Sept. 11 victims’ voices remembered, if not heard
NEW YORK – The voices of the World Trade Center dead are never heard in edited 911 tapes released Friday. Their panicked, labored breathing instead expressed their anguish more chillingly than any words.They dialed frantically from the upper floors of the twin 110-story towers before the buildings collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly all the callers were doomed; only one of 28 subsequently identified made it out safely.By court order, only the voices of the answering operators on the 911 calls were included on the nearly nine hours of tapes made public.It wasn’t hard, however, to imagine the fear, frustration and bewilderment the victims must have felt, speaking with sympathetic but largely helpless dispatchers as sirens blared inside the towers and from the streets below.A police operator fielded a call at 9:02 a.m., just 16 minutes after the first plane hit the north tower: “If you feel like your life is in danger, do what you must do, OK? … I can’t give you any more advice than that.”A Fire Department operator spoke with someone trapped on the 105th floor with another 60 people: “We’re trying to get up there, sir. Like you said, the stairs are collapsed, OK? … I know it’s hard to breathe. I know it is.”And there was another operator, shaken by another conversation with another trapped victim: “Ain’t this terrible? Oh my God.”There were a total of 130 calls made from the trade center to 911 after the terrorist attacks that killed 2,749 people began. The first call came within seconds of the first plane hitting the north tower.The 911 operators were overwhelmed by the panic and chaos. They offered compassion but little practical help to the callers: Stay where you are, use soaking wet towels to keep out the smoke. Some said to open a window; others warned against doing so.In some cases, they were simply stymied by what they heard in the minutes before the towers collapsed. The south tower went down at 9:59 a.m., followed by the north tower at 10:28.”I’ve got a guy on the 106th floor and he wants to know how to deal with a hundred people,” a fire operator said. “He wants some directions. I don’t know.”Many dispatchers complained about computers failing in the chaos.”Oh goodness. Hold on a second, because we are so backed up here,” a fire dispatcher told one caller. “Because we have so much information on here, that our computers are down. OK?”In almost every case, operators advised people to stay put, that help was on the way. Two years ago, the Sept. 11 commission concluded that many operators didn’t know enough about the attacks to give the best information to people trapped inside.The operators, from the fire and police departments, managed to generally maintain their composure even as word spread that what initially appeared to be a tragic accident was actually a choreographed terrorist attack involving two planes and both towers.”They’re saying it might be a terrorist attack,” a police operator said six minutes after the second tower was hit. “It would have to be because what are the odds of two planes crashing into the same building, OK? … OK. I can’t believe this. It’s got to be – it’s got to be hell.”Among those killed were 343 firefighters and 23 members of the NYPD.The recordings were released after The New York Times and relatives of Sept. 11 victims sued to get them. An appeals court ruled last year that the calls of victims in the burning twin towers were too intense and emotional to be released without their families’ consent.An order to release the names of 28 callers who identified themselves is under appeal. A tape involving trade center victim Christopher Hanley, who died in the north tower, was made public Thursday after his parents released their audiotape to the Times.Sally Regenhard, one of the plaintiffs whose firefighter son was killed on Sept. 11, said the tapes showed that the operators were untrained to tell people how to save their lives.”I’m hoping that the public and the system will learn how unprepared the City of New York and the Port Authority were on that day,” Regenhard said.Many of the operators told frantic callers to stay put and wait for help, which fire dispatcher supervisor David Rosenzwieg said is standard procedure in high-rises when fires break out on lower floors.”Telling people to stay – for some reason people think that’s the wrong thing to do,” Rosenzwieg said Friday. “But the same instructions saves lives every day.”Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the police 911 operators “displayed professionalism and compassion under the most trying of circumstances, often staying on the line with anguished callers until the very end.”Rosenzwieg said some dispatchers were so traumatized by their encounters with the trade center victims they never came back to the job. Others retired early.The first transcripts released as part of the lawsuit came last August, when thousands of pages of oral histories of firefighters and emergency workers, as well as radio transmissions, were made public. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center and has its own police force, released all of its emergency recordings in 2003.Vail, Colorado
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