodies being carried out of the basement and onto waiting ambulances.
I was unwilling either to talk about meeting ATF agents in the World Trade Center basement all dressed up in biological hazard suits, while the only protection I had was a paper mask. I could not tell them there might be a possibility I had been poisoned. So I said nothing about that either.
And I said nothing about the behavior of the FBI agents who were hunting terrorists several blocks away, while claiming over in New York that they had no idea who had bombed the Trade Center. I went up to bed exhausted and depressed, and they did not ask any more questions because they could see that I was in no mood to discuss events at the World Trade Center any further.
I thought I would get some answers to my questions in the days or weeks ahead, but years passed and I still did not learn how much the FBI knew about the terrorists before the bomb was exploded, or how Ramzi Yousef was able to place the bomb at the exact center of the south face of the North Tower. Who had coached him?
I did some research on the suspects who were questioned after the attack and discovered that two of them who had been involved with Yousef were never charged with any crime, and continued to reside in the New York area where they are employed by two different universities in New York as professors. One is a microbiologist who has access to a well-equipped lab.
Were these two FBI moles and this is the reason they were never tried? If this is the reason this creates another unanswered question: why did they not prevent the bomb from being detonated?
I was in Ireland for my daughter’s wedding on 9/11 and watched the towers fall on television. Douglas Karpilov and several other Port Authority staff who were at ground zero with me in February 1993 were killed in the fall of the towers and their bodies have never been found.
When the time came for the World Trade Center bombers to pay for their crimes they were not treated like such criminals would have been treated in Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Egypt: taken out and hanged, shot, or beheaded. They were instead tried for their crimes in federal court and given life sentences with no possibility of parole.
In March of 1994, four were convicted and sentenced: Nidal Ayyad, Mahmoud Abouhalima, Mohammed Salameh, and Ahmad Ajaj. In November of 1997, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and, his driver, Eyad Ismoil, were convicted and sentenced. All had ties to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the radical Egyptian religious leader who operated out of a mosque in Jersey City. In 1995, Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheik,” and 10 of his followers were convicted in federal court of conspiring to blow up the United Nations Headquarters and other New York landmarks.
Some of the relatives of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing victims complained that the life sentences the terrorists received were far too lenient and that the bombers deserved a far more extreme punishment, i.e., the death penalty, which they thought was a more suitable retribution for the crimes committed.
But these relatives did not seem to be aware that the bombers would have welcomed the death penalty because they believed that as martyrs they would have ascended directly to heaven to enjoy eternal rewards.
And the relatives were certainly not aware that the government had in mind punishment for these bombers which to most people would find to be worse than death: an incarceration in a 7x12 cell in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives with little or no contact with the outside world.
The bombers had been incarcerated in federal jails in New York after their arrest and during their trials, and had grown accustomed to their treatment, which included frequent contacts with each other and with relatives and lawyers, and many of them had enjoyed a very relaxed relationship with the prison guards, who talked and mixed with the defendants.
There was none of the torture or other abuse that these Muslims knew were commonplace in the prisons of their home countries. When they were handed life sentences they may have believed that life in prison would not be pleasant, but judging from their experience up to the day they were sentenced, they thought that it was a life that they would have no problem in enduring. However, they soon learned that they were not at all prepared for their incarceration in the maximum-security prison, ADX, in Florence, Colorado.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Concept of Hell
In Florence, the government had designed a prison that was a clean, quiet version of hell – an environment where the total isolation experienced in solitary confinement breaks the spirit, and the absence of human contact or the ability to see anything but the reinforced concrete of their cells makes the prison a place where deep depression is commonplace. Five American inmates have committed suicide there in the last eight years.
The United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) is a prison comprising a 37-acre, 490-bed complex that is one of three correctional facilities, each with a different level of security. The prison has on average 430 male prisoners, each assigned to one of six security levels. Most incarcerated here have killed other prisoners or killed prison officers and because of this these individuals, like the bombers, are kept 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. The remaining hour is spent exercising alone in a small concrete chamber.
The 84-square-feet cells are constructed mainly of poured concrete, and include a desk, a stool, and a bed covered with a very thin mattress. There is a toilet in the room which shuts off if it is plugged up, and a shower with a timer that rations the water. A mirror of polished steel is attached to the wall, and a sealed radio and 12” black and white TV that cannot be opened or tampered with. A 4’ x 4’ window looks out on to a blank wall or roof, and no view of the surrounding countryside is possible. Walls, ceilings, and doors are in various shades of gray, and color of any kind is banned from the facility. A steel door opens out into a vestibule and officers carry the food into the vestibule for each prisoner and slide it through a slot.
During 95 percent of the time, the prisoners see no one but the officer who provides for their needs and no personal exchanges takes place. The prisoner may request writing paper or toilet paper, and the guard may provide it, or not. The only contact they have with other prisoners is to shout at the top of their voices.
