Dealing with disaster

Oct. 2, 2001
All Lou Dekker remembers about the morning of September 11 is being in a state of shock. In quick succession, three commercial jet liners hijacked by terrorists committed suicide attacks on the United States – two striking the World Trade Center in New York City, a third slamming into the Pentagon outside of Washington, DC. A fourth aircraft commandeered by terrorists crashed in Pennsylvania, apparently

All Lou Dekker remembers about the morning of September 11 is being in a state of shock. In quick succession, three commercial jet liners hijacked by terrorists committed suicide attacks on the United States – two striking the World Trade Center in New York City, a third slamming into the Pentagon outside of Washington, DC. A fourth aircraft commandeered by terrorists crashed in Pennsylvania, apparently after passengers fought off the hijackers. It all happened in a little over an hour.

Dekker, however, didn’t have much time to process what was happening. As Con-Way Central Express’ (CCX) regional manager for New York and New Jersey, he suddenly found his entire operation being shut down as police quickly closed more and more roads to all traffic, from downtown Manhattan to the New York State Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike.

“The closer you were to Ground Zero, the faster the roads closed,” Dekker recalled in an interview with Fleet Owner. “The road closures spread out from the city very fast, shutting down major highways, the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the bridges, everything.”

Dekker soon discovered that six Con-Way drivers, already dispatched for daily deliveries in Brooklyn, had literally come to a halt in the streets. Even though those drivers were not even five miles from their home terminal, it took more than three-and-a-half hours for them to make it back.

As the day progressed, the situation turned even grimmer. As the emergency recovery efforts swung into high gear at the World Trade Center – where both twin towers had collapsed into piles of smoldering rubble, killing an estimated 6,400 people – highway closures continued to choke off the freight lanes into the city.

Dekker had to close Con-Way’s Carlstadt, NJ center because of its proximity to the George Washington Bridge. That meant more than one-million pounds of freight typically handled in Carlstadt had to be diverted to CCX’s other terminals in Little Falls, NJ, and Newburgh, NY.

Even as Dekker prepared to marshal his forces to handle the situation, employees who were volunteer firefighters and auxiliary police officers were being called in to help with the recovery efforts – even as the emergency transportation requests started coming in.

The terrorist attacks on New York City most directly affected CCX. While freight pickup requests were very light on Wednesday, September 12, the day after the attack, the company had been unable to make the bulk of its deliveries and pickups the previous day, leaving CCX’s freight network jammed.

With all of this happening at once, Dekker had his hands full. However, not only did Con-Way gets its New York-New Jersey region back up and running quickly, it handled both regular freight and emergency requests easily, despite being shorthanded.

Dekker believes CCX’s success came from a combination of determined employees and the benefits from a bit of bad fortune experienced the year before. In April 2000, CCX’s Long Island center had been struck by lightning and damaged by fire, closing that terminal down.

“We were faced with a situation where we didn’t have a terminal to use,” said Dekker. “So we basically wrote the play book at that point as to how we would cope with losing a terminal.”

As a result of the April lightning incident, CCX had developed ways to work without computers or phones. They had planned out how to redirect freight quickly and position it for optimum delivery without the use of key terminals. A specific chain of contacts had been established in case of an emergency, too, so everyone knew who to call.

“It required an incredible effort on everyone’s part, but our people just kept looking and asking for what they could do,” Dekker said. “We had a tremendous response from our folks.”

The end result: by Wednesday evening of September 12, the carrier was able to return to normal linehaul operations, with Carlstadt being the only terminal with limited operating capacity. By Thursday night, September 13, Carlstdat was fully reopened.

Emergency orders

Yet even as CCX struggled to return to normal operations with a reduced staff, emergency transportation orders were pouring in.

By noon, on Tuesday, September 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) contacted Grainger, a provider of maintenance, repair and operating supplies, seeking delivery of generators to the disaster scene. A set of 30 generators was located at Grainger's branch in Albany, NY. CCX was asked to move the generators to the Grainger branch near Elmsford, NY, north of Manhattan.

The 14,000-lb load was placed in two 28-ft trailers and dispatched directly to New York. By the time it reached Elmsford, FEMA had made arrangements to allow the truck to proceed directly to the disaster site, where delivery was made by 7:30 p.m.

The next day, Airgas Safety Inc. of Belmont, PA put together a shipment of items needed by the rescue workers. It included 15,000 coveralls, several pairs of boots, 600 boxes of respirators, lanterns and batteries, one 60,000-watt laser light, and four 100,000-watt spot lights. CCX picked the shipment up in the early evening and at 1 a.m. Thursday, driver Bob Schaffer, under police escort, delivered the materials to the disaster site.

On Thursday, September 13, more shipments were delivered to key support facilities in New York City. Medical supplies were picked up from the Creedmoor, NC manufacturing facility of San Diego-based ALARIS Medical Systems the afternoon of the attack and delivered to the Veterans Administration Medical Center on East 23rd Street.

Also, on September 11, Standard Textile of Hebron, KY, requested help with two truckloads of medical garments and textiles, one for Roosevelt Hospital and the other for St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. The shipments were sent to CCX’s Little Falls, NJ, and from there they were placed in a smaller delivery van and delivered under special police escort on September 13.

Outbound freight services were needed, too. Some 37,000 pounds of materials in Brooklyn, NY were needed in Norfolk, VA the next day as U.S. Naval ships had been ordered to depart their ports. CCX made this delivery by Friday, September 14.

Dekker said the relief delivery operations went smoother than he expected. “I was surprised it went as well as it did. Our drivers showed the police their freight bill with the needed supplies and were escorted to where they were needed,” he said.

Dekker also had more drivers willing to help than he had loads to deliver, so he tried to accommodate those drivers who were “most directly affected” by giving them the relief supply missions.

“Keeping the supply lines going is critical in this kind of situation to get the city back up and running again,” he said. “Our employees really pitched in and got the job done.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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