NYC 9/11 Tapes Document Day of Horror, Heroism

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A flood of records of how emergency crews responded to the 9/11 tragedy in New York City was released to the public Friday by the New York City Fire Department. Those records include transcripts of oral histories, logs and audio from firefighters and other emergency workers — records that document the confusion and horror of that day. Alex Chadwick talks with Thomas Von Essen, former New York City Fire Commissioner, and Jim Dwyer, a reporter for The New York Times.


From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, new technology makes practically everyone a potential citizen journalist. But is this a business you really want to get into?

First, the lead. This may be a more melancholy weekend than you had planned. We will all be reliving the most painful public day in most people's memories, September 11th, 2001, and reliving it in a way that resonates in our souls.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Unidentified Woman: Can anybody hear me?

Unidentified Man: Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman: I'm a civilian. I'm trapped inside one of your fire trucks underneath. I can't ...(unintelligible). Did you copy?

Unidentified Man: Stand by, there's people close to you.

Unidentified Woman: I can't breathe much longer. Save me. I'm in the cab of your truck.

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible) I copy that. I'm going to go look for her.

CHADWICK: The New York City Fire Department is today releasing transcripts of oral histories done shortly after the disasters, plus transcripts of calls to 9/11 operators. This is more information about those moments after the first plane struck. We're going to speak now with the man who started this. He's former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen.

Mr. Von Essen, welcome to the program. And what is here?

Former Commissioner THOMAS VON ESSEN (New York City Fire Department): Well, it's a mix of oral interviews that we did with the firefighters. We tried to get them as quickly as possible to relate as accurately as possible what they had witnessed or been part of that day so we would have a history that portrayed, I think, again as accurately as possible, what happened and the enormous sacrifice and the phenomenal job that was done that day.

CHADWICK: The New York Times, in a story about this, has this quote, "That you wanted to preserve these accounts before they are reshaped by a collective memory." What do you mean by that?

Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, I think we all know that human nature--I don't think firefighters are any different--as time goes by, your recollection of the events is sometimes changed or modified a little bit by--as you talk to everybody about their experience and sometimes you begin to--it's just not as accurate. And we thought the sooner we could get it down, the better.

CHADWICK: Thomas Von Essen, former fire commissioner of New York City.

Thank you, Commissioner.

Mr. VON ESSEN: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: This material that's released is coming out under court order. The city had tried to keep it private, but The New York Times and various others, including families of 9/11 victims, sued to get it released, and a judge ordered the city to make it public. Jim Dwyer is covering the story for The New York Times.

Jim, why did the city try to hold on to this?

Mr. JIM DWYER (The New York Times): They had three different reasons that they mentioned. First, they said that it would impair the ability of Zacarias Moussaoui, who's accused of being the 20th hijacker or was accused of being the 20th hijacker at one point--that it would impair his ability to get a fair trial. Then it said the oral histories had been taken under a promise of confidentiality from the firefighters, and both of those arguments essentially collapsed. They both turned out--in one case, the federal court said it wasn't a problem and in another case, the fire department and our research showed that there had been no promise of confidentiality. Finally, though, the fire department and the city--the Bloomberg administration here--argued that it was too intense and too emotional to get involved in it.

CHADWICK: You have seen some of these oral histories already, some of these transcripts already, but you're getting--What?--hundreds more today.

Mr. DWYER: Yeah. There were, altogether, just about 500 taken in the months right after the attack, and we saw around 100 or so over the last few years that were given to us through unofficial channels. The power of those transcripts, I would say, has been considerable. We obtained about 20--what happened was we got about a hundred of these things several years ago. And they raised very serious questions about the cooperation that day between the police and the fire department and whether certain operations actually contributed to the terrible toll among the rescue workers. And it was in the words of the firefighters and the fire chiefs and officers themselves that we found these problems. And this had all kind of not been discussed at all. It was kind of verboten in the early months after the attacks, and it suddenly put an entirely new dimension to discussions. So that's when myself and The Times sought the rest of the records. We said, `What did people say?' And, yes, there's incredibly powerful stuff in there just on a human level.

There's also stuff that if you want to understand about how emergency response works and how it doesn't work sometimes and maybe sometimes it can't answer fully and perfectly the kind of tremendous attacks that took place that day. But if you want to understand the situation fully, you really needed to see what those people said about the events of the day. Today, we're getting the other 400 that we've never seen.

CHADWICK: And what do you think is in there?

Mr. DWYER: I think there's vital information from just the history of human valor and struggle and effort--All right?--chapters in our history that we need to hold on to. But there's also important information about the problems people encountered, the systems that they thought would be in place to help them do their jobs that day that actually failed. And those have, to a certain extent, been documented, or at least alluded to by the 9-11 Commission and by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which did very thorough reports and said the police and fire department didn't work together well that day, and you can certainly see that in the oral histories.

CHADWICK: What are you going to look for in particular? Is there a particular person's account or some one of these telephone operators? You've been working this story for quite a while now. Is there something out there that you particularly want?

Mr. DWYER: You know, as I was reading them this morning, Alex, I found myself--I was expecting to be quite numb. I've written a fairly long narrative history book about what happened that day and thought I knew it all. And I must say that, you know, the moments and the description of events from people I hadn't heard about before--individual small gestures, things that went on inside the towers, people making serendipitous decisions. One man deciding to go to the bathroom and stepping out of the tower for a minute and then the building falling down--they kind of take your breath away all over again, and I've just found myself surprised again and again.

CHADWICK: Jim Dwyer of The New York Times on the release of transcripts of oral histories and emergency telephone operator conversations from the day of 9/11.

Jim Dwyer, thank you.

Mr. DWYER: Thank you.

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