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Tapes Shed More Light on Sept. 11 Chaos

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The Fire Department of New York releases oral histories and audio from Sept. 11, 2001. Crowded radio frequencies may explain in part why firefighters stayed in the north tower of the World Trade Center 29 minutes after the south tower fell.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, who's got the best `Sox' in the league? Answer may surprise you.

But first, the Fire Department of New York has just released thousands of pages of oral histories and hours of audiotape from September 11th, 2001. The New York State court of appeals ordered the release of the documents after The New York Times and several family members of the victims sued the city. The families of firefighters were hoping the release would answer one of the continuing questions about September 11th: Why didn't firefighters evacuate from the north building of the World Trade Center after the south tower had collapsed? NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Twenty-nine minutes. That's how long it was between the fall of World Trade Center number two and World Trade Center one. But even with that time to evacuate, at least 121 firefighters were killed when the north building collapsed. The Fire Department tapes released yesterday offer a glimpse inside those chaotic 29 minutes. The radio communications had been a problem all morning with too many people trying to talk at once. When the south tower went down first, the radio system was overwhelmed.

(Soundbite of radio static)

SMITH: Then a fire marine unit on the water relayed what had happened.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #1: Marine three(ph) to Manhattan, urgent! One of the buildings has partially collapsed and then the whole...(unintelligible).

SMITH: The 9-11 Commission, which had heard these tapes before they were released to the public, said in their report that it was likely that no one at the trade center site heard these early calls because every command post had already been abandoned. For instance, EMS Deputy Chief Robert Browne was pinned by a piece of concrete.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #2: Chief Browne, Mayday! Liberty and West--they're trapped in the rubble. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!

SMITH: Browne was freed a short time later, but many of the other leaders of the Fire Department couldn't be found. In fact, on the tapes, deep in the static, you can hear a dispatcher searching for anyone in charge. `Manhattan to Field Com, Manhattan to Field Com, Field Com,' he calls over and over again. He eventually makes a plea to anyone listening. `Find anybody,' he says, `with a white hat,' the sign of a commander, `and get them on the radio.' At no point during the 29 minutes does anyone on the Manhattan fire dispatch tapes mention the possibility that the second tower could collapse. But on another channel, the EMS dispatcher is already calling his units to move.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #3: All units be advised, if you're in the area of the tower, the north tower is leaning. Move your operations north of the tower.

SMITH: Survival, in some cases, hinged on whether or not a first responder heard these warnings. Oral history transcripts released yesterday confirm that some of the evacuation orders were given and received. Paul Bessler of Engine 1 was heading up the stairs of the north tower when he heard clear as day, he says, the words `imminent collapse. Evacuate,' he heard the radio order. Greg Hansson of Engine 34 heard the order, too. After that, he says, his unit grabbed their gear and started down. But others heard only radio silence. Thomas Piambino, also in the north tower, says he got absolutely nothing on his radio. No one told him to evacuate. There was no communication. Piambino says it was intuition that made him decide to leave the north tower just before it collapsed.

The 9-11 Commission says it isn't clear if the radio repeaters set up in the north tower were still working after the south tower collapsed. `It could have been a technical failure,' they wrote, `or it could've been too many people trying to use the same frequency.' From the dispatch tapes, it was clear that the Fire Department was still reeling from the collapse of the first tower and spending time trying to answer the requests for help. One civilian can be heard trapped in a fire truck under the rubble.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man #4: Can anybody hear me? I'm a civilian. I'm trapped inside one of your fire trucks underneath at the corner ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #5: Stand by. There's people close to you.

Unidentified Man #4: I can't breathe much longer. Save me! I'm in the cab of your truck.

SMITH: The man was rescued. It was one of the few lucky breaks heard on the tapes. At 10:28 in the morning, the north tower collapsed.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #6: Right now we're all alone. The second building came down. I can't see. So we have no contact with anybody at this time, OK?

SMITH: One firefighter noted in his oral history that the crowded radio frequencies finally opened up, but only because there weren't a lot of survivors. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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