In the fifth year after 9/11, some families of the victims of that horrific day have won a partial battle to allow us to learn important lessons from this terrible tragedy. This past Friday, audiotapes and transcripts of the exchanges between those trapped in the towers and 911 operators and fire department dispatchers were released. The compromise that has been reached is that the tapes now available to the press and public do not include the victims’ end of the exchanges. Nevertheless, even this one-sided version is deeply disturbing. Here’s two brief excerpts, courtesy of the New York Times:
“O.K. Hello. You say you’ve got 100 people where? . . . floor. You guys can’t get to the stairway. You can’t get — O.K. Is there a fire going on? There is no fire in where you are. Then it should be all right to open a window. . . . 100 people or 120 people? O.K. This is 911. . . . You had a plane hit the building and there has been another plane that hit the building. O.K.? Right at this point, open the window. If you can get a window open, open a window. You know, I’m not there. I can only go by . . . if there’s a fire going on anywhere and you open the window, it’s going to make the fire ignite more.
What is your emergency? O.K. one second, sir. One second. What floor are you on, sir? You’re on 105th floor. Wow. Any injuries? Just hold on one second, sir. Hold on. I hear the fire alarm. They’re coming. They’re on their way. They’re working on it. My God, this, don’t worry, God is there. God is there. God is, don’t worry about it. God is . . . Don’t worry. They’re on their way, sir. E.M.S. is there and . . . O.K. . . . E.M.S. Hold on. I’m going to connect you to E.M.S. Hold on one second, sir.”
I have to confess that just cutting and pasting these two entries from the innumerable ones that were recorded that day has driven me to tears.
The families who fought to get the tapes released felt that it was crucial in order to understand how unprepared we were for this type of devastation, despite the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.
The Times reported:
On the morning of Sept. 11, many of the people trapped in the World Trade Center who called 911 were first questioned by police operators about their circumstances, and then were transferred to fire and ambulance dispatchers who, unable to see the police computers, asked for the same information.
The operators and dispatchers who fielded calls also were unable to tell people to flee the twin towers because no one told them that police and fire commanders had issued orders to evacuate the World Trade Center. Instead, following traditional firefighting protocol, they told callers to stay put — including those in the south tower who might have been able to escape before the building’s collapse.
The Times also reported that firefighters never heard the warnings relayed 21 minutes before the second tower collapsed, as their radio system was faulty that morning and was not linked to the police system. A Times analysis concluded: “Cut off from critical information, at least 121 firefighters, most in striking distance of safety, died when the north tower fell..”
Adding to the heartache is the controversy over the long-delayed building of a World Trade Center memorial. From what I understand, the current plan seems fundamentally unsound to some of the victim’s families, since the foundation of the building will apparently be deep underground. The families fear that we have not learned the lessons of 9/ll even after all that has happened.[ADBLOCKHERE] I predict that eventually the full tapes will be released, including the victims’ side of the calls. I don’t know if I’d be able to listen to these recordings, but I firmly believe it would represent an important piece of documentation of this tragedy. I think the visceral nature of these messages has the power to hit home so deeply that the lessons may be taken more to heart. The release of even the edited tapes has come none to soon, since it seems to me that in this and other matters of emergency preparedness and national security, our country and our Administration has learned and heeded very little indeed.