Jerry Cala, director of the Jersey City Office of Emergency Management, had a couple of things on his mind when he arrived at his office early on Sept. 11, 2001.
He wanted to check the city’s communications systems in preparation for a potential winter storm disaster and a mock county-wide communications drill scheduled for the following week that was supposed to simulate a terrorist’s attack.
Under federal law, each state, county and municipality had to maintain and office of emergency management to coordinate responses to disasters, whether this was due to natural causes or human-generated hostility.
Although OEM was a product of the 1970s, it was activated by President Bill Clinton in a direct response to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Some of its staff at the time of the 2001 attack even had roots that went back to the Civil Defense era, whose function largely expired with the end of the Cold War.
In its new role under Clinton, the OEM had to develop a disaster plan that outlined what each part of the community would do in case of a massive emergency and this plan detailed what each organization in the community would play in such a situation, what resources were available, what body – such as police or fire – might do in a given situation.
One important detail was how well these OEMs could interact with the Port Authority and its various components – and the test planned for a week after 9/11 was designed to see how well these groups could communicate in the event of a disaster.
Congress, of course, saw the OEM has a valuable tool, and so in 1996, authorized these bodies to also deal with potential threats from weapons of mass destruction – the details of which emerged in the 1998 Federal Response Plan.
Hudson County, however, did not get a practical test of its operations until the year 2000, when the OEM took the lead in coordinating the July 4 Operation Sal International Naval Review. This event drew millions of tourists to the waterfront to view the thousand of ships. And it created the conditions the OEM needed to understand massive movement of people and the potential problems it might face in the event of a disaster.
“This was the first time that we had dealt with anything of this scale county wide,” said Frank Pizzuta, a former Weehawken fire official who served as the county’s OEM director on 9/11.
OP/Sail went off well enough, but a review of OEM showed some potential serious communication problems. While Hudson County OEM officials had common radio frequencies on which to communicate with each other, many towns with volunteer staffs and limited budgets lacked the same equipment. During the year prior to the terrorist attack, the county equipped itself with the necessary radios and repeaters, needing only to test the system to determine if they had succeeded.
This test was scheduled for September 18, 2001 in Secaucus.
“This was to be a functional exercise that went through everything, made all the phone calls, but did not send the units to the locations,” Pizzuta said.
As fate would have it, OEM and the Port Authority had also scheduled a full blown exercise for early 2002 that would simulate another terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, one similar to the events that took place in 1993.
All these plans, of course, ended at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first plane struck the North Tower.
“I was sitting at my desk drinking office and reading the paper when one of the first department training instructors informed me that an aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center,” Cala recalled later in a statement for this book. “Immediately, we rushed into the street and could clearly see the smoke billowing from one of the two towers. We then went back into the office and put on the telephone and watched the rest in horror.”
Cala met with firefighters to determine how best to fight the fire.
At this point, the second plane struck the second town and I ordered my staff to activate the Jersey City and Hudson county Emergency Operations Center,” he said.
According to Pizzuta, who shared the Summer Avenue office in Jersey City with Cala, the Hudson County OEM operations center, was activated at 8:55 a.m. and a state of emergency in Hudson County was declared five minutes later.
“Within minutes all 12 phones because to ring continuously,” Cala said. “Also radio transmissions from the police and fire departments echoing the phone calls in asking for assistance at the Jersey City water front. Thousands of people were evacuating lower Manhattan and were arriving on the shores of Jersey City and Hoboken.”
All OEM personnel were notified and the OEM phones and faxes installed in Secaucus for the following week’s test where switched back to the Summit Avenue office. Pizzuta said staffing was arranged for 24 hour coverage at the Summit Avenue location.
“We then got in touch with the state and told them we had set up the office and we began notifying the local municipalities,” he said. “We were told to expect a large number of injuries.”
One of Cala’s chief tasks was to provide medical assistance, he said. Doctors were brought in and triage centers set up. The main center was located at Liberty State Park which the state took over.
“Any watercraft available was being utilized,” Cala said. “Ferries, fireboats, tug boats, private boats, even barges. We were deluged with calls for ambulances when we ran out of ambulances, we provided buses to transport injured victims and stranded commuters. At one point, we even commandeered a NJ Transit bus.”
In the first two hours, Jersey City and other points along the Gold Coast of Hudson County continued to receive injured and stranded commuters.
“Many of the people who came here had no way to return home,” Cala said. “Shelters were set up in four high schools along the Hudson County coast. Hundreds of commuters, residents and even tourists were houses for several days in our shelters. We provided them with cots, blankets and food.”
AT one point, an entire New York City nursery school was transported to Jersey City and houses at a local school until the parents of the kids could pick them up.
In order to prevent grid lock, Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham called a city state of emergency that allowed OEM to shut down many of the streets leading downtown to the waterfront.
“Jersey City had mobilized its police and fire departments and were prepared to dispatch all available umbers to New York City,” Cala said. “But the decision was made to keep most of the police and fire department personnel in Jersey City. There was still information being circulated that other planes were in the air and Jersey City forces would be needed in the event of another strike in this area or to back up New York City if another area of the city was attacked.”
Throughout Hudson County, equipment and volunteers got ready if a call came across the Hudson River for help. The Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford became a staging area with the old Giants Stadium surrounded by a sea of emergency vehicles.
Pizzuta had public workers standing by for fuel transportation with a fleet of almost 1,000 vehicles.
According to Jeff Welz director of the North Hudson Regional Fire Department, Hudson County put 20 fire engines and ladders at New York City’s disposal. Two engines and a ladder truck were sent but never used.
Jersey City also provided a truck designed to refill Scott Pack Units – a devise that allows fire fighters to breathe while inside a burning building.
Welz said 300 ambulances were stationed inside Hudson County with 200 of these at Liberty State Park. Some of these, Cala said, came from as far away as Pennsylvania. Thirty ambulances were also station at each of the ferry terminals.
At one point, Hudson County had problems communication with officials from New York City.
“So the decision was made to send a group of police officers to Ground Zero by boat to obtain information,” Cala said. “The group relayed information and requests for equipment and supplies back to Jersey City.”
Over the next 24 to 36 hours, Jersey City became the life line to New York City as supplies passed through it bound for those working to recover victims at Ground Zero. These supplies came from everywhere, not just from around Hudson County, but from around the state and in the weeks that followed, from around the nation.
New York City rescue operations made numerous requests for respirators, dust masks, flash lights, batteries, small hand tools, empty five gallon pales, drinking water, ice, supports drinks, food, and not an insignificant item – body bags.
In the early hours, OEM made calls to every area store, brought the items to the staging area and then shuttled them over on boats and barges to New York City.
“Hundreds of truck loads of supplies became to arrive at the Hudson Street staging area as well as thousands of volunteers,” Cala said. “The area resembled a refugee camp where people were sleeping in make shift tents and eating food supplied by vendors.”