This Is A Spark Of Life.

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of darkness."

Mike Davis – ‘The World Trade Center – The Untold Story for Car People’

The World Trade Center – The Untold Story for Car People

The human toll was unfathomable, but there were other losses, as well.

by  on Sep.11, 2011

One of many emergency vehicles destroyed when the Twin Towers fell.

Originally posted in November 2001; updated and edited for for the 10th Anniversary.  

On its Tenth Anniversary, Americans are still reeling from the unthinkable attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York City’s World Trade Center and Washington’s Pentagon, and the thousands of innocent people who were murdered in cold blood by fanatic, radical Islamist terrorists.

Yet there is an amazing story, basically untold, of vehicles lost. after all, is an eMagazine whose readers look to us for the automotive stories they can’t find elsewhere.  The concentration of other anniversary stories elsewhere has been, naturally, on the human consequences of the terrorist attacks and all that came afterward, Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance.

According to a 2001 American Heritage magazine report, the 9/11 terrorist attacks may have produced the greatest loss of life — thought at first to be 6,000 — in America in a single incident since the Battle of Antietam in 1864.  And the World Trade Center losses represented the largest aggregate claims in the world history of insurance.

Significantly, according to this writer’s research — and not published elsewhere –the WTC attack also resulted in the largest number of vehicle losses in a single incident, easily exceeding 3,000 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.


Shreds of sheet metal in a dump were all that remained of 1000s of vehicles destroyed on 9/11.

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.  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 in 2001, who watched the whole disaster from his nearby office window.

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 which 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 which had sprung up near the WTC in lower Manhattan.

Until the WTC block was totally excavated, there was 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.

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 on Staten Island 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 were  unreachable — forever.

Altogether, two months afer the WTC attack, insurance companies had 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 which have been identified.

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 observed.  “But if a window was cracked and the dust got inside, they may have to be totaled because of the fear of asbestos.”

He didn’t mention the other kind of debris to found in the dust–human remains reduced to sand-sized grains.  I didn’t realize this until I visited the site in February 2002, five months after the attack.  When I exited from the nearby subway, I was immediately confronted with the smell of death–something an old police reporter, which I am, never forgets.

“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.

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 Interceptor, 20 Explorer, 3 F-250, 15 F-550, 10 Grand Marquis, 10 Sable, and 3 Expedition.  In Sepember, Ford rushed production of 25 Interceptors at the St. Thomas, Ontario, assembly plant as initial NYPD replacements.

New York Fire — 46 vehicles, including 24 Interceptor, 6 Focus, 8 F-350/450, 1 Excursion, 5 Econoline and 2 F-250.

NY/NJ Port Authority — 4 F-550 .

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 were 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, two months later there still  were 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 my 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.

The list of 111 units lost by the NY Fire Department included:

10 ambulances, 2 EMS Suburbans, 24 Crown Vic or Caprice sedans used by staff chiefs, 17 Suburbans used by battalion chiefs, 2 heavy rescue units,

1 tactical support rescue unit (including a 14-foot boat!), 2 high-rise units, 4 step-vans, 1 mask service unit, 2 roadside emergency trucks, 1 satellite unit with a 2000-gal/min pump and deck gun,  3 1000-gal/min squad pumpers, 4 pumpers with 3-stage high pressure pumps, 20 1000/gal/min pumpers, 6 75-foot tower ladders and 12 100-foot rear-mount ladders.

A rush order was placed by NYFD to Seagrave, a 100-year-old traditional  high-quality firefighting vehicle company in Clintonville, WI.  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 was to 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  rushed 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 NYFD immediately.  New York City expressed their gratitude to these department.  However, in order to minimize training issues, they elected to order apparatus meeting New York’s unique fire fighting 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) filled 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, FL.

The high-jacked airliner which 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.

There was a post-script to this story which had been posted originally a decade ago.

In February or March of 2002, I received an email from a woman in Connecticut who had purchased a used Mitsubishi sports car from a dealer in New Haven.  She noted an odd smell in the car, and also saw a lot of sand-like particles under the seats and in the heater/air conditioning vents.  Curious, she had done a web search, came up with my story, and wrote to ask if I thought the car might have been one of those “totaled” by an insurance company after the WTC attack.   I advised her to demand her money back from the dealer and also to contact the Connecticut authorities.  Cars totaled by insurance companies are supposed to have their titles encumbered.

I didn’t tell her what I thought the odd smell was, and I never heard from her again. 


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