9/11 Fire Dept. Dispatch Tapes Released

The New York Fire Department releases dispatch tapes from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, along with transcripts of firefighters' oral histories recorded after the event. From member station WNYC, Beth Fertig reports.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK:

And I'm Melissa Block.

From New York City today, stark reminders of the 9/11 attacks. The city's fire department released almost five hours of dispatch tapes from the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. The tapes were released following a lawsuit filed by The New York Times and several family members of the victims. From member station WNYC in New York, Beth Fertig reports.

BETH FERTIG reporting:

The first call came in just after 8:46 in the morning to the fire department's Manhattan dispatch center. Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeiffer was a few blocks away and saw American Airlines Flight 11 crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. This scratchy recording was made over the dispatch system.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #1: ...(Unintelligible) Manhattan.

Unidentified Man #2: Battalion one.

Unidentified Man #1: We just had a plane crash into an upper floor of the World Trade Center.

FERTIG: Battalion one called in reporting the plane crash and asked for a second alarm.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Woman #1: Reported a notification your party just gave me on the phone.

Unidentified Man #1: Just witnessed an airplane crash into the World Trade Center.

FERTIG: Around the same time the emergency medical service also got a call on its frequency. The operator was bewildered.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Woman #2: Say what?

Unidentified Man #3: A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.

Unidentified Man #4: Uh-oh.

FERTIG: Soon the dispatchers were overwhelmed with calls from fire companies in Lower Manhattan.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #5: The World Trade Center tower number one is on fire. The whole outside of the building--there was just a huge explosion.

Unidentified Man #6: We have a number of floors on fire. It looks like the plane was aiming towards the building. Transmit a third alarm. We'll have the staging area...

FERTIG: Within four minutes, firefighters were creating a staging area across the street from Tower One, the north tower of the World Trade Center. They called for more units and told the dispatch operators what they were seeing. People were jumping or falling from the upper floors of the building.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #7: 10-4. We have units on the way up now, a reported fire on the 78th floor. That's unconfirmed at this time. We're going to need to continue the security around the entire World Trade Center. We have jumpers coming from the World Trade Center right now from the upper floors.

FERTIG: As firefighters raced to the scene, many were sent into the lobby of the north tower. There were calls of people trapped on the 104th floor, the 103rd floor and the 83rd floor as well. A marine fire unit was ready in the Hudson River to help evacuate the injured, but just as the fire department was beginning to help the people inside the tower, a second plane was spotted at 9:03.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #8: Marine 6 ...(unintelligible) urgent. You have a second plane into the other tower of the Trade Center, major fire. Marine 6, that plane was a large bomber-style green aircraft into the second tower. Be advised.

FERTIG: The plane was United Airlines Flight 175, but in the chaos few firefighters could be sure of what they were seeing. As the south tower burst into flames, more units were sent into Lower Manhattan. Meanwhile, EMS dispatchers were still dealing with the rest of New York City.

(Soundbite of tapes)

Unidentified Man #9: One-two George, 12 George is 98. Do you want us going down there?

Unidentified Dispatcher #1: Not right now. You know, I have about 15 jobs holding up here in all parts of the city. You gotta pick from a (unintelligible) all the way up to a cardiac. I've got everything else holding.

FERTIG: Downtown the scene was confusing as dispatchers and responders grappled with two 110-story skyscrapers that were both burning. As firefighters called in to the dispatchers, some mixed up the north and south towers and the dispatchers, who were miles away in Central Park or Brooklyn, had no way of correcting their mistakes.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #10: Brooklyn dispatch, urgent, people trapped, Five World Trade on the 8-0 floor. Three World Trade, that's the 101 floor and the 102 floor.

FERTIG: Five World Trade was another building in the complex, and it wasn't burning. That call came in at roughly 9:30. At the time, firefighters were climbing the stairs of the north tower of the World Trade Center because they couldn't use the elevators. They also had difficulty hearing each other on their radios because a repeater system used to boost their signal in the skyscrapers wasn't always working. By 9:45 dispatchers got a call about people trapped in a conference room on the 100th floor of the south tower. And then just before 10 AM, that tower collapsed.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Woman #3: There's another explosion!

Unidentified Man #11: Mayday.

Unidentified Man #12: Who's calling that?

Unidentified Man #11: ...(Unintelligible). Mayday! ...(Unintelligible).

FERTIG: A firefighter was trapped in the rubble and calling for help. Mayday calls began coming in with more urgency. One firefighter even requested help from the US Army.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #13: George, have them mobilize the Army. We need the Army in Manhattan.

Unidentified Man #14: All right, all units stand by. Everybody try to calm down.

FERTIG: The dispatcher tried to maintain control, but just as firefighters were taking stock of the situation, the second tower, the north tower, collapsed at around 10:20.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #15: Team three to Manhattan. Urgent.

Unidentified Man #16: The other tower has just collapsed. Ready to collapse. Ready to collapse.

Unidentified Man #17: Everything south of the Brooklyn Bridge is in a dust cloud. There's no visibility. People all over the streets. Travel is near impossible.

FERTIG: Firefighters were struggling to get to the scene and rescue each other. One, named Al Fuentes, made a desperate plea for help.

Mr. AL FUENTES (Firefighter): Yeah, this is 186. I'm on the Westside Highway. I'm pinned. I can't seem to get out there.

FERTIG: Firefighter Fuentes was pinned under a vehicle on the Westside Highway. He survived and retired two years later.

Along with the tapes, today the fire department released transcripts of oral histories it conducted with more than 500 firefighters who survived. These interviews document their efforts to save the building occupants and each other. In his account, Lieutenant William Walsh recalls telling other firefighters to evacuate the north tower after the south tower goes down because they couldn't hear the order themselves. Those communication problems have been well-documented, but they're also a point of controversy because the 9-11 Commission suggested that some firefighters didn't evacuate because they chose to help civilians. Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College, says the oral histories released today dispute that premise.

Professor GLENN CORBETT (John Jay College): The 9-11 Commission specifically came to a conclusion that many of the firefighters in a variety of companies that were killed that day, in fact, knew about the evacuation order but, for whatever reason, did not leave the building. And that's diametrically opposed to what I've been told and what I've read myself up and to this point about what happened that day.

FERTIG: For family members of the dead, the tapes and transcripts provide valuable information about the last moments of their loved ones. Rosemary Caine(ph), who lost her firefighter son George, was among the family members who joined the lawsuit by The New York Times forcing the fire department to release the tapes.

Ms. ROSEMARY CAINE (Lost Son in 9/11 Attacks): You know, somebody dies, you have a body, you pay your respects to it, you bury it. We didn't have that. None of us had that. So the only thing we can do is make sure that this never happens again.

FERTIG: Caine says that's all she ever wanted in joining the lawsuit, more information about the attacks and the emergency response which could help prevent any other similar catastrophe. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

NORRIS: You can read some of the newly released New York Fire Department transcripts and hear more of the tapes at our Web site, npr.org.

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