05 Mar 2018

The Lessons from Oklahoma City, NYC and Madrid still live on


In 2008/2009, Terri Casella and myself had the opportunity to do an in depth study of interview tapes made from First Responders at the three major Terrorist events which came to change the world: The Oklahoma City Bombing, the Madrid Commuter Train Attack and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC. The result, published in the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency´s video series 90 Seconds, is the only documentary of it's kind which documents how firefighters and other first responders experienced these life & policy changing events. Unfortunately, for proprietary reasons, we cannot show all of the documentary here. However, we believe that the first 7 minutes of the film are powerful enough to keep your  attention. Warning for strong images of violence.




Up until the 1990’s terrorism was - however tragic - usually seen as rather small and low intensity events. Casualties rarely counted more than a handful of people per attack, and rarely would a entire nation consider themselves threatened by individual acts of terrorism. But then, in the mid 90:ies, one event occurred that was going to change our perception of terrorism for ever. And it did it just by the sheer scale of the attack.



By Bjorn Ulfsson / CTIF NEWS


Image removed.

26 year old war veteran Timothy McVeigh achieved his personal revenge against what he saw as an unjust government by parking a truck full of explosives outside a federal building in Oklahoma city.

Never before had a sole individual within the community caused death and injury to this many people.


 1-   Live quote Oklahoma Mike Murphy:


“We were there approximately 2 minutes after the blast. There was still debris falling out of the sky, there was a large cloud of smoke from the burning vehicles down in front of the Federal Building. Everywhere and I mean everywhere there were walking wounded patients, covered with blood from lacerations.”

The Oklahoma City bombing was the largest single terrorist attack against a public building ever recorded in history.

On that day, April 19th 1995, 168 lives were lost and over 800 were injured from one single act of terrorism. This was the first time the world ever considered terrorism as a possible threat against national security.

Before Oklahoma City, most people thought violence of this scale could happen only during war.

Then only six years later, the world was shaken by yet another unprecedented event.


2-   Live Quote from 9 11 Bill Thurlow:


“A friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, called me up and said, What’s going on. And I said, I don’t know what are you talking about? And he said, A plane hit the World Trade Centre and I wanted to call and make sure that you were alright. And I turned on the television right away and both towers had been hit already. They hadn’t collapsed yet. I was watching like everybody else. I just couldn’t believe what was going on. I couldn’t what was happening. And I just sat there watching and when the first tower came down all I could think of was we just lost a hundred firemen. Unfortunately it turned out to be even more than that. And then after the first tower came on I realized I have to go down there.”

The scale and the number of causalities in the  9/11 attack on the WTC in New York was so overwhelming, so serious and unfathomable that it made United States review it’s definitions of war. Moreover, it paved the ground for major changes in the application of the civil rights clauses in the American constitution.

Europe also has had its share of terrorism and horrifying sacrifices in the loss of human lives and infrastructure.

Spain has been used to terrorism after decades of attacks by the Basque separatist group ETA, based in the Basque city of San Sebastian.

   Live Madrid sounds: “Everyone out! Everyone out a bomb!


3- Live Quote Madrid Woman witness:

“We heard an explosion. People panicked and everyone ran for the stairs. You couldn’t go the other way because so many people were coming and when we reached the stairs there was another explosion. Panic spread. People ran losing their shoes and crying.”


4- Live Quote Madrid Guy witness:


 “ And there were body parts everywhere thrown around. Legs, arms, a   head, human body parts everything.”


5- Live Quote Madrid Wounded Guy witness:


“Lots of people running around. A guy had been hit by an explosion. I think he was dead. Yes it was a really big explosion.”


6- Live Quote Madrid Two young woman witnesses:


“Yes I was on the same train.

We sat on the same car both of us listening to our CD players. Then we heard a loud bang. People started panicking. I don’t know what to say. It is a very strange situation.


When several train stations in Madrid were hit by ten bombs on March 11 2004, everyone immediately rushed to the conclusion that ETA was behind the attack.

But after a few hours of confusion on that day, it turned out that the answer wasn’t so simple. The organization that killed 190 civilians on that day, and left 1500 wounded, was Al Queda. The same organization that assumed responsibility for 9 11.

International terrorism had struck again, and if anybody had ever doubted before, the entire western world was now - willing or unwillingly – officially dragged into the so called War on Terrorism.

During the following year, all leaders of the European nations gathered in Spain to discuss the new situation which had arisen since the Madrid Bombings.

They all agreed on one terrible fact: A large scale terrorist threat is now a reality for all European nations, and everyone needs to be better prepared.

