New York Releases One-Sided 911 Recordings

Under court order, New York releases police and fire 911 dispatch tapes from Sept. 11, 2001. The tapes contain only one side of the conversations. Police and fire operators can be heard, but people inside the World Trade Center have been edited out.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. New recordings from 9/11 were released today in New York, almost nine hours of tapes of police and fire operators as they fielded calls from the mounting chaos and tragedy at the World Trade Center. The release came after a long court battle by some 9/11 families and The New York Times. Only one side of the conversations can be heard, the voices of emergency operators and fire dispatchers. The voices of the callers from inside the buildings have been deleted to protect their family's privacy, although a court fight over that continues.

NPR's Margot Adler, reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Even hearing one side of the conversations and the constant beeps of deletions, the phone calls are gripping as city 911 operators try to maintain their composure as they give advice to callers inside the Towers, often without knowing what was really going on.

(Soundbite 911 Tape)

Unidentified Woman: Okay, listen, listen, listen to me, listen to me, okay? Listen, don't, try not to panic, you can save the air supply by doing that, okay?

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Woman: Try not to panic, I understand what you're…

(Soundbite of static)

Unidentified Woman: All right, do you have a towel sir, do you have a towel? Do you have a towel?

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Woman: Okay, calm yourself down.

(Soundbite of beeping)

I know it's hot, I know it's hot. They said the stairwell collapsed and everything.

Unidentified Woman: The stairwell collapsed.

ADLER: In the chaotic situation, often the operators gave conflicting information. To open windows in a building where windows didn't open or to ascend when there was no hope of a rooftop rescue.

(Soundbite 911 Tape)

Unidentified Woman: They don't say don't open the windows sometimes. It depends on the circumstances. ‘Cause you can't see because heavy smoke, you don't know smoke is around you.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Woman: Then, that's the bad part. And I don't know what to tell you, I'm so sorry, I don't know what to tell you to do.

(Soundbite of beeping)

ADLER: In many cases, the operators told people to sit tight, which is considered standard protocol for high-rise fires, instead of to evacuate, which in some cases, might have saved lives.

(Soundbite 911 Tape)

Unidentified Man: Alright, just sit tight, they're on the way.

(Soundbite of beeping)

Unidentified Man: They're working they're working their way up. They'll get to you as soon as they can.

ADLER: A year ago, the New York Court of Appeals settled a lawsuit with the 9/11 families who sought the recordings under New York State's Freedom of Information law. But it was a compromise solution in which the victims' voices would not be heard. So far, only one tape revealing both sides of a conversation has been released, that of Christopher Hanley, who was on the 106th floor of the North Tower.

His parents released the tape to The New York Times. Today, the families held a news conference so packed with reporters, it seemed the entire New York press corps was there. Their attorney, Norman Siegel, said the families believed the recordings were an invaluable history that would reveal crucial information.

Mr. NORMAN SIEGEL (Attorney of Families of 9/11 Victims): …regarding the last moments of their loved ones lives. But in addition, they believed that disclosure of these materials will provide the public with vital information regarding the management and effectiveness of rescue operations and safety in high-rise buildings such as the World Trade Center.

ADLER: Almost all the family members said they had no criticism of the heroic work of the 9/11 dispatchers. Sally Regenhard's son, Christian, was a firefighter who died that day. Listening to the operators on the tape, she said…

Ms. SALLY REGENHARD (Mother of 9/11 Firefighter Victim): They did everything that they could. It brought us to tears to see how they desperately tried to manage a situation that they were not prepared to manage, they were not trained to manage. They had no guidance, they had no direction.

ADLER: Instead, family members faulted the city for not having an emergency plan, and they faulted the police and fire departments for not creating better avenues of communication and coordination between the different agencies. Maureen Santora of Astoria, Queens, is also the mother of a firefighter who died. She said her heart went out to the dispatchers who were sometimes unaware of the situation.

Ms. MAUREEN SANTORA (Mother of 9/11 Firefighter Victim): There were many dispatchers who did not know for several hours that the Twin Towers had collapsed.

Unidentified Woman: Someone said they collapsed. I don't know, but someone came in here and told us the building had collapsed. I don't know.

Unidentified Man: One of the buildings?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: Oh, man.

Ms. SANTORA: I am positive that most of these dispatchers are today feeling a terrible pain of knowing that they were the last voice of the people who died on September 11th. And they were absolutely helpless to do anything to correct the situation because they did not have a plan and they did not have the necessary information to help all of those who ended up dying.

ADLER: Again, that was Maureen Santora. The families are continuing to press their legal battle. On Wednesday they asked that the redacted or deleted part of the conversations be released, and that the calls that have not been identified be released also. The judge concurred, the city has appealed, and the city was granted an immediate stay. The parties return to court next week.

This is the second series of transcripts that have been released. The first included many pages of oral histories by firefighters and emergency workers, released last August.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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