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Calls echo plight on 9/11

Emergency tapes show confusion amid struggle for survival

April 01, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The city refused to release most of them on grounds that they were needed to prosecute a man accused of complicity in the attacks, contained opinions that were not subject to disclosure or were so personal that their release would be an invasion of privacy. The Times sued in state court, and nine family members of people killed in the attacks joined the case.

Judge Richard Braun of the state Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled in early 2003 that the majority of the records were public but that the city could remove the words of the 911 callers on privacy grounds. Over the next two years, the core of his ruling was affirmed by the appellate division and the New York State Court of Appeals.

That led to the release of the calls yesterday. City officials said 130 calls were made to 911 from inside the buildings. Of that group, officials were able to identify 27 people and notified their next of kin this week that they could listen to the complete calls.

That is a small fraction of the 15,000 people were inside the trade center that morning, but officials said that many of those who got through to 911 were with large groups of people.

One groups was on the 105th floor of the south tower, where scores of people had congregated after trying to reach the roof.

One of the recordings - city officials have refused to say who made the call - involved a man on the 105th floor who suggested desperate measures.

"Oh, my God," said the dispatcher. "You can't breathe at all?"

The caller's words were deleted.

"OK," said the dispatcher. "Listen, when you - listen, please do not break the window. When you break the window ..." At that point, the caller interrupted.

"Don't break the window because there's so much smoke outside," the dispatcher said. "If you break a window, you guys won't be able to breathe. OK? OK? So if there are any other doorways that you can open where you don't see the smoke."

Just before the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., a spurt of calls reached 911. One was from Shimmy Biegeleisen, who worked for Fiduciary Trust in the south tower. He was on the 97th floor, where an emergency drill had been scheduled for that day.

Biegeleisen called his home in Brooklyn, spoke with his wife and prayed with a friend, Jack Edelman, who heard him: "Of David. A Psalm. The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those that live in it."

At 9:52, he called 911 and spent the seven minutes remaining before the building collapsed telling first the police operator, then the fire dispatcher, that he was on the 97th floor with six people and that the smoke had gotten heavy.

The police operator tried to encourage Biegeleisen.

"Heavy smoke. OK, sir, please try to keep calm. We'll send somebody up there immediately. Hold on. Stay on the line. I'm contacting EMS. Hold on. I'm connecting you to the ambulance service now."

As his call was transferred to the ambulance service, the information about the smoke and the 97th floor was sought and delivered.

"Sir, any smoke over there?" asked the ambulance dispatcher. "OK, the best thing to do is to keep - keep down on the ground. All right? OK?"

The ambulance dispatcher hung up, but the original operator stayed on the line. She can be heard speaking briefly with someone else in the room, then returning to him

"We'll disengage, OK?" the operator asked. "There were notifications made. We made the notifications. If there's any further, you let us know. You can call back."

Seconds later, the building collapsed.

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