The soothing voice
911 operator encounters horror, offers reassurance on 9/11
NEW YORK (CNN) -- September 11 -- 9-11 on American calendars -- has always been a special day for emergency operators, a chance to celebrate the difficult, meaningful work they do for a living.
September 11, 2001, began as an especially pleasant day for Yvette Washington-Montagne. The sun was shining, the phones were relatively calm, and she was set to receive an award for attendance and service at her office's annual 911 event.
Then, about 20 minutes before the ceremony's start, reports came in that a plane had struck the World Trade Center's North Tower.
"We're told to grab out headsets and everybody just prepared for an onslaught of calls," said Washington-Montagne.
In the first 18 minutes after the first attack, 50 police communication technicians received 3,000 phone calls. New York's 911 operators handled a total of 55,000 calls on September 11, each seemingly more hellish than the next.
Washington became emotional as she rememebered the frantic, horrific phone calls from people trapped inside the burning towers on September 11.
"You had people begging you to save them," Washington-Montagne recalled. "The pleas became more and more intense, with men crying and begging you to tell them what you should do."
She solicited detailed information, offered impromptu counseling and coolly reassured those trapped in the towers who were screaming, pleading, praying to escape and see their families again.
"I knew people were going to be rescued," she said. "Never once did I think that the World Trade Center would crumble. Never. Never ever in my wildest dreams."
Calm in crisis
Washington-Montagne believes that none of the people, all above the towers' 82nd floor, that she talked to in those first few hours made it home alive. But her boss, Sgt. William Butler, knows that Washington-Montagne made a huge difference last September 11.
"After listening to the calls she handled that day, the way she handled herself and cared for the people on the other end of the phone, I'm just struck by compassionate and kind she was to people," said Butler, the NYPD officer in charge of New York's civilian 911 operators.
"She's everything we want an operator to be. She's the operator I would want my family to get if they ever called 911."
During the crisis, emergency operators work simultaneously on the front lines and behind-the-scenes. They are the first to offer assistance in a crisis but often the last to be publicly recognized, if they are at all.
But Washington-Montagne says that she's content to be removed from the limelight. Inspired to serve others at an early age, she said she often fielded calls from elderly relatives in need of help, an experience that segued into her job the last 21 years as a 911 operator.
Her friends and colleagues say Washington-Montagne is a natural, blessed with a soothing voice and composed, caring demeanor.
"Yvette is a very sympathetic person, a very passionate person," said Ivy Bruce, one of her co-workers. "When a crisis strikes, Yvette can be very calm... She's able to make those quick decisions."
Crying, then handling more calls
She and her colleagues faced their toughest test, personally and professionally, on September 11. Their offices, located just across the Brooklyn Bridge in north Brooklyn, had a view of the World Trade Center. Many operators lived a few miles from Ground Zero and had friends and relatives working nearby. And no past crisis or exercise prepared them for the volume, logistics or emotion of the calls they received that day.
Most operators handled a call, cried, and then put on a calm faŤade as they answered another call -- some, like Washington-Montagne, doing so for 16 hours straight -- according to Bruce.
New York's 911 operators handled a total of 55,000 calls on September 11.
"Most people didn't want to leave the operational floor," said Butler, praising the courage and resiliency of his staff. "They almost had to be pulled away."
Washington-Montagne talked to one man who asked whether he should jump from 100 floors up or wait for help. And she was on the line with another person in the South Tower just as it collapsed.
"Before the building fell, you could hear screaming, a lot of screaming. You could hear glass breaking and then you could hear, like, wind. And then you heard the calm," said Washington-Montagne. "Then reality hit that people weren't going to make it, you know? People weren't going to make it."
Washington-Montagne said she's cried often about her experiences September 11, saying she leaned on her co-workers and supervisors to recover emotionally. She says she is very proud of the effort she and her fellow 911 operators made that day -- and continue to make every day.
"We were the voice that calmed them down and put them at ease," she said. "We did our job if we did just that -- if we were just there to say it's OK."
Back to top