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9/11 panel focuses on rescue efforts

Communication troubles cited in response to New York attacks

From Phil Hirschkorn

The 9/11 commission begins hearings Tuesday.
more videoVIDEO
Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton of the 9/11 panel talk to CNN's Bill Hemmer about what they hope to learn from testimony.

The 9/11 commission is set to hear witnesses tell about the communications breakdown that day.
September 11 attacks
New York
Emergency Planning
Disasters (General)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Communications problems plagued rescuers sent to the World Trade Center attacks, the 9/11 commission said Tuesday as panel members posed tough questions to the officials who led firefighters and police that day.

"I believe we did our best, based on what we knew at the time," former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said.

Tuesday was the first of two days of public hearings at Manhattan's New School University looking at how the emergency services performed on that fateful day.

Panel commissioner Jamie Gorelick said many of the communication problems could be blamed on the "sheer magnitude" of the attacks.

But commissioner John Lehman said the city's command, control and communication systems remain "a scandal" 2 1/2 years after the attacks.

"It's not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city," he said to applause from spectators.

Lehman, a former U.S. Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, said that city officials lacked clear lines of authority in case of a crisis and its emergency management plan merely "puts in concrete a severely dysfunctional system."

But Kerik and former New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen disagreed sharply with that assessment. Von Essen called Lehman's complaint "outrageous."

"I think that one of the criticisms of this committee has been statements like you just made, talking about scandalous procedures and scandalous operations and rules and everything else," Von Essen said.

"There's nothing scandalous about how New York handles its emergencies. We had strong leadership with the mayor. We had strong leadership with the fire commissioner and with the police commissioner."

Kerik said city's emergency service agencies have specialized duties that can't be included in a single, military-style line of authority, as Lehman suggested.

"I don't do stuff that the fire department does, and the fire department has to do their thing," he said.

Orders to evacuate the entire trade center complex were issued within 10 minutes of American Airlines Flight 11 hitting the north tower at 8:46 a.m, the commission's staff said in a report presented at the start of Tuesday's hearing.

But the order could be heard only by officers listening to the command channel of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police, the report found.

"There is no evidence that this order was communicated to officers in other Port Authority police commands or to members of other responding agencies," the staff's statement said.

Von Essen said the city's fire department had tried to upgrade radios to a digital system that would allow better coordination with other agencies but that the new radios -- issued in March 2001 -- were recalled after firefighters complained that transmissions "were stepping on each other."

In addition, repeated announcements over the south tower's public address system urged people to stay put during most of the 17 minutes between the two crashes. Workers in the south tower were advised to evacuate only a minute before hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into that building at 9:03 a.m., the staff's report concluded.

"We do not know the reason for this advice, in part because the on-duty deputy fire safety director in charge of the south tower perished in the tower's collapse," the staff reported.

The attacks killed 2,749 people aboard the planes, inside the buildings or on the surrounding streets of Lower Manhattan, according to the New York medical examiner's office.

The dead included 343 firefighters, 23 New York police officers and 37 officers for the Port Authority, the transportation agency that owned the trade center complex -- the twin towers and five smaller buildings.

But those first responders helped 25,000 people evacuate the buildings before their collapse, according to a 2002 study by McKinsey & Co.

Von Essen said some firefighters who died might have been unwilling to evacuate the doomed buildings while people were still inside who needed assistance.

"For many firefighters, an evacuation order means, 'Get the civilians out, get all my guys out and then I go.' ... We will never know what decision many of our firefighters made that day, but I do know that firefighters do not abandon civilians in distress to save themselves," he said.

Alan Reiss, the Port Authority's former World Trade Center director, compared the energy of the planes' impacts to the detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon. But he said the buildings' construction may have saved some lives.

"If the WTC complex did not exceed codes in so many ways, the 9/11 losses would surely have been much more horrific," Reiss said.

New details emerge in staff report

The commission staff's report detailed the 100 minutes from the first crash to the subsequent collapses of the buildings, and it was accompanied by videotaped interviews with police and firefighters.

In one of those interviews, Peter Hayden, a New York Fire Department assistant chief, told the commission that commanders on the scene quickly decided not to fight the jet fuel-enhanced fire.

"We determined very early on that this was going to be strictly a rescue mission," Hayden said in a videotape accompanying the statement. "We were going to evacuate the building, get everybody out, and then we were going to get out."

The report added new details to moments widely documented since the attacks, among them:

  • None of the three fire stairwells in the north tower were passable above the 92nd floor after the first plane struck. "Hundreds of civilians were killed instantly by the impact," the staff statement said. "Hundreds more remained alive but trapped."
  • The north tower's fire safety director ordered an evacuation within one minute of the first crash, but that order was not heard due to a broken public address system. However, most of the tower's occupants did not require instructions to leave.
  • Building managers had no plan to rescue people from the rooftops, and no aerial rescue efforts were ever seriously considered.
  • Former Port Authority Police Chief Joseph Morris said the tops of the 1,368-foot buildings always had strong winds blowing across them, and both were studded with antennas that would make landing helicopters impractical.

    Officer James Ciccone, a New York police pilot, told staffers the heat and smoke from the burning towers interfered with helicopter rotors, dooming hopes of an aerial rescue.

    A "repeater system" -- an antenna on top of one of the complex's smaller buildings to amplify radio communications inside the twin towers -- was installed after the 1993 attack to help firefighters maintain contact with the lobby command post. But the commission staff found that it was not activated properly in the north tower.

    The fire chief who tested it concluded the system was down, the staff's statement said. "The system was working, however, and was used subsequently by firefighters in the south tower," the statement said.

    A 73-minute tape of the fire department's radio communications, released by the Port Authority in November 2002, previously indicated the repeater worked, revealing conversations by firefighters until the south tower fell.

    Besides revisiting the events of September 11, the independent, bipartisan commission is charged with making recommendations to improve emergency response to future terrorist attacks.

    Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued regulations to address the rivalry between the 40,000-member police force and the city's 11,000 firefighters and created the Office of Emergency Management to coordinate response among all agencies.

    Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a revised incident command system to clarify in what instances the New York Police or Fire departments should take the leading role.

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