It Sounded Like an Avalanche

Physical Security

​​Flickr photo by Wally Gobetz​​​

It Sounded Like an Avalanche

For the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we pulled a story from our archives about the experience of one security director in a hotel near the towers. This story ran in our September 2002 edition.

​George Compas had worked in security for the Marriott Corporation for more than 15 years, but he had only served as director of loss prevention at the World Trade Center Marriott for seven weeks when the planes hit the towers. As one of the survivors from ground zero, he saw firsthand how traditional emergency preparations stood up during a major catastrophe, and his experience has yielded lessons for the entire lodging industry. 

Compas spent the weeks leading up to September 11 going over evacuation, fire, and emergency procedures, even though he had no way of knowing that his plans were about to undergo the ultimate test. He updated all three plans simply because he was newly transferred to the World Trade Center Marriott, and he wanted to make sure that the plans had current contact information as well as the appropriate details on how everyone at the hotel should handle specific threats. Compas gave all managers and all 21 members of the security staff copies of the revised procedures, and in late August, he held a management staff meeting to discuss the changes and each position's responsibilities in an emergency.

For example, in case of an evacuation, the front desk manager would be required to make two printouts of the occupied rooms in the hotel. This manager would also make a separate printout of all the handicapped rooms and whether they were occupied. 

In addition, the fire-safety officer was given refresher training on how to respond to an evacuation using the fire command station in the hotel lobby. Compas also purchased extra two-way radios and gave one to each executive to expedite communications during any emergency. Instead of the executives coming to Compas to ask what was happening and what to do next, Compas could inform everyone at the same time. 

While Compas had not yet scheduled fire drills, he did conduct training sessions with management. In case of a fire, one manager from each department was to respond to the fire command station and wait for in­structions from the fire-safety direc­tor. Shortly after the training, the hotel experienced a false alarm from a faulty smoke detector, which served as a test of the training; all the hotel employees responded appropriately. 

Plan limitations. Compas had been mindful of the need to plan for emer­gencies. But those preparations had their limitations on September 1st. "You can't prepare for a catastrophe like this," he says. "Everything looks great on paper, but you don't know how each individual, or you yourself. will react when the time comes." 

On that morning, the 22-story hotel, which was adjacent to Tower Two, was fully booked, with about 1,200 guests and 200 employees on the premises. The hotel had three main entrances, one at the front of the hotel on the west side of the building, one on the north side connecting to the lobby of Tower One, and one on the south side connecting to the WTC plaza and to Tower Two.

When the first plane hit, Compas was in his office on the basement level of the hotel. "It sounded to me as if there were three loud bangs and then the building shook," he says. 

Immediately, Compas walked out of his office and into the adjacent security command station. He brought up a CCTV feed from a camera that overlooked the lobby of the hotel. This lobby, long and narrow, led directly onto the WTC plaza via a revolving door. So, by looking through the camera, Compas could see the lobby of the Marriott and into the lobby of Tower One. Compas saw people running through the doors into the hotel. They were surrounded by gray smoke. 

Compas grabbed a radio and started to run upstairs to the lobby. At this point, he saw the personnel manager standing near the stairwell with a number of employees. Compas told the manager to evacuate the basement of the hotel, where personnel, security, laundry, and housekeeping offices as well as the employee cafeteria were located. Compas then ran up the stairs to the lobby, where he found people streaming in from Tower One. 

In an attempt to find out what had happened, Compas went out through the main entrance of the hotel but had to run back in because of the falling debris. As he returned, he found that the director of finance, the resident manager, the personnel director, and the housekeeping director had also gathered in the lobby. Compas told each of them to go to one of the three main entrances of the hotel and not to let anyone out because of the falling debris. "Our evacuation plan quickly became a retention plan," says Compas. 

Before taking further action, Compas knew it was critical to find out what had actually happened. After informing security personnel of his plans via radio, he began running through the hotel's basement corridor, which connected to Tower One. Just before he reached the doors between the two buildings, Compas saw the hotel's assistant chief engineer. He was holding a woman at arm's length, trying to steady her. The woman was burned over her entire body. She was in shock but was able to say that she had been in the elevator in Tower One when she felt the impact and then fire—later confirmed to be jet fuel—surge through the shaft. Compas and the engineer put the woman in a safe place out of the way as a stream of people came through the doors into the hotel. 

Compas called for an ambulance on the radio. The hotel also had a nurse, hired by Marriott, during the day, seven days a week. The nurse on duty at that time was in the security office and heard the call. She ran to the injured woman and looked after her until rescuers arrived. 

