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Transcripts of 9/11 Calls Show Fear, Confusion

The Nation

August 29, 2003|Josh Getlin and Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Minutes after an airplane slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower, the assistant general manager of Windows on the World made the first of her four emergency phone calls to police, frantically seeking a way to help scores of guests escape the 106th-floor restaurant.

"We're getting no direction up here," said Christine Olender, who reported that smoke was filling the dining room. "The condition up on 106 is getting worse."

Port Authority Officer Steve Maggett, who was inundated with calls at the time, told her that rescue officials were trying to reach the restaurant, and asked her to call back in two minutes.

She phoned again, pleading, "We need a safe haven.... The fresh air is going down fast, and I'm not exaggerating!" Maggett tried to reassure her, but she told him: "The hallways are filled with smoke.... What are we going to do for air?" The officer said Olender could try to break one of the windows. She never called again.

The record of Olender's last moments -- and those of other voices captured over police communication lines on Sept. 11, 2001 -- was released to the public Thursday by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Filling nearly 2,000 pages, the telephone calls and radio transmissions logged by Port Authority officers are a deeply human portrait of terror, disbelief and an often-frenzied emergency response.

The Port Authority, which owned the World Trade Center, had initially refused to release these documents, saying they would invade the privacy of people who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. But officials agreed last week to release the materials to comply with a New Jersey court order, following a successful lawsuit filed by the New York Times.

These materials, released two weeks before the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, provide the most complete record to date of how emergency personnel responded to the crisis in New York. But they are not the first such documents to be released; last year, the Port Authority made available a 78-minute tape recording of fire department communications during the response.

"In general, these materials show people performing their duties very heroically and very professionally on a day of unimaginable horror," said Port Authority spokesman Greg Trevor. Officials also said they hoped that the media would "refrain from publishing gruesome, gratuitous or personal details that do nothing to further this discussion."

Family members offered mixed opinions. Leila Negron of Bergenfield, N.J., whose husband, Peter, was among the about 2,000 killed in the attacks, said "it's not the right time" to distribute such materials. But others applauded the release, saying the public had a right to know the full story of what happened at the World Trade Center and how emergency workers responded to the crisis.

"We need more information, not less, and this is exactly the kind of material that people have a right to inspect," said Monica Gabrielle, co-chairperson of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, a citizens group lobbying for tougher safety laws regulating high-rise buildings. "We need answers about why people died on 9/11," added Gabrielle, whose late husband, Rich, worked on the 103rd floor of the south tower.

The Port Authority police transcripts begin during the first moments after the terrorist attacks, when civilians and police alike were struggling to digest the enormity of what had happened in Lower Manhattan. In one call, an unidentified officer told fellow Port Authority workers, "The scene down here is like chaos. We've got people coming out of the buildings ... numerous debris coming from the upper levels, including bodies."

On-duty officers gasped at news that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and there were rumors about other planes heading for New York; stories that people were seen firing missiles at the World Trade Center from atop a nearby building, and accounts of bombs detonating on the George Washington Bridge.

Amid the chaos, Port Authority Officer John Kannuzo sought to reassure his young son Anthony. But he could only offer so much solace:

Kannuzo: "A terrible thing happened, Anthony. Some very sick people."

Anthony: "Are they dead?"

Kannuzo: "Yeah."

In other exchanges, people trapped on the upper floors of both towers beseeched police for help that would never arrive. In most cases, the best rescue workers could tell them was to evacuate the buildings any way they could. Help was on the way, they said, but it soon became apparent that police and firefighters would not be able to make their way to the higher floors, according to the transcripts.

Callers on the ground, including those lucky enough to escape the building, poured their hearts out to police officers. An unidentified woman near the towers called and said: "There's this girl who watched her friend die, burning alive in an ambulance. Like, oh my God. I mean, I'm crying listening to all these people."

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