Newly released tapes capture 9/11 through thousands of eyes

Unmanageable scope of N.Y. disaster emerges


NEW YORK - Faced with a court order and unyielding demands from the families of victims, the City of New York opened part of its archive of records from Sept. 11 yesterday, releasing a digital avalanche of oral histories, dispatchers' tapes and phone logs so vast they took up 23 compact discs.

For the first time, about 200 accounts of emergency medical technicians, paramedics and their supervisors were made public, revealing new dimensions of a day and an emergency response that had already seemed familiar.

In details large and small, the accounts of the medical personnel - uniformed workers often overlooked in the day's chronicles, but as vital to the response and rescue efforts as any others - provide vivid and alarming recollections.

They spoke of being unable to find anyone in authority to tell them where to go or what to do. Nearly from the moment the first plane struck, they had little radio communication. As their leaders struggled to set up their ordinary procedures for a "mass casualty incident," the crisis at the World Trade Center gathered speed by the minute.

With the lines of command sundered, many of those interviewed said, they became their own bosses. They found themselves shepherding crowds away from the towers, serving as trauma counselors, bandaging people inside a bank lobby, packing ambulances with the dazed, the bleeding, the burned.

As scores of city and private ambulances arrived, an orderly system for treating patients never developed. Some medical triage centers were set up blocks from where the injured were leaving the towers. A medical chief arrived at the main fire command post and found the chief of the Fire Department cursing his nonfunctioning radio.

A team of medics told how they tried to treat a firefighter, Daniel Suhr, who had been hit by a woman falling from one of the towers, but realized he had no vital signs and had suffered catastrophic injuries.

Still, they continued to work on him, carrying out hopeless resuscitation efforts, in deference to two shocked firefighters who accompanied him in the ambulance. "They kept yelling, `Danny, Danny, Danny!'" said Richard L. Erdy, an emergency medical technician who treated Suhr.

Another paramedic recalled seeing a colleague, Carlos Lillo, helping patients, staring at the north tower and breaking into tears. Lillo's wife, Cecilia, worked there. She survived. He did not.

The newly released records capture a moment in history as seen through thousands of eyes, as told in hundreds of voices - some halting, some confident, almost all disbelieving. No single document could be definitive about an event that swept across so many lives, but the release of these accounts - one CD alone encompassed more than 12,000 pages of oral history transcripts - begins to fill in major portions of the history of the day.

Court ordered release

The oral histories were gathered in 2001 on the instructions of Thomas Von Essen, who was fire commissioner on Sept. 11. The New York Times sought copies under the freedom of information law in early 2002, but the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg refused, leading to litigation. Earlier this year, the state Court of Appeals ordered most of the materials released.

Eight families of people killed at the trade center, represented by the civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, joined the lawsuit to seek the release. Since then, interest has grown, and the Fire Department has sent CDs to 460 families.

"Today we are one step closer to learning what happened on 9/11 in NYC - where we excelled, where we failed," said Monica Gabrielle, whose husband, Richard, died in the south tower.

In particular, the records released yesterday provide the most detailed view yet of the operations of the Emergency Medical Services, which became a division within the Fire Department in 1996. "I just think a lot of people don't realize what we, EMS, went through," Alan Cooke, an emergency medical technician, told interviewers for the Fire Department.

A spokesman for the Fire Department said major changes had been made since the terror attacks. "There has been vast improvement in communications," said the spokesman, Francis X. Gribbon. "There is no question that EMS personnel are more prepared today to handle a large-scale emergency in this city."

In his 64-page oral history, Zach Goldfarb, who had just finished an overnight tour of duty as the citywide chief of operations when the first plane struck, said that even the deaths of some of the medical workers were overlooked in the tally and recognition of the responders who died.

The Fire Department lost 341 firefighters, officers and a deputy commissioner. In addition, two paramedics employed by the department died, bringing its losses to 343. But Goldfarb said six emergency medical responders from private hospitals also died.

Making it up on the spot

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