7- Live Quote Robert Whalley:


“No country can be immune from the threats of terrorism. This has been proved many times. It’s not just the countries that you might think are in the frontline. Many of the Western democracies, who represent everything the terrorists hate, are also likely to be vunerable.”


This film intends to raise some important questions about how prepared – or perhaps ill prepared – we really are for acts of violence against civilians?

Are fire fighters, police, ambulance workers, and other rescue workers – really anymore prepared or any safer against the unthinkable, than they were in the Oklahoma Bombings, 911, or the Madrid and London bombings?

And what if terrorism and its methods actually escalate how would we respond?


Let’s have a look at some of the major challenges rescue workers were facing at these events, and then lets ask ourselves: Are we actually any better prepared today


Terrorist Film Voice over Part 2


During the three terrorist events we are covering in this film; the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, The 911 Twin Tower attack in 2001, and the Madrid train bombings in 2004, rescue workers dealt with chaotic circumstances on a scale that was unprecedented.  

Never before had any of them ever dealt with such huge catastrophes as these. And - perhaps most importantly - rescue workers were at severe risk of losing their own lives during the operations.

1- Live Quote 9 11 Galvin:

“If you walked around the outside of the building, it looked like a volcano erupted. I mean even at that time you know I’m looking at there’s ambulances that are overturned. They’re on fire, fire trucks are overturned, there’s a huge amount of debris and it looked like volcanic ash from the pulverized concrete.”


2- Live Quote Madrid Jose:

“Evidently we have never had a disaster as unreal as this. Every year we deal with a number of fatal accidents or terrorist attacks with victims but we’ve never dealt with an attack of this scale like March 11.”


3- Live Quote Oklahoma Bob McMahon:

“We had to deal with thousands of problems early on. You have to understand that the magnitude of this incident you’re not going to set that up in a short period of time, but you have to start that early on and build on it and continue to work on it. Especially with the amount of mass confusion and chaos that was on the scene. You had to just start getting a handle on the incident, and sometimes it takes days to do that.”


In the Oklahoma Bombing, rescue workers were operating under the stress and the added risk of a secondary bomb threat.


4- Live Quote Oklahoma Mike Moad:

“So we evacuated all but the very essential people in that area. We left a doctor, a nurse and an evacuation team of two and we left the team working on another woman several feet away and the rest of us stayed and that was a very hard decision and it was just pretty scary.”

Also in Madrid, many of the rescue workers knew personally from previous terrorist attacks, that secondary bombs are common.

5- Live Quote Madrid Jose:

“Initially when arriving at a terrorist attack we know that often it is accompanied by another bomb, whose main objective is to kill the rescue workers. We know this often happens but you need to forget all that. While there are still people alive you need to focus on helping them and not on the worst case scenario of another bomb going off. The firemen in Madrid know this, of course.

Despite the threats, in both Oklahoma and Madrid, in the end - there were no secondary blasts. The loss or injury among rescue workers was minimal.

In 911, however, the situation was reversed.

Initially, nobody knew they were dealing with a terrorist attack.

The New York City Fire Department had dealt with many high rise fires before, and never suspected that two planes crashing into such huge buildings could possibly create so much damage.

No one in command could have ever foreseen how the events were to unfold.

6- Live Quote 9 11 Kilduff:

“Before September 11th we had had a bombing incident at the World Trade Centre that took place in 1993. We never thought that we would have another disaster of that magnitude at the Trade Centre until Sept. 11th

As a routine practice, the New York fire department established their command centres in the lobbies of the two Towers.

Based on their previous experience from high rise fires, they decided this would be the safest place; however it turned out to be their deadliest mistake because the Trade Centre did not behave like they had expected.

- South Tower collapses

The first tower collapsed in a matter of only ten seconds.

7- Live Quote 9 11 Phieffer:

“You got to also understand we didn’t know that tower collapsed. We knew there was a collapse. We thought it was localized, whether it was the elevator shafts or a part of the plane but we had no idea that the whole tower came down.”

8- Live Quote 9 11 Galvin:

“The planes part of the planes hitting the centre core of the tower, the outside part of the tower stayed intact and as these trusses fell there was a pan caking of each floor one on top of the each other because once the truss went all that weight on the next truss, that truss is only built to handle that weight, so once the additional weight went on to the next truss it’s just going to keep compressing them down to the ground.”

Complete confusion occurred when two many rescue workers frantically were trying to use the same radio frequency.

Some agencies, like the police, knew about the first collapse but were unable to communicate this to the fire department.

