Sept. 11 emergency tapes remind dispatchers of their powerlessness in face of tragedy
Copyright 2006 Newsday, Inc.
BY LUIS PEREZ
Newsday (New York)
They are the steady voices on the other side of the line, but today, 911 dispatchers, as well as victims' families, may be forced to recall the day when two hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center.
After a three-year court battle, the city today will release eight hours of 911 calls made on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In CDs to be issued by the city Law Department, the voices of callers have been redacted and only emergency operators can be heard.
The dispatchers will return to the busiest day in their history - an event that, even for trained professionals, was terribly beyond the scope of normality.
Many of these civilian fire and police department employees will be heard for the first time, casting what has been a private grieving process out into the open, experts say.
In New York, 2,749 people died on Sept. 11. Of those, 27 have been positively identified on the audiotapes.
"It's sort of like an incomplete mission when you don't save or can't even try to help someone," said Thomas Demaria, a clinical psychologist who founded and directs the World Trade Center Family Center at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, which treats families of 9/11 victims as well as first responders.
"A lot of what the dispatchers hear is the uncensored, raw horror of what people were seeing and feeling," Demaria said. "These people were really dealing with a state of emergency, thinking that perhaps they could be threatened, or the country could be threatened. "
Modesto Muniz, 48, a police dispatcher who on Sept. 11 communicated with police officers on a special frequency, said the tapes would surely be more shocking for victims' families than for himself.
"Maybe they are asking the operator, 'What should I do? Should I jump? Should I stay?'" said Muniz, a 17-year veteran dispatcher.
On that day, Muniz heard the last words from police Officer Moira Smith, the only female city cop to die in the towers: "Please help me! "
He said he is still haunted by those words.
"Some of them might want to hear it, just for the closure," he said of families, "to hear what their loved ones said in those last moments. "
On that day, 192 police dispatchers were bunkered in a windowless building in downtown Brooklyn, most for 16-hour shifts.
In the minutes after both planes struck the towers, operators were inundated by more than 3,000 calls.
In the next 24 hours, nearly 60,000 calls poured in from around the city, nearly twice the daily average.
Most dispatchers are naturally adept at shielding their emotions, said Leonard Davidman, a psychologist who treated 911 operators and victims from the 1993 trade center bombing for post-traumatic stress.
"Over time, they develop emotional insulation," Davidman said. "It has to be not too thick, to make sure you are still sensitive to what's going on around you, but not too thin so that you can handle what's going on. "
David Rosenzweig, president of the Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association, said his union briefed its dispatchers this week about the expected trauma and to let them know counseling is available.
The release of the tapes will be "bittersweet" for fire dispatchers, he said.
"Unfortunately, it brings back the memories of Sept. 11 and the very difficult days it represented for us," he said.