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The Nation

Half the Conversation Conveys Horror of 9/11

April 01, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was 9:50 a.m., and the caller simply refused to hang up. He was trapped on the 105th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers, and the 911 dispatcher was trying to get him off the phone.

"Just stay where you are. Don't do nothing. Just stay where you are," said the dispatcher, identified only as Fire Department 408. "We're coming. Yeah. Hang up, sir. We're on the way." But the man would not hang up. Finally, Fire Department 408 thought of something else to say.

"I swear to you," he said. "I swear to you, we'll get someone up to you."

Nine hours of recordings released by the city of New York on Friday evoke the horror and confusion that swept through emergency services the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Addressing callers as "hon," "sir" or sometimes "lady," dispatchers repeated one message -- like a mantra -- to people who couldn't breathe and were beginning to panic: Sit tight; we're coming.

The recordings, which do not include the words of the callers, show that people stuck in the towers received contradictory and sometimes misleading advice. Some dispatchers recommended opening windows, not realizing the panes were sealed shut; other emergency operators warned urgently against breaking the glass.

Dispatchers repeatedly instructed callers to stay where they were, put wet towels over their heads and under the doors, to stay low and not to panic -- the standard procedure for emergencies in high-rise buildings. Only a handful advised that they try to get out of the buildings.

David Rosenzweig, president of the dispatchers union, said he would give the same orders today, because "if the fire is below you, there's nowhere to go. The exits are like chimneys.

"Right up until the time the building collapsed, they had hope," he said. "If they went in the stairwell, they were dead."

New York officials fought hard to prevent the release of the recordings, which were requested by the New York Times in 2002 under the state's Freedom of Information Law. The city argued that other records sought by the paper contained information needed to prosecute Zacarias Moussaoui, and that the last moments of the victims in the towers were intensely personal and should remain private.

Lawyers for the Times, joined by a group of victims' relatives, made the case that the recordings contained important information about how emergency services functioned in the crisis. The New York State Court of Appeals in March 2005 ordered the city to release the operators' words but said the victims' appeals could be redacted.

Norman Siegel, a lawyer who represented the family members, on Friday said the operators' comments were "inconsistent and contradictory" and said they proved that the operators were not properly trained or not working from a uniform script. But he took pains to praise their compassion.

"We do not want the 911 operators to become scapegoats," he said. "The 911 operators were themselves in the dark."

Sally Regenhard, founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, whose son Christian was a New York City firefighter who died on Sept. 11, agreed. "The operators desperately tried to manage a situation that they were not trained to manage."

Police and fire officials, meanwhile, said the recordings gave them reason to be proud. In a statement, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said they "remind us once again of the remarkable performance of our 911 operators, who displayed professionalism and compassion under the most trying of circumstances, often staying on the line with anguished callers until the very end."

Between 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second building collapsed, 130 calls were made to 911 from inside the World Trade Center. On some floors, as many as 100 people clustered together while one person called.

The calls were patched through to dispatchers at four locations. Four dispatchers were answering calls from headquarters in Central Park, several miles uptown from the site of the attack, and 17 dispatchers were stationed at centers in the Bronx Zoo, at Forest Park in Queens and at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Rosenzweig said.

At times, dispatchers in the recordings sounded confused about what was taking place. One dispatcher tried to explain his situation to a caller: "I don't know anything more than what people calling in tell me. I don't have any access to a radio or TV or anything. I don't know."

Although the Fire Department and Port Authority police ordered an evacuation of both towers at 8:59 a.m., there is no mention of the order in the dispatchers' recordings. Instead, at 9:17 a.m., dispatchers received word over the public address system that the fires had subsided. At 10:15 a.m., after the south tower collapsed, one dispatcher appeared not to know about it, asking, "It's still standing, right?"

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