Compas, now convinced that something large had hit the towers, went back to the hotel lobby. He directed several managers to begin evacuating guests and staff out of the southern hotel entrance, toward Tower Two. The front entrance was still blocked due to falling debris.

While in the lobby this time, Compas ran into three FBI agents. The agents confirmed that a commercial jet had hit the building. It had been five minutes since the impact. 

Police and fire officials began arriving at the hotel and commandeered the concierge desk as a command post. The health club manager called Compas on the radio and told him that part of the plane had fallen into the hotel's swimming pool, located on the roof of the building. The fire battalion chief assigned a fire lieutenant and six firemen to go upstairs to make sure that everyone was okay.

Compas sent two security officers and an engineer to accompany the firefighters. He gave one of the officers the master room keys and told him to start knocking on doors to ensure that everyone was evacuating. As the group began to walk toward the elevators, the hotel mechanic told them that the main elevators were flooding with water and that only the freight elevators were in operation. 

Then the second plane plunged into Tower Two, located directly behind the hotel, where people were being evacuated. Now guests faced burning rubble on the south side of the building and falling debris on the north and west sides. 

One of the hotel's sales people offered to go help with the evacuation. Hundreds of people were in the hotel lobby waiting to evacuate. When employees saw that debris was no longer falling at the south entrance, though there was debris on the ground, the salesperson, aided by police and hotel managers, would usher out as many people as possible; when the debris started falling again, he would stop people from going out. No one could get out of the front entrance because the falling debris was continuous. 

Compas was receiving radio calls from various security personnel in different parts of the building. One security officer reported that while the engine of the first plane had landed in the swimming pool, everyone in the health club was fine, and all were being brought to the lobby. Another officer radioed that the room-by-room evacuation was proceeding and that all guests were being brought down to the first floor. 

The procedure for having a print­out of the handicapped rooms made available to personnel evacuating the rooms, however, was not properly executed in the confusion. Consequently, the front desk received a panicked call from the fifth floor, where a woman in a wheelchair and her daughter were stranded. Compas immediately sent two security officers to that room, and they carried the handicapped guest down the stairs. A few minutes later, there was another call from a wheelchair-bound woman on the eleventh floor. The officers went back up and carried her down as well. In the lobby at the police and fire command post, firemen who had gone into the towers were now coming back to replenish their oxygen. To help out, Compas sent hotel employees downstairs to the basement to bring up cases of bottled water for the firefighters. With the firefighters being attended to by hotel employees, the fire chief told Compas that he was going to enter the towers to help. The chief never returned; his body was later found in the rubble. 

At about 9:45 a.m., everything in the hotel seemed to be proceeding as well as could be expected. The evacuation was going well, and the room­to-room search was still underway. There were hardly any people coming from the Tower One entrance, leading Compas to believe that those who could get out of the building had done so. "But no one dreamed that those buildings were going to come down," he says. 

The guests had been evacuated by now, and Compas began ushering staff out of the building. He saw a group of about 12 men near the Tower One entrance. Compas sent a security supervisor over to tell the men to leave. They were officials from the Port Authority of New York and told the security supervisor they needed to stay and monitor the situation. Compas walked over and told them to leave anyway. 

Despite his commands, Compas could not get all of the staff to leave. The resident manager, the personnel director, the salesperson helping with the evacuation, and two engineers refused to leave. Compas was touched by their concern but was also worried about them because he knew the situation was dire. While he was trying to convince these staff members to leave, dozens of firemen came running into the hotel from the towers. "They were yelling that everyone had to get out because the building was coming down," says Compas. 

The firemen and hotel employees started to run away from the towers. They had run about 40 feet before they began to hear loud banging noises. "It sounded like an avalanche," says Compas. "You could hear it coming on top of you." Then Tower Two landed on top of the hotel. 

When the tower hit, everyone in the group was knocked to the ground. After he fell, Compas covered his head and waited. "I don't know how long this lasted," says Compas. "I lost all track of time, and all I could think was that we had gotten all of the guests out and that I had to get the employees out safely." 

Then, debris began to fall on the group. "I felt something land across my legs and then something landed across my back," Compas says. At one point, he opened his eyes and touched his hand to his nose. He couldn't see his hand. The air was pitch black and filled with dust.

Getting out. The debris finally stopped falling. For a few seconds, there was absolute silence. Then all the survivors started moving and asking if everyone was all right. After the initial shock, people started screaming and yelling. One of the firemen asked Compas: "How are we getting out of here?" 

Compas turned to an engineer, who had been with the hotel since it was constructed. The engineer indicated that there was an emergency door straight ahead and to the left, about 100 feet from them. The survivors headed for this exit, climbing over the debris and dead bodies that had fallen from above. 

