Tulsa FD reflects on 9/11, talks about high-rise responses

TULSA, Okla. — Twenty years later, in a building designed just like the Twin Towers, the procedures for fighting fires and rescuing people in downtown Tulsa’s tallest building remains the same, first responders must take the stairs.

FOX23 reached out to the Tulsa Fire Department and Williams Companies, the owner of One Williams Center (commonly referred to incorrectly at the BOK Tower) about what, if anything, has changed about fire and rescue procedures since September 11th, 2001. Williams did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the safety of their building and procedures, but Tulsa Fire did.

“If there’s lives to be saved up in there, that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” said Tulsa Fire Captain Jarrod Perry. Perry is just one of those on the entire team at Station Five near South Boston and East 18th Street who have the duty of being “first to go in”. That means when it comes to downtown Tulsa’s high rise buildings, those who work at Station Five are tasked with going up every flight of stairs until they reach the level a fire is on and where people may need rescuing.

“We’re going to go in, and in the case of September 11th, that plane, or you know planes, there were two, took out the elevator shafts, and those guys really did have to walk and run up. So, we would do exactly the same thing,” Perry said about an emergency response in One Williams Center. One Williams Center is often referred to as “the surviving sister” or the “forgotten cousin” of the original World Trade Center Twin Towers.

According to company statements and historic records about the design of One Williams Center, Co-founder, Former CEO, and one-time company Chairman John Williams was so impressed with the open floor plan of the Trade Center towers in New York that he wanted a smaller scale built in downtown Tulsa.

Originally, Williams wanted two to three twenty story miniature Trade Center-like towers, but during the design period, it was determined to be more efficient if they built one 52-story tower instead. The design of that single tower would be nearly identical to the towers in New York.

The building would have four exterior support columns, a strong central core where elevators, stairwells, and restrooms would be, and surrounding that central core would be open office space unobstructed by support beams and internal columns. The external columns and the central support structure of the Twin Towers would be significantly weakened and compromised when a fully-fueled Boeing 767 would penetrate the external columns and pierce the central core of each tower on 9/11.

Investigators would also state that the fireproofing the building had on its internal structure would be blown off from the force of the impact. On 9/11, NYFD Deputy Chief Orio Palmer was one of the only first responders to make it up to the impact zone of the South Tower. After taking a working elevator up to the 40th floor, he ran up the stairs to 78th Floor Sky Lobby where United flight 175 hit head on. “Battalion Seven...Ladder 15, we’ve got two isolated pockets of fire. We should be able to knock it down with two lines. 78th floor numerous 10-45 Code Ones (victims),” Palmer said in recorded radio traffic released after the attacks.

While waiting for other responders to get to him, Palmer freed people in a trapped elevator, and then a minute later, the building would collapse with him inside, the 9/11 Commission Report states. FOX23 asked Perry about Palmer’s story, and he said not much, if anything has changed, in how TFD would respond to a fire in One Williams Center just like Palmer did in Two World Trade Center (the South Tower) twenty years ago. He said, the tallest ladder TFD has will only reach as high as the tenth floor, and that is if there is no debris or obstructions next to the building.

For the most part, the tenth floor is an optimal level for the ladder to reach, and the ladder capabilities should usually only be expected to reach the eighth or ninth floors of the tower. Anything higher than nine, and it’s up to TFD to walk up the steps, and that includes with all the gear they need for a fire fight and rescue of anyone injured.

“On the run of the mill house fire, we’ve got a fire truck full of equipment right at the sidewalk that we can pull everything off of. On a high rise ten, twenty, thirty stories up, and we’re having to bring all of our equipment just so we can get into the game,” Perry said. Each floor of many of downtown Tulsa’s high-rise buildings has plug in for hoses to be hooked into so crews can attach their hose to a water source on the level the fire is on.

But Perry does reiterate that 9/11 was a rare event, and while TFD does prepare for anything, the likelihood of repeating the events of 9/11 on a single building in downtown Tulsa is extreme small. “I don’t think any of these buildings were ever designed to have a large plane flown into them and they’re fully full of fuel. That’s what really caused the significant collapse of those towers,” he said.

For the most part, he said TFD plans for office equipment fires that can be handled before they spread to multiple floors, even though smoke damage could likely spread out over multiple floors, the actual damage from flames is likely to be small.