`I'm going to die, aren't I?'

Newly released calls from 9/11 show confusion

August 17, 2006|By ELLEN BARRY | ELLEN BARRY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- In what has become a ritual, New Yorkers got fresh and horrific glimpses yesterday of what happened inside the World Trade Center buildings the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

A surprise cache of 1,613 calls recorded that day was released yesterday. Since 2001, lawyers for The New York Times, joined in a lawsuit by a group of victims' relatives, have pushed the city to release the calls, saying they contain vital information about the functioning ofw emergency services.

Among the recordings released yesterday are panicked pleas for help and calm but futile reassurances.

Few callers sound calmer than Dennis Devlin, chief of the New York Fire Department's 9th Battalion, who was standing in the chaotic lobby of the south tower. Speaking to a dispatcher, he listed the things he needed for a proper rescue operation: hand-held radios, an open telephone line, a chief's helmet.

"I gotta get a rundown of the companies. We're in a state of confusion," he told the dispatcher. "We have no cell phone service because of the disaster."

Devlin, 51, died minutes later in the tower's collapse.

At 9:17 a.m., 32-year-old Melissa Doi called from the 83rd floor of the south tower, where it was scorching hot and difficult to breathe.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God," said Doi, a manager at IQ Financial Systems, when the operator picked up the phone. "There's no one here yet, and the floor's completely engulfed. We are on the floor, and we can't breathe, and it's very, very hot."

Over the next four minutes, as the operator advised her to stay calm and wait for help, Doi said, "I'm going to die, aren't I?

"No, no, no," said the dispatcher.

"I'm going to die," Doi said.

"Ma'am, say your prayers," the dispatcher replied.

"Oh, God, it's so hot. I'm burning up," Doi said.

Several minutes later, Doi stopped talking. The dispatcher continued to speak, soothingly, for about 20 minutes, repeating her name over and over and calling her "dear."

"I don't know if she's unconscious or just out of breath, but it sounds like they are unconscious and snoring. That's why I keep talking to her," the dispatcher said. "The line is dead now. They hung up. The line is now dead."

Doi's call was not released earlier because an excerpt was used as evidence in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in April.

In March 2005, the New York State Court of Appeals ordered the city to comply with the requests to release the tapes, and on March 31 this year, the city's law department distributed recordings of 353 calls.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta announced yesterday that members of his staff had overlooked a large number of recordings. Fire Department officials say they are confident that they have provided all recordings sought in the lawsuit.

Attorney Norman Siegel, who represented nine family members in the lawsuit, said the release should not have taken five years.

"The families are angry -- angry that they had to go to court and angry that they're getting this information piecemeal," he said. "So hovering over all this is the question of whether there are further tapes hidden away in someone's cabinet."

Unlike the first batch of emergency calls released, which were made by people inside the buildings, most of the calls released yesterday were brief exchanges between dispatchers, or between firefighters and dispatchers. Many were made by firefighters who were off duty that day and volunteered for duty. Some were among the 343 firefighters who died at the scene.

At 9:21 a.m., Capt. Patrick Brown called from the 35th floor to ask a dispatcher to relay a message to the command post in the lobby: "We're trying to get up, you know. There's numerous civilians in all the stairwells, and numerous burn injuries are coming down. I'm trying to send them down first."

Brown died in the building's collapse.

Al Fuentes, a retired Fire Department captain, said he was overwhelmed by the calm, self-possessed voices of the firefighters.

"The way Paddy Brown put it -- `we're going up,'" he said.

The recordings also reminded him how primitive communications were that day, when firefighters resorted to using hand signals and runners, he said.

"When you think about it, it's archaic," said Fuentes. "I mean, in 1969, we could talk to our people on the moon."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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