Although some commanding chiefs suspected the buildings might collapse, the commands on the radio were so distorted that few understood what was being said.

And while hundreds of their colleagues already lay dead in the remnants of the South Tower, large numbers of staff - unaware of the urgent danger - continued to evacuate in the north tower.

Only too late, some fire fighters tried shouting with bull horns, for their colleagues to get out.

Second tower collapses  Long wtc Graphic ends (1 min 25 seconds)

9- Live Quote 9 11 Phieffer:

“What occurred after the collapse was that we had no command structure at that point. We had to regroup and create a command structure from scratch.”

The operation became increasingly difficult when basically all their equipment was destroyed or dysfunctional.

10- Live Quote 9 11 Galvin:

“The dirt and the pulverized concrete that came down just destroyed radio transmission locations that are in the area and the equipment on the rigs and even our handy talkies”

11- Live Quote 9 11 Phieffer:

“Cell phones were useless, they didn’t work. The utilities in the area were all gone. The regular phones didn’t work so all we had was radios. We lost a lot of apparatus and we had so much debris, so you did have to literally walk from one area to the other to communicate face to face.”

The breakdown of the communication systems at 9/11 not only meant the unnecessary deaths of over 300 fire fighters, it also meant that most of their command centre - including their senior officers - were wiped out.

12- Live Quote 9 11 Kilduff:

“We lost people from our top level management on down to fire-fighters who had only been in the fire department for 9 weeks.”

Fire fighters quickly had to be promoted to chiefs to fill the empty positions from their dead commanding officers.

In Madrid, lives were also lost because available resources were not well coordinated between the four bomb sites.

The land based phone lines were already overloaded with emergency calls from the public, and Cell phones were not allowed to be used because of the fear that a phone signal could set of more bombs.

13- Live Quote Madrid Jose:

“As we were going we started receiving more calls of other explosions in various areas all within the same area of Madrid but different from the ones we knew had initially been hit. With all the confusion it was hard to know if some of the locations were the same or not.”

The lack of communication, coordination and overall command between various agencies in Madrid led to the unnecessary deaths of many civilian victims. Too many ambulances and medical resources were concentrated in some places, while others had none or too few.


14- Live Quote Madrid Jose:

“In the end there were 4 locations with a number of bombs and more or less the same scene. Initially there were many victims to rescue and in some sites the resources arrived very quickly while in others much later but all the wounded had to be rescued.”

In Oklahoma, rescue workers rushed to rescue dying and severely wounded victims before the risks had been properly analyzed.

Initially, first responders acted quickly, without organized command, and often without any consideration to the possibility of added dangers such as hazardous materials or secondary bombs.


15- Live Quote Oklahoma

“It was very hard from the very beginning as I said; I got there very early in the incident, to not run up onto that rubble pile and work on those people that you see there. You see them either lying there or just partially trapped. There’s a great tendency to run up there and get involved in that but that doesn’t help the big picture of things and the command structure that needs to be set up because that’s what I felt needed to be done.”

In all the three events, one major challenge was that nothing could be removed without authorization from the police. Everything, even the rubble and debris, could be considered forensic evidence.


16- Live Quote Oklahoma Jackie Edmonson:

“What complicated the issue was that it was a crime scene. You can’t just go in with crime scene and start tearing the building apart because due to the nature of being a bombing incident you have the materials scattered six or seven eight blocks away. Portions of the building were found and the automobiles were found several blocks there. So you’ve got to have a coordinated effort with the FBI and the ATF to do anything.”

Severe problems were encountered in organizing the masses of people on the street that volunteered to help out.


17- Live Quote Oklahoma Jackie Edmonson:

“There was constant borage of people. It never stopped.”


18- Live Quote 9 11 Kilduff:

“Sometimes we had situations develop where we lost control of large amounts of people who came with good intentions to help but were more in the way and more detrimental to our efforts than they were helping us.” 


Terrorist Project Part 3 Lessons Learnt 


The first responders who were interviewed specified 5 major areas where challenges were especially severe during attacks of this scale:


- Pre-Planning & Preparedness

- Unified Command

- Radio & Phone Communications

- Identification of Possible Targets

- Slowing Down to avoid further Injuries


1. Planning and Preparedness 


1- Live Quote 9 11 Kilduff: 

“Lessons learnt and advice has to all come in the name of preparedness, Preparedness and cooperation. The cooperation has to come from all intelligence agencies, all emergency management agencies, everybody has to be working with the same plan and then also you have to have cooperation between agencies. And then a plan of preparedness has to be developed, so that when and if a situation develops where these emergency actions have to take place, where you have a tragic event like this, there is a plan in place. Everybody knows what their role is and a plan can be initiated in a short period of time.” 


