9/11 rescuers lacked critical info

Firefighters in 2nd tower didn't know 1st had fallen

September 09, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The firefighters had 29 minutes to get out of the World Trade Center or die. Inside the north tower, though, almost none of them realized how urgent it had become to leave.

They had no idea that less than 200 feet away, the south tower had already collapsed in a life-crushing, earth-shaking heap. Nor did the firefighters know that their commanders on the street, and police helicopter pilots in the sky, were warning that the north tower was on the edge of the same fate.

Until last month, the extent of their isolation from critical information in the final 29 minutes had officially been a secret. For three and a half years, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg refused to release the Fire Department's oral histories of Sept. 11, 2001. Under court order, however, 12,000 pages were made public in August.

On close review, those accounts give a bleaker version of events than either Bloomberg or former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani presented to the Sept 11 Commission. Both had said that many of the firefighters who perished in the north tower realized the terrible danger of the moment but chose to stay in the building to rescue civilians.

They made no mention of what the oral histories starkly relate: that firefighters in the building said they were "clueless" and knew "absolutely nothing" about the reality of the gathering crisis. In stairwells or resting on floors, they could not see what had happened or hear clearly stated warnings.

Even after the south tower fell, when few civilians remained in the lower floors of the north tower, throngs of firefighters lingered in the lobby and near the 19th floor as time ran down, the survivors said.

"That's the hard thing about it, knowing that there were so many other people still left in that lobby that could have got out," firefighter Hugh Mettham of Ladder Company 18 said.

Although no official summary specifies where the 343 firefighters died in the rescue effort, a review by The New York Times of eyewitness accounts, dispatch records and federal reports suggests that about 200 perished in the north tower or at its foot.

Of 58 firefighters who escaped the building and gave oral histories, only four said they knew the south tower had already fallen. Just three said they had heard radio warnings that the north tower was also in danger of collapse. And some who had heard orders to evacuate debated whether they were meant for civilians or firefighters.

The point made by Giuliani and Bloomberg to the 9/11 Commission - that firefighters died because they delayed their own departures while trying to save the lives of civilians and other firefighters - is, in one sense, fully corroborated by the oral histories.

Even so, measured against the waves of details in those accounts, those valiant last-minute efforts explain just a fraction of the firefighter deaths in the north tower.

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