Seven person team deployed with Ground Zero

Looking back on 9/11: NNSS’ Special Technologies Laboratory’s assist in the rescue mission at WTC leads to greater role in National Security mission

Seven person team deployed with Ground Zero
Seven-person team deployed with Ground Zero

We watched from work, home, restaurants, and coffee shops. Wherever a television was turned on, we watched, frozen, with disbelief and horror as the deadliest terrorist attack to ever occur on American soil unfolded on live television. For many Americans, Tuesday, September 11, 2001, was a day that stood still. It is a day that forever changed our entire country.

As the nation grappled with the attack on the Pentagon, the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, and the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) twin towers, the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS) Special Technologies Laboratory (STL) called the Department of Energy (DOE) Headquarters to offer help. The search and rescue efforts at the WTC could benefit from their latest technology: Rescue Radar, a motion-sense radar that can detect very slight motions–such as breathing–through concrete or heavy rubble.

One of the very few aircraft flying that evening was a jet carrying STL personnel to New York City. With quick approvals from the DOE and FAA, and thanks to teamwork within the company, a seven-person STL team and their equipment arrived within hours at Ground Zero to assist in the rescue mission.

STL trained the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team on how to setup and use the Rescue Radar equipment. From a small building a block from the still-smoldering WTC, the USAR team deployed the Rescue Radar for search and rescue, mostly below ground level, which was especially useful as the WTC had five subterranean floors.

“This was what the system was designed to do,” said Steve Koppenjan, STL senior principal engineer, who provided tech briefings to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and helped train USAR personnel.

Koppenjan distinctly remembers the experience of being at Ground Zero. “Nothing could prepare me for the shock of seeing the amount of destruction, even though I heard about the first plane on the radio seconds after it occurred and saw the second plane live on TV. Being there was much different than seeing it on TV.”

Deploying to Ground Zero was mind blowing, he said. Through that experience, Koppenjan became more focused on engineering systems for deployment by in-the-field users. “It made me recognize the fact that we at STL are very well-suited for quick response projects and expert technical support.”

As a result of STL’s 9/11 response, NNSS shifted resources to place greater emphasis on counterterrorism.

“For about the next 10 years [after 9/11], the type of projects from our sponsors changed as well. We began to move away from traditional research and development projects, and focus on rapid build and deliver projects. Security projects became the norm.”

Although STL was just a small part of the national effort to recover from 9/11, Koppenjan said NNSS made a significant contribution that day, and the days that followed. Counterterrorism efforts continue to play a large role in NNSS’ national security mission.