The Sept. 11 ceremonies last week brought back that awful day, as they always do. But amid all the painful memories, I found myself thinking back to an earlier event, a precursor to the attack that changed New York City forever.
It was a cold day in February 1993 when a gang of terrorists planted a bomb in a rental van in a garage beneath the World Trade Center. Many heard the blast but couldn’t identify it. A loud rumble, a groan — it sounded like thunder underground.
The plotters thought they’d packed in enough fertilizer-based explosive to bring down one of the towers. They were wrong, but still — six people died, and hundreds of others were traumatized as they descended thousands of steps through darkness and emerged into the freezing air with their mouths and noses ringed with soot.
The van bombers had focused on a weakness many of us in the fire-fighting profession, as well as many security experts and engineers, had long worried about: garages and other gathering spaces for vehicles beneath major structures.
In space-challenged Manhattan, it once may have seemed like a good idea. But it was apparently a good idea to the terrorists, too.
In the harrowing days and months after that attack, as New Yorkers came to grips with this new reality, garages beneath skyscrapers were hardened or even closed against this threat. Protections against trucks became a mantra of anti-terrorism measures. Trucks aren’t allowed within 100 feet of our embassies around the world, for example. So why, 30 years later, am I worrying about it again?
Seeing the news about the much needed improvements to Penn Station and the City Council recently voting only to give Madison Square Garden a limited extension of their special operating permit, to force MSG and the MTA work out safety issues, there seems to be a growing outcry to move the Garden to have a better Penn Station.
We all know Penn Station is a dump, and a few years ago then-Gov. Cuomo introduced a plan to fund improvements by building income-generating office towers all around it. Gov. Hochul introduced a plan, but it is no longer on the table. ASTM, an Italian design firm, has come forth with a vision that involves sheathing the current MSG in a big glass box.
What does the 1993 World Trade Center bombing have to do with ASTM’s plan?
When I look closely at a cutaway drawing of their plan, it shows a truck marshaling center smack dab in the middle, beneath the arena and above the station, where equipment would be on and off loaded, whether for concerts or numerous other events and occasions.
Of course, many Manhattan buildings have off-street loading docks inside the structures. But this appears to be much bigger. One reason is that events and concerts are a lot more ambitious than they were back in 1968, when the Garden opened. And these are huge tractor-trailer trucks, not rental vans, like the WTC bombers used.
That’s right — a truck marshaling center beneath an arena that is packed with roughly 25,000 people 150 times a year. It’s right beneath the seats. There is something wrong with this picture.
I’m not an engineer, but I do know a thing or two about terrorist attacks on big structures in Manhattan. Without being alarmist, why are we going back to the future on this? At the very least, it will require an extraordinary amount of expensive and time-consuming screening for every truck.
There have always been safety concerns about Penn Station. When the grand original was decapitated in the early 1960s, railroads were in decline and it was expected that no more than 100,000 people would use the pathetic remnant each day.
Wrong. Today, more than 600,000 people use Penn Station daily, far, far more than it was designed to handle. If there were a fire or some kind of other disaster at the peak of the evening rush, getting everyone out would be a challenge. There are simply not enough ways out. Nor the ceilings in the passageways high enough to vent smoke safely.
A recent joint report by the MTA, Amtrak and NJTransit focused ominously on Penn’s dangers. It reads, at one point: “MSG’s existing configuration and property boundaries impose severe constraints on the station that impede the safe and efficient movement of passengers.”
So now we are going to create a situation where a bomb could be parked beneath Madison Square Garden? Yes, an attack is unlikely — but so was the 1993 bombing. And so was 9/11.
We need to try to be ready, always, for the unlikely.
Von Essen, a fire-safety consultant, was fire commissioner of New York City from 1996 through 2001.