2- Live Quote Robert Whalley: 

“Plans must be flexible. They must be capable of rapid adjustment to different circumstances and of course you must practise them. Table top exercises; make sure everybody is linked up communications. This thing is absolutely important. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, doesn’t cost a fortune to run a good table top exercise or good exercise involving your first responders. 


3- Live Quote Eric Stern: 

“What I think one has to do is yes plan, but realize that a big part of the benefit of creating plans isn’t the plan themselves but the planning process. In fact in any given situation what you’ll have to do is adapt the plans to an emerging reality that may be very different from what you anticipated. In fact what tends to happen is that you plan for certain types of events and the ones that hit you are very different.” 


4- Live Quote Oklahoma Paul Bailey: 

“One of the key things that I think that fire departments need to think about is a working relationship that they need to have with the private groups within their communities. In Oklahoma City contractors were called upon such as iron workers, such as heavy riggers, such as contractors that could supply the equipment that was needed to move the large quantities of concrete in this particular situation. Without their assistance and the assistance of the community it would have been extremely difficult to perform the operations that the USSR group was able to do and the local fire department working together.” 


2. Unified Command Structure 

5- Live Quote Madrid Jose: 

“One of the lessons that we can learn from this incident is the need to quickly organize a command centre on site with major coordination between the police, who are generally in charge, the medics and the fire fighters. This combined coordination could better unify the work that needs to be done and we could optimize all the resources and everything in those first initial moments of an event.” 


3. Communications 

6- Live Quote 9 11 Galvin: 

“When transmitting information on the scene, as I stated, we had difficulty with the handy talkies and our department radios. In the beginning all it is is face to face contact, giving direct orders and you just reverted to a system that we had when you go back 30 or 40 years ago. We didn’t have handy talkies, we didn’t have fancy handy talkies and equipment but they still did the job and so we just.. So all you’re  doing is reverting back to what was prior to all this. So basically what happened was to improve the communications and to try to make it a safe operation we would just ask  we just had more chiefs in the area taking responsibility for a smaller number of units.” 


4. Slow Down 

7- Live Quote Eric Stern: 

“One of the classic cases that’s often referred to is the Sarin Gas Attacks in Tokyo where many first responders actually became victims of the gas attack as they rushed in without taking special precautions and ultimately many of them were added to the victims list.” 


8- Live Quote Oklahoma: 

“I would say think about what you’re about to do before you make the move and keep your head. Don’t get into a hurry and keep your head it’s not like you’re going to solve it in the next 15 minutes. You got to keep the whole thing in perspective.” 

9- Live Quote 9 11 Galvin: 

“And now when you get calls for fumes, unknown odours, people coughing, and any health related issues or you see this when you come on to the scene, is now slowing down, getting into your personal or protective equipment as fast as you can and taking care of the initial action and then bringing in our haz mat capability, the people that rescue, the squads, the hazard material units to come in with the right meters and stuff to test for every possible condition whether it’s chemical, radiological and train the people so that we have this metering equipment on the scene at a much earlier time in the operations.” 


5. Identify Possible Targets 

10- Live Quote Robert Whalley: 

“Multiple targets are likely to be a huge challenge but our planning must assume that that is possible. We know that the terrorists do take multiple targets. We know that their aim is to kill as many innocent people as randomly as possible and our planning should take account of that.” 


11- Live Quote 9 11 Galvin: 

“And it’s now just making the fire fighters aware of knowing what in their area would be a terrorist target. Like for example in the midtown Manhattan area I mean you have Madison Square Gardens, you have the Empire State Building, you have Grand Central Station.” 


12- Live Quote Robert Whalley: 

“The lessons for everybody would be, think about where you might be most vulnerable and what you can do to prepare for that, but don’t assume that that’s where the terrorists will attack you because they will try to do something different next time.”  

 From these three events, we have learned that the impossible does happen, and that violence on a large scale against civilians is probable to happen again. 

What we have also learned, is that rescue workers at those events were NOT prepared enough to deal with the consequences of the attacks.


13- Live Quote 9 11 Phieffer:

“If something occurs how are we going to handle it? And it’s really like science fiction. If the worst possible disaster happens what is the fire department’s plan to deal with it?”

The question that remains is this:  exactly how prepared are we today?

Have we even considered the possibility of even greater attacks?

If terrorism and its methods advance - will we be ready- or will we once again be taken by surprise?