Official toll from terror attacks falls below 3,000

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The official death toll from the World Trade Centre terror attack, including victims on the ground and passengers in the two aircraft that crashed, is now below 3,000, New York officials said yesterday.

The city is reporting that 2,992 people died during the attack on the twin towers. While still a devastating number, it is far below what was once feared. The city's estimate of the tally peaked at about 6,700 in mid-September, but it has been sliding ever since.

And 100 days after the attack, George Pataki, the Governor of New York, declared that the fires that had been burning without let-up beneath ground level at the site of the towers, fuelled by everything from office furniture to mountains of papers and documents, had finally been extinguished.

A detailed analysis of what happened after the planes struck the towers, published by USA Today, reveals that the toll might have been much higher but for several factors. Most strikingly, about 99 per cent of those in offices beneath where the planes came in were safely evacuated. The fate of those working on the higher floors was sealed almost instantly.

The paper noted that everyone on or above the 92nd floor of the north tower, the first to be hit at 8.46am, perished. Everyone on the 91st floor survived. Most of those who died were in the north tower, including 20 on the 83rd floor. Mike Regan, the Deputy Fire Commissioner, said: "This report confirms what we have been saying all along, that this was the greatest rescue operation in history. Our guys, these heroes, rushed in and got everybody out." About one in seven of the victims victims – thought to be 479 in all – were firemen or police or security officers.

By contrast, some anger has been expressed over the numbers of building workers who fled the towers after the first impact. Most notably, about 83 lift mechanics, employed by Ace Elevator, ran from the complex. The twin towers had no fewer than 99 lifts. The lifts still provided most people with the quickest means of escape. In the south tower, four people who worked above the point of impact, between floors 78 and 84, managed to get out by fighting their way down one staircase that was filled with smoke but otherwise unobstructed. Another group found the same stairwell but headed up, hoping for a helicopter from the roof. The doors to the roof were locked, and smoke ruled out a helicopter approach.

The starkness of the dividing line between floors – in fact between near-certain death and the chance to escape – has left some survivors aware of their extraordinary luck. They include George Sleigh, a British-born architect who was buried in rubble when the first plane hit the north tower. He was on the 91st floor.

"Sometimes I think it was God's providence that spared me," Mr Sleigh told USA Today. "Other times I wonder why me and not others. I realise that I am a very fortunate man." For others, it mattered where, exactly, they were standing. Judy Wein, senior vice-president of AON Corp, was next to her boss in the lift lobby of the 78th floor of the south tower when the second plane hit.A wing sliced through the area. She was stunned and thrown down, but was able to scramble to her feet and escape down the stairs. Her boss died at once.

Timing helped in different ways. The towers, which could accommodate between 40,000 and 50,000 workers, were fairly empty that morning. Between 5,000 and 7,000 were in each of the towers when the first aircraft hit. Many people simply hadn't reached their offices by 8.46am. Some were late because they had voted in that day's mayoral primary election. Another mitigating factor was that the observation deck had not yet opened and few tourists were in the complex. And in the 16 minutes between the two planes crashing, about two-thirds of the occupants of the south tower were taken out to safety.

Praise is also mounting for the attention that had been paid to evacuation arrangements since the 1993 terror attack on the twin towers, when a bomb exploded in a parking garage. The management had improved the visibility of exit routes and been strict about organising periodic emergency drills. It also helped that the towers had three stairwells each that were wider than city regulations demanded.

United Airlines, which owned one of the planes that hit the twin towers, was sued yesterday by a woman whose husband died on the aircraft. Ellen Mariani alleged that the airline should have stopped the hijackers from boarding the aircraft. She and her husband took separate flights bound for California on September 11 to attend the wedding of her daughter.