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The chinks in his 9/11 armor

Some of the chaos that hobbled rescuers after the attacks was rooted in Giuliani's blind spots as N.Y. mayor.

January 24, 2008|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On Sept. 11, 2001, Rudolph W. Giuliani emerged from the ash plumes of the ruined World Trade Center as much an icon as the fallen towers. His drawn face was coated in concrete dust. His painstaking words were freighted with the unimaginable.

"There were so many people around, so many problems," Giuliani recalled in his autobiography. The counting of the dead had not begun, and he had to publicly reckon with the disaster's human toll. "The number of casualties," he told the world, "will be more than any of us can bear ultimately."

Giuliani's composed performance on Sept. 11 is the foundation of his quest for the presidency. But some of the chaos that hobbled rescuers that morning was rooted in his blind spots as New York's mayor. The man who titled his autobiography "Leadership" proved to be masterfully reactive to crisis but sketchier in preparing for the unknown.

"He did great things and some stupid things," said former New York Deputy Fire Chief Charles R. Blaich, who was a ground zero commander on Sept. 11 and later highlighted the handicaps that fire officials faced. "There's a lot there to admire. The problem is that when it came to a serious discussion about lessons learned, he didn't want any part of it."

The long day was Giuliani's crucible -- a moment that showed his mettle and humanity under extreme pressure. Despite the heroic actions of hundreds of firefighters and police, it was also a public-safety meltdown caused not only by the streaking suicide planes, but in part because of lapses that occurred on Giuliani's watch.

He had outfitted his firefighters with flame-retardant gear, but their patchwork radio system sent many urgent evacuation calls vanishing into the ether. His trek through the rain of rubble to secure a temporary command center showed poise. But coordination between his field commanders was sporadic, and there was no backup for the shattered nerve center he had built in the tower complex.

Giuliani had responded quickly to terrorist threats over his eight-year mayoralty. But his administration failed to comprehensively cure organization and equipment flaws exposed during the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

Even afterward, the temperamental Giuliani had little use for public displays of self-doubt. He did not press for internal inquiries into what went wrong that day, leaving the soul-searching to the incoming administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the federal 9/11 Commission. Both documented shortcomings.

Amid falling poll numbers that have bumped him from front-runner status among the Republican contenders for the presidency, Giuliani alluded late last month to the possibility that he had not covered every base before the attacks.

"I did everything I could think of doing in that situation to help," he said on ABC's "This Week." "I think I made mostly the right decisions. Probably didn't make all the right decisions, but I tried very hard to alleviate the problem as much as I could."

It was a rare, if terse, admission for a decisive, high-strung public figure who had been lionized since the attacks. Glorified as "America's mayor," Giuliani built a career out of his association with Sept. 11, going on the inspirational lecture circuit and launching a private consulting firm that made him a multimillionaire.

In the presidential race, as he has tried to capitalize on his stature, Giuliani has found himself targeted by critics who blame him for some of the Sept. 11 disarray among rescuers. When the towers crumbled, 343 New York firefighters and 23 police officers died.

"TV made him a hero, but there's more to leadership than standing calmly before the cameras," said Jim Riches, a New York deputy fire chief whose firefighter son, Jimmy, died in the collapse of the north tower.

Riches heads a group of relatives of Sept. 11 victims who question Giuliani's leadership. They are gathering in Florida for a publicity campaign against him ahead of Tuesday's state primary, which is widely viewed as crucial to Giuliani's bid for the GOP nomination.

Giuliani dominated the cameras from the moment he took office in January 1994. New York was crime-ridden, its tax base dwindling. When three firefighters died two months later in an inferno in Greenwich Village, a stunned Giuliani showed himself on and off camera as a restless agent for change.

His new fire commissioner, Howard Safir, asked for $12 million in flame-resistant "bunker gear." Giuliani summoned his budget chief at 2 a.m. to approve the outlay. Cynics noted that the protective outfits were already on order by his predecessor, David N. Dinkins. But the incident showed a classic Giuliani trait -- swift reaction to a crisis on his watch.

"He built his government to be responsive," said Randy M. Mastro, who was Giuliani's deputy mayor in the mid-1990s.

There was less urgency when it came to leftover business from his predecessors.

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