The group reached the door. The door had a pushbar exit device, but it wouldn't move. The firemen used axes to knock the door off its hinges. But when they moved the door to the side, all they could see was concrete and steel blocking the way. The exit was impassable. 

Searching for another way out, the group traveled west toward another side exit in the hotel's restaurant. As it was designed to, the fire door had come down. The firemen lifted up the door, but it too was blocked by a grisly amalgam of glass shards, twisted steel, disembodied arms and legs, and chunks of concrete. However, there was a small opening that could just be seen through the smoke, now a gray haze instead of a black cloud. Some members of the group said they were going to try and dig their way out. 

While the digging began, Compas tried to contact other managers via radio to see whether they were okay. But he found that, although he could hear some managers talking back and forth, he couldn't transmit; the soot and debris were blocking the signal. 

A fireman turned to Compas and said that digging out would take too long and that they needed to find another exit. Compas and three others decided to go back the way they came and try to go out the main entrance, where debris had been falling before. They walked past where they had originally been knocked down by the falling rubble. In the area where police had set up the command post and across the horizontal length of the hotel, there was debris 10 feet high—glass, steel, concrete, and bodies. The group began climbing over the rubble. 

As they mounted the pile of debris, they realized that holes in the rubble were open several stories down to the basement, creating the risk that one of them would fall through. The survivors had to jump carefully over these holes until they finally reached solid flooring. 

As soon as he had scaled the 75 feet of rubble, Compas heard two women screaming his name and asking for help. A security employee and a member of the front desk staff were on top of the mound and were attempting to crawl over. The men formed a chain to get the two women down. Each person stood at a different location to make sure that the women wouldn't fall through the holes in the debris. 

The six survivors then saw lights flashing. Making their way through the haze, the group reached the lights and found that they were the roof lights of an ambulance and a police car. The vehicles had been crushed, but their emergency lights were working. It was only at this point that members of the group realized they were outside.

Compas turned around and saw that the entire hotel had collapsed, except for one 50-square-foot section where he and the others had fallen. Compas later learned that the hotel was made of poured concrete but the section still standing was constructed of reinforced steel. 

"I thought we were at war," says Compas. "So I suggested that we walk to Battery Park because the buildings couldn't fall that far." As they were walking, a police officer grabbed Compas's arm and told him to go into a building about four blocks from the WTC where a triage unit had been set up. Only then did Compas realize that he was bleeding and his clothes were in tatters. Once inside that building, Compas felt it start to shake. 

"I knew I could not stay in another building," says Compas. He ran outside just in time to see Tower One collapse. As the dust cloud advanced on them, Compas, the WTC Marriott employees, and several former coworkers from another nearby Marriott began to run. When they reached Battery Park, they found about 1,000 people already there.

Determined to get the remaining staff out of Manhattan, Compas convinced them to get on a waiting ferry. Eventually, with the help of family and friends, Compas got the surviving employees home. 

The missing. Two hotel managers from the WTC Marriott died on September 11. They were both helping in the evacuation. One was killed when the building collapsed. The last time anyone saw the second manager, he was on the third floor helping people evacuate. Nine guests are still missing and presumed dead. However, it is impossible to know whether they were in the hotel at the time of the attacks or in the WTC conducting business. 


After the search and rescue phase was over, hotel security experts wanted to learn all they could about how evacuation procedures really worked in such catastrophic circumstances. The Hotel Association for the City of New York invited Compas to speak about his experiences. After giving an account of what happened to him on September 11, Compas noted that most of the emergency procedures went as planned but the scale of the disaster was too great. 

Based on his presentation, the association's board decided to devise a generic evacuation plan noting several steps that security managers can take during a catastrophic event. The generic plan was designed so that each individual security director could then tailor a more specific program to suit his or her own property. 

Instead of reinventing the wheel, the board based the generic plan on the fire-safety plan that every hotel is required to have under New York City Local Law 16. Each establishment must also have a fire command station in the lobby and a fire-safety officer on duty 24 hours a day. The fire-safety officer can be a proprietary security officer, but he or she must be certified by the New York City Fire Department. The law also has other requirements that factor in during an evacuation. 

Based on Compas's experiences, the board organized the generic plan around three main points: notifying guests, conducting room searches, and planning evacuation routes. 

Notification. To notify guests and employees of an evacuation, the board recommended that security use the public address system, which all hotels in New York must have as a part of the fire command system. During the evacuation, suggests the plan, announcements should continue to all areas of the building to reassure guests and employees 

It is important for everyone to be continuously informed during an evacuation. Announcements can be made to individual floors, groups of floors, and stairwells. 