The facility housing the Trade Center bombers is named Supermax and for good reason. On a “60 Minutes” program former warden Robert Hood told CBS newsman Scott Pelley that the Supermax facility was the Harvard of the 114 prisons in the federal system. He said the government had perfected the art of isolating and controlling dangerous criminals like Ramzi Yousef and the other bombers. He said it was virtually impossible to break out of the facility because a multitude of motion detectors and cameras, the 1,400 remote-controlled steel doors and the 12-foot-high razor wire fences present formidable barrier. Guard dogs and laser beams also guard the perimeter.
Telecommunications with the outside world is forbidden, except for one brief call a month to an approved list of relatives. Visitors are restricted to family members on a short list, and these visitors are separated from inmates by a thick Plexiglas panel. The prisoners can send mail to an authorized list of people, and letters written can be read by staff before being mailed out.
The Al Qaeda prisoners in Supermax, except for Yosef, are housed in a separate area named Range 13, which has eight cells on one level and eight cells directly above them. Out of the 16 cells, 14 are occupied by the Muslim terrorists. These terrorists include the World Trade Center bombers, as well as those eight other terrorists convicted with the Blind Sheik in the plot to bomb other major landmarks in New York City; the other two are occupied by American bombers Eric Rudolph, the abortion clinic bomber, and Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.
All the Muslim and American bombers are kept isolated in the same cell block for a reason. Prison officials believe that every one of them is unapologetic for his crimes and justify his actions for political or religious reasons, and they do not want these inmates trying to persuade other prisoners in the prison population of the rightfulness of their cause. They could acquire converts in this manner.
Although each prisoner lives in his own cell, they have been able to contact other prisoners by yelling through the vents or yelling at the top of their voices. Eric Rudolph, in a series of letters to his mother, described how the Muslims were yelling at each other all day long, exchanging information and keeping their spirits up by loudly praying or promoting the Al Qaeda cause. When 9/11 occurred, all yelled with happiness and thanked Allah.
Once a week all 14 prisoners are allowed out to a yard surrounded by high walls and allowed to exercise together. But even then they are kept in isolation from one another because each prisoner is released into an individual fenced in area 100 yards long and three feet wide and they exercise by running up and down this corridor for an hour. The Muslims have worked out a routine in which pairs of them run together, one on each side of the fence, and both talking loudly to one another. Rudolph walks alone because Kaczynski refused ever to leave his cell.
The residents of the town of Florence are nervous about the prison; they are most afraid that Al Qaeda may attempt to break into the prison and rescue its followers. The reason for this is that the prison has been designed to prevent prisoners from breaking out, not anyone breaking in. Although the main buildings are built with massive thick concrete walls, there is no perimeter wall around the outside of the property, so a high-jacked armored car could drive right up to the walls and blast the walls with high-powered explosives. This is the group who brought down the Twin Towers, so anything is possible.
The prison claims it has no money in its budget for such a wall, and repeated requests to the federal government for the necessary funds have been rejected. The Muslims are aware of this, but to date have been unable to take advantage of the situation. Perhaps Yousef will come up with a plan.
Yousef in Ultramax within the Supermax
Prison officials at Florence treat Yousef as a special case, housing him in a 12 x 7 cell that looks like a coffin in Ultramax, an isolated section of the Supermax part of the prison. The reason for this ultra isolation is that Yousef is considered dangerous even in prison because of his ability to influence others.
One warden described him as a natural leader who has those “Charles Manson eyes.” Former Warden Robert Hood said Yousef has a presence that is unique among the Muslims. He has charisma, he is self-contained, and there is a powerful person behind those eyes. “You cannot have him in a place where he could influence others.”
As a result, he has no contact with the other Muslims and little or no contact with the guards, whom he never actually sees. The only human contact is provided when the guards slip food silently to him through a slot three times a day.
He can watch a limited amount of television if he behaves himself but this is withdrawn at the slightest infraction.
He is buried alive in a concrete tomb but carefully kept alive so that he can serve every hour, every day and every year of the life sentence he received for the deliberate killing and injuring innocent people at the World Trade Center.
Until recently, Yousef also refused to leave his cell because he said that the policy of making the prisoners strip down and endure a search of their cavities before they were allowed out in the yard was demeaning and he wanted no part of it.
With all the time on his hands to think about such indignities, Yosef can also reflect on his six months living in Jersey City while he planned his crimes; he must remember those months fondly. He had large well-furnished rooms to live in, he had friends to talk to, and he could walk the streets whenever he wanted to and enjoy any food that pleased him. And he was free to leave the United States at anytime. Now, all he has to look forward to is the day he will exchange the silence of this tomb for the silence of the grave.