Into the realm of the real

May 20, 2004

THE HEARINGS in New York this week by the 9/11 commission have been a healthy corrective. You might have thought -- from the earlier sessions in Washington -- that the whole exercise revolved around career-building and political point-scoring. No. It was about mass death, heroism, confusion, agony, frailty. It was about fire and collapse and rescuers putting their lives on the line. It was about 25,000 people whose lives were saved -- and 2,800 whose lives were not.

Sure, there was anger, turf protection and defensiveness, just as in Washington. Victims' families were not satisfied with all the answers; fire chiefs were insulted by some questions. But no one talked about "tasking" or "pulsing"; a broker stumbling down a smoky stairwell, or a firefighter hauling 70 pounds of gear toward an 81st floor ablaze with jet fuel, or a commander trying to make his radio work while bodies are falling nearby, is not engaged in a bureaucratic exercise. The witnesses in New York -- those who testified and those behind them -- reminded us of the tears and sweat and blood that were shed that day.

The D.C. hearings focused on fault-finding; those in New York offered lessons. The people who turn out for a disaster must have a plan in place so they'll know who's in charge and how to communicate with each other. Those who work in big buildings should take evacuation drills seriously. And every city should have a procedure in place so that the 911 operators can relay reliable information back to their callers.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, few could have imagined the need to plan for a catastrophe of that order. That's not an excuse anymore.

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