Initially, guests should be directed to an area of the hotel where they will not interfere with emergency personnel or vehicles. Security should keep the lobby and from of the building clear of obstructions. 

At this point, a list should be used to account for guests who have been evacuated. If an evacuation is going to take a long time or is being conducted in dangerous situations, managers should be assigned to walk guests to other hotels or to a designated outside meeting point. 

Searches. To ensure the safety of all guests, the plan calls for notification to be supplemented by physical searches of each room. In conducting the search, the plan suggests that searchers first place the back of a hand high against each door to determine whether there is heat emanating from the room. If there is, the room should not be entered. 

If the room can be entered, the searchers should announce their intention. One searcher should stay at the door while the other checks under the beds, in the closet, and in the bathroom. Also, any areas that are not within the line of sight, such as dressing areas and sitting rooms, should be checked. 

After leaving the room, searchers should close the door and make a mark outside on the middle of the door, below the level of the door handle. The type of marking to be used is not specified, but the plan does suggest that marks be made with either chalk or marker, not with easily dislodged Post-it notes or hanging tags. 

Bill McShane, security director for Manhattan East Suites Hotels, which has corporate headquarters in mid­town Manhattan, says that training for search teams is now integrated into fire training. Approximately eight people are chosen from on-site personnel to serve on the team. (The members include five employees trained to serve as a fire brigade under Local Law 16.) Instruction for evacuations due to fire was already part of the curricu​lum for the fire brigade employees, but training now includes the addition of the search procedure. 

To mark which rooms have been searched, McShane decided to use day-glow dot stickers. The stickers have strong adhesive, cannot be washed off by water from sprinklers, and can be seen in dim lighting. A packet of the stickers will be placed in a cabinet on each floor. 

The cabinet also includes the warden phone. These phones, which are required by the local fire law, are located on each floor and are hard­wired to the fire command station in the lobby. Team members are trained to use the warden phones as a primary contact. This idea was based on Compas's experiences with two­way radios. Though the radios seemed a good way to keep in touch, they failed on 9-11 due to the dust generated by the collapsing towers. 

Compas says that security managers should remind their officers that training for search operations is always being conducted under optimal conditions. Though there is no way to safely recreate emergency conditions such as those on September 11, Compas notes how important it is to continually tell trainees that all the duties they must perform in an emergency might need to be done in the dark and under falling debris. 

Issues taken for granted such as breathing freely and working without injury must also be considered. "If I had not had the engineer with me, I might not have gotten out," says Compas. "I knew where the emergency exits were, but I didn't know the hotel well enough to find them in the dark." 

Speed is also an issue, so the training includes tips on how to conduct searches quickly. In larger facilities, several teams may need to work on each floor. To determine the number of teams, the generic evacuation plan recommends that security directors factor in the number of rooms and suites to be searched. It takes approximately 20 to 45 seconds to search an average 12-by-14-foot room. Suites can add an additional 20 seconds to the equation.

Evacuation. Though hotel security can use evacuation routes established for fires for other emergency situa­tions as well, there are some differ­ences. As noted in the generic plan, a fire evacuation usually consists of the floor the fire is on and the floors above and beneath. For other disasters, the situation may call for a total evacuation. In that case, each property should delegate multiple egress routes and alternative stairwell exits from floor to floor to cut down congestion on any single stairwell. 

Each hotel is urged under the plan to designate two rallying points for all guests and employees after the evacuation. The primary meeting point should be outside of the hotel and hopefully in some kind of covered area. The alternative meeting place may be inside the hotel, in case the outside point is located in an area that has become unsafe as a result of the disaster. 

Another part of the generic plan concerns mustering of evacuees. It specifies that once all guests and staff have assembled at the rallying point, a hotel employee must have a guest ledger and time and attendance sheet to verify that everyone made it out safely. 

At McShane's properties, producing the guest ledger becomes the responsibility of the front office manager. The employee list becomes the executive housekeeper's responsibility. At each Manhattan Suites hotel, the lists are computerized and can be produced with a push of a button. 

Drawing from Compas's experience, the plan also designates the building engineer as a main point of contact with the search teams and emergency agencies. The engineer is a critical part of the evacuation because of his familiarity with the building, its systems, and especially its exits. 

Though Compas is pleased that the generic evacuation plan might help prepare other security professionals, he knows firsthand that such overwhelming events are difficult to deal with. ''There is nothing I would have done differently, and no amount of planning would have helped me or my staff," he says. “There is no way you can prepare for a building falling down around you."