Calls echo plight on 9/11

Emergency tapes show confusion amid struggle for survival

April 01, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The city released partial recordings yesterday of about 130 telephone calls made to 911 on Sept. 11, 2001, stripped of the voices of the people inside the World Trade Center but evocative of their struggles for life.

Only the 911 operators and Fire Department dispatchers can be heard on the recordings, their words illustrating the calamity in rough, faint echoes of the men and women in the towers who had called them for help.

They describe crowded islands of fleeting survival, on floors far from the crash and even on those that were directly hit: Hallways are blocked on 104. Send help to 84. It is hard to breathe on 97. A man sits at his desk on 73, waiting for rescuers who could not get to him for hours, in a building that had only minutes.

Be calm, the operators implore. God is there. Sit tight.

The recordings, contained on 11 compact discs, also document a broken link in the chain of emergency communications.

The voices track the unseen callers as they are passed by telephone from one agency to another, moving through a confederacy of municipal fiefdoms - police, fire, ambulance - but almost never receiving vital instructions to get out of the buildings.

No more than two of the 130 callers were told to leave, the tapes reveal, even though unequivocal orders to evacuate the trade center had been given by fire chiefs and police commanders after the first plane struck.

The city had no procedure for field commanders to share information with the 911 system, a flaw identified by the 9/11 Commission that city officials say has been fixed.

The tapes show that many callers were not told to leave but rather to stay put, the standard advice for high-rise fires.

In the south tower, where one stairway remained passable, the recordings include references to perhaps a few hundred people huddled in offices, unaware of the order to leave.

The calls released yesterday bring to life the fatal frustration and confusion experienced by an unidentified man in the complex's south tower who called at 9:08 a.m., shortly after the second plane struck the building.

For the next 11 minutes, as his call was bounced from police operators to fire dispatchers and back again, the 911 system vindicated its reputation as a rickety, dangerous arrangement.

The voice of the man, who was calling from the offices of Keefe Bruyette on the 88th floor of that building, was removed from the recording by the city. From the operator's responses, it appears that he wanted to go.

"You cannot. You have to wait until somebody comes there," she tells the man.

The police operator urged him to put wet towels or rags under the door and said she would connect him to the Fire Department.

As she tried to transfer his call, the phone rang 15 times, before the police operator gave up and tried a Fire Department dispatch office in another borough. Eventually, a dispatcher asked the man to repeat the same information that he had provided moments earlier to the police operator.

(The police and fire departments had separate computer dispatching systems that were unable to share basic information like the location of an emergency.)

After that, the dispatcher hung up, and the man on the 88th floor apparently persisted in asking the police operator - who had stayed on the line - about leaving.

"But I can't tell you to do that, sir," the operator said, who then decided to transfer his call back to the Fire Department. "Let me connect you again. OK? Because I really do not want to tell you to do that. I can't tell you to move."

A fire dispatcher picked up and asked - for the third time in the call - for the location of the man on the 88th floor. The dispatcher's instructions were relayed by the police operator.

"OK," she said. "I need you to stay in the office. Don't go into the hallway. They're coming upstairs. They are coming. They're trying to get upstairs to you."

Like many other operators, she was invoking the policy calling for only people just at or above a fire to move, an approach that had long been used in skyscrapers in New York and elsewhere.

At Keefe Bruyette, 67 people died. Many had gathered in conference rooms and offices on the 88th and 89th floors. Some tried to reach the roof, a futile trek that the 9/11 Commission said might have been avoided if the city's 911 operators had known that the police had ruled out helicopter rescues - another piece of information that had not been shared with them - and that an evacuation order had been issued.

The calls were released yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request made by The New York Times on Jan. 25, 2002, for public records concerning the events of Sept. 11.

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