Anguish of 9/11 returns in newly released tapes
By Ellen Barry
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
NEW YORK CITY — In what has become a ritual, New Yorkers got fresh and horrific glimpses Wednesday of what happened inside the World Trade Center buildings the morning of Sept. 11. Among the recorded voices that were released were panicked pleas for help, and sweet, hollow reassurances.
Few callers sounded calmer than Dennis Devlin, chief of the New York Fire Department's 9th Battalion, who was standing in the chaotic lobby of the south tower. Speaking to a dispatcher, he listed what he needed for a rescue operation: hand-held radios, an open telephone line, a chief's helmet.
"I got to get a rundown of the companies. We're in a state of confusion," he told the dispatcher. "We have no cellphone service because of the disaster."
Devlin, 51, would die minutes later in the tower's collapse.
Devlin's call was part of a surprise cache of 1,613 recordings from Sept. 11, 2001, that were released Wednesday in New York.
After the attacks, lawyers for the New York Times, joined by a group of victims' relatives, pushed the city to release all of the tapes, saying they contained vital information about how emergency services functioned.
In March 2005, the New York State Court of Appeals ordered the city to comply, and this March 31, the city's law department released hours of recorded calls.
Then, on Tuesday, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta announced his staff had overlooked a large number of recordings. Fire Department officials say they are confident they have provided all the tapes sought in the lawsuit.
Attorney Norman Siegel, who represented nine family members in the lawsuit, said the release should not have taken five years. A question, he said, is "why this happened."
"The families are angry -- angry that they had to go to court, and angry that they're getting this information piecemeal," he said. "So hovering over all this is the question of whether there are further tapes hidden away in someone's cabinet."
One of the most agonizing calls came at 9:17 a.m. from Melissa Doi, 32, who spoke from the 83rd floor of the south tower.
"Holy Mary, mother of God," said Doi, a manager at IQ Financial Systems, when the operator picked up. "There's no one here yet, and the floor's completely engulfed. We are on the floor and we can't breathe and it's very, very hot."
Over the next four minutes, as the operator advised her to stay calm and wait for help, Doi panicked: "I'm going to die, aren't I?" she asked.
"No, no, no," said the operator.
"I'm going to die," Doi said.
"Ma'am, say your prayers," the operator replied.
"Oh, God, it's so hot. I'm burning up," Doi said.
Several minutes later, Doi's voice went silent, but the operator continued to speak, soothingly, for about 20 minutes, repeating her name over and over and calling her "dear."
"I don't know if she's unconscious or just out of breath, but it sounds like they are unconscious and snoring. That's why I keep talking to her," the dispatcher said. "The line is dead now. They hung up. The line is now dead."
Doi's call was not released earlier because an excerpt was used as evidence in the terrorism trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in April. The excerpt is the only recording of a civilian's voice released Wednesday. Other calls from civilians were edited.
Unlike the first batch of emergency calls, which came from people inside the buildings, most of the calls released Wednesday were brief exchanges between dispatchers, or between firefighters and dispatchers. Many were from off-duty firefighters who volunteered to help; 343 firefighters died at the scene.
At 9:21 a.m., Capt. Patrick Brown called a dispatcher from the 35th floor to relay a message to the command post in the lobby: "We're trying to get up, you know. There's numerous civilians in all the stairwells, and numerous burn injuries are coming down. I'm trying to send them down first." Brown died in the building's collapse.
Retired Fire Capt. Al Fuentes, who listened to some of the recordings Wednesday, said he was overwhelmed by the calm, self-possessed voices of the firefighters. "The way Paddy Brown put it -- 'We're going up,' " he said.
But the recordings also reminded him how primitive communications were that day, when firefighters resorted to using hand signals or runners.
"When you think about it, it's archaic," Fuentes said. "I mean, in 1969, we could talk to our people on the moon."
Siegel has argued that the recordings contain information that is important to the families of people who died, and two of his clients -- Sally Regenhard and Barbara Hetzel -- recognized their son's units when Chief Devlin listed which were in the south tower. Regenhard had not known this. She called it a "scintilla" of information, but "more than I've gotten from the city of New York in five years."
But many of the calls give only brief glimpses of rescue workers scrambling to keep up. After the first tower collapsed, at 10 a.m., an unidentified lieutenant called in with an urgent tone: "Everybody's got to be inside of it.... There's got to be thousands of people inside of it. One of the towers just came down on top of everybody."
"All right," said the dispatcher. "We got that here. OK, thanks."
Minutes later, an off-duty dispatcher called her supervisor, who asked why she was crying.
"The World Trade Center collapsed," she replied.
"Everything is collapsed, baby," said her supervisor.
"All those people -- what about the EMTs and paramedics and firefighters in there helping people get out?" she asked.
"I don't know, sweetie," her supervisor replied. "I really don't know."
Times researcher Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.
Voices of Sept. 11
Excerpts of 1,613 emergency phone calls made after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and just released by New York City:
'Well, a plane just crashed into it this morning; the other one the same thing. OK? Why don't you just try to stay calm, try to stay together. I'm going to try to get this to the radio people to get somebody up to you.'
'We have six men here. Do you want us to find our way down there? ... OK, we're going to try and respond down to the Trade Center.'
'Sir, did you find something and put it over your head? OK, did you see any fire at this time? Sir ... OK, I want you to go on the floor. Kneel on the floor. On the floor. Cover your head with a cloth.'
'We got people jumping out of buildings. It is unreal. It is absolutely unreal.'
'Ma'am, if you have to, break a window, if you have to. If you don't, don't break it. I'm going to get somebody there to get you, OK? ... I'm not going to be able to call you back; we're very busy right now. Everybody's calling me.'
'I'm on the 35th floor.... Numerous burn injuries are coming down. I'm trying to send them down.... We're still heading up.'
'There's heavy smoke and flames, and the building management is announcing that everything is all right, and it's not, and they're confused.'
'Is there any towels in the area? Anything that you have handy. Soak them with water. Lie on the floor. OK? Sir, try to calm yourself down.'
'One of the towers just collapsed. Everybody's got to be inside of it.... There's got to be thousands of people inside it. One of the towers just came down on top of everybody.'