The 9/11 tapes; Duty, confusion and terror
By Luis Perez and Hana Alberts
Newsday (New York)
Copyright 2006 Newsday, Inc.
There is the voice of the fire chief, now deceased, demanding where the men and radios are, and asking for a helmet.
There are the many frustrated firefighters turned away from the burning Twin Towers by overwhelmed fire dispatchers, and the simple mention of Engine 279, allowing a mother to place where her firefighter son died.
But perhaps most chilling is the back-and-forth between a Bronx woman, Melissa Doi, and a 911 operator. The lone civilian voice, the 32-year-old woman, who perished on that day, is heard screaming, "We are all going to die!" The female 911 operator instructs her to wait calmly and tells her, "Ma'am, say your prayers."
The conversations are included in more than 10 hours of 911 audio transmissions released by the city yesterday, marking the third time in barely a year that the public revisits the events of Sept. 11, 2001, through the frantic voices of the day.
Doi's voice is the only civilian's heard because her conversation already had been played in court earlier this year in the Zacarias Moussoui terror trial. In the other 911 calls, the caller's voice has been replaced with a high-pitched tone, in keeping with a court order.
The 1,613 audio files were released by the New York City Fire Department, which said that a staffer's error omitted the calls earlier this year, after a March decision by the New York State Court of Appeals ordered the release of all 911 calls made between 8:45 and 10:45 a.m. that day.
The first release came on Aug. 12 last year, when about 12,000 pages of oral histories from firefighters and 900 minutes of radio transmissions were made public. The second release came March 31 - some 130 calls made to 911 operators.
The New York Times and eight family members of victims had sued the city for the materials, including Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son, Christian. Only yesterday, when Regenhard sat and listened to the latest release of transmissions, did she learn Christian's location in Tower Two, she said.
"Five years is long enough for the families of the victims and for the city," Regenhard said at a news conference yesterday, where she called on the city to produce a full report pinpointing firefighters' locations in the buildings. "It's time for the truth, all of the truth."
Citing family members' privacy, the city had sought to block the materials, but later lost a three-year court battle. The court ordered the release but wanted civilian voices redacted.
Most of the 911 calls are from city Fire Department employees to fire dispatchers. Ten calls, including that of Doi, are between 911 operators and civilians trapped in the towers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday defended the city's reasons for withholding the transmissions.
"The real issue here is to protect the families," he said at the groundbreaking for a new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He questioned whether the transmissions represent "something where there's a real public purpose," and asked "whether it really is worth putting the families through reliving the grief that I think none of the rest of us would possibly imagine."
Civil rights attorney Norman Seigel, who represented the families in the court fight, which ended in March, said the 911 calls show the truth of the day, including the massive communications breakdown between city agencies.
Siegel said that the "guts" of transmissions were not included in the released versions and said he is appealing the court for the full release of the audio files.
Still, the truncated versions of the 911 calls offer the listener candid glimpses into the chaos and confusion of the day.
"Who the -- is in charge down there? Do we know?" demands one chief who talks to a dispatcher
"Nobody," replies the fire dispatcher. "I don't know who's hurt. I don't know who's trapped."
There is the off-duty 7th Battalion lieutenant who calls in asking if he can help.
"I don't know what to tell you," a frustrated dispatcher replies.
One high-ranking firefighter, Chief Dennis Devlin, says plainly: "We're in a state of confusion." He asks for a "rundown" of which men are in the south tower. Devlin, who died that day, is transferred to a second dispatcher, who recites a list of nearly 40 companies there — including Engine 279, where Regenhard's son worked.
Devlin is then heard pleading for more handheld radios and a deputy fire chief's helmet.
A Fire Department spokesman declined to comment yesterday, saying that the audio files "speak for themselves." In a department statement, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said an inquiry to determine why the latest portion of calls was not released earlier revealed a personnel lapse.
Ron Arnero, an assistant director of District Council 37, which represents 911 operators, praised the city's release of the tapes.