Evidence Of Survivors Of 9/11 Will Help Save Lives In Future High Rise Evacuations

At least five times more people would have died in the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre if the Twin Towers had been fully occupied on that day, according to new research involving the University of Ulster.

There were only 8,000 people in each of the towers on 9/11, compared to their capacity of 25,000 each. A total of 2,752 people died when two planes were crashed into the towers, 1,462 of them in the North Tower. The research predicts that 7,592 people would have been killed in the North Tower had it been fully occupied.

Researchers from the Universities of Ulster, Greenwich and Liverpool spent three and a half years studying the evacuation of the Twin Towers and conducted interviews with 271 survivors.

Preliminary findings include:

— more than half the occupants stayed to carry out tasks before evacuating;

— occupants seeking information about what was happening took between 1.5 and 2.6 times longer to respond;

— congestion on the stairs was the main cause of delay, even though the towers were less than one-third occupied that day;

— computer simulations of the evacuation of the North Tower suggest that had the building been fully occupied at the time of the attack, some 7,592 people would have died in the North Tower alone;

— computer analysis suggests that for buildings above a critical population and height, stairs alone will not be sufficient to safely evacuate the entire building population.

The research has been welcomed by Sally Regenhard, Chairperson of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and mother of a firefighter lost at the WTC. She said: “Designers of high rise buildings and their evacuation procedures are architects of destiny for millions around the world. When I see a new skyscraper, I want to know that the deadly mistakes of 9/11 have been corrected.”

Many of the survivors said they had benefited personally from taking part in the research. “Some of us believe that the only way to deal with the aftermath of the event is to talk about it and that any lessons learned from the events of the WTC evacuation on 9/11 should be shared so that we can be better prepared,” said one participant.

Thousands of details have been entered in a database known as HEED (High-rise Evacuation Evaluation Database) and modelled by computer to reveal vital information which will improve the safety of high rise buildings around the world. The project has been funded with an £1.6 million grant from the UK Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Project Director Professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich says: “Together these personal stories paint a comprehensive picture of what happened and why. What influenced evacuees’ behaviour? What was going through their minds when they made key decisions? This is a hugely important body of data in itself. We will be making the HEED database available to bone fide researchers all over the world, so that it can become a valuable international resource for others to use.”

The HEED database is already providing new insights which could lead to the development of safer evacuation procedures, contribute to improved building regulations around the world and lead to more sophisticated evacuation modelling tools. For example, analysis reveals that while people travelled more slowly down the WTC stairs than engineers predicted, based on earlier human behaviour studies, this was not due, as some leading evacuation specialists had suggested, to growing levels of obesity in the community, but primarily to the high levels of crowd density that existed on the stairs.

Overall 82% of those interviewed said that they stopped at least once; a small number stopped more than 20 times during their descent. Congestion was the primary cause of stopping (44% of incidents), followed by ascending fire fighters and descending groups of injured people (17.6%). Only a minority of evacuees needed to take a rest (causing 9.7% of stoppages), or were stopped by environmental conditions such as debris, smoke, heat and water on the stairs (3.5%).

Occupant response time is another important parameter defining the success or failure of an evacuation. Generally, the longer people take to start their evacuation the longer it will take for them to safely get out.

The response time is also an important parameter in evacuation simulation used in design calculations. The research showed that actual response times by people fleeing the burning buildings was slower than that used by engineers when designing high rise buildings.

“Providing people with good information about what is happening and what to do can significantly reduce occupant response times, and lead to a safer evacuation,” says Professor Galea. “These results quantify the benefits that can be derived from providing hardened emergency communications systems within buildings.”

Analysis of the research information also revealed that for buildings above a critical population and height, stairs alone will not be sufficient to safely evacuate the entire building population.

The University of Greenwich is already exploring the use of lifts for evacuation of high-rise buildings using their building EXODUS evacuation model. They are currently developing enhanced human behaviour models that simulate the choices people make in deciding to use a lift/elevator or stairs as part of their evacuation route. You can help with this research by completing an on-line questionnaire at the University of Greenwich website: http://fseg.gre.ac.uk/elevator

As a thank you to the survivors who took part in the project, the research team has donated US $5,420 to the participants’ chosen charity, the World Trade Centre Survivors’ Network. Five golden rules which could make the difference between life and death in an emergency evacuation:

— Don’t do anything to delay your departure.

— Know your way out.

— Don’t stop on the way to reassure friends and family.

— Don’t discard your shoes on the stairs.

— Know how long it will take to get out.

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