An appeals court ruled last year that the calls of victims in the twin towers were too intense and emotional to be released without their families' consent.
NEW YORK (April 1) - Emergency operators listening to trapped callers' heartbreaking pleas from the burning World Trade Center repeatedly said help was on the way while they struggled with crashing computers, utter confusion and their own emotions, several hours of emergency calls released Friday show.
In releasing the 130 calls, city officials edited out the voices of those who sought help. But the police and fire dispatchers often repeated the callers' words, reflecting the fear and chaos of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The first call came seconds after terrorists flew a hijacked jetliner into the north tower of the trade center at 8:46 a.m. A second plane struck the south tower 17 minutes later, and by 10:28 both towers had collapsed, leaving 2,749 people dead.
Dispatchers assured the callers - most of them on floors above the burning plane wreckage - that help was coming, or already there. In many cases, they had little to offer but compassion.
"OK, ma'am. All right," a fire dispatcher told a caller at 9:05 a.m., two minutes after the second tower was hit. "Well, everybody is there now. We're trying to rescue everybody. OK?"
Twelve minutes later, another dispatcher told a frantic caller trapped on the 105th floor of the south tower to instruct people to put wet towels over their mouths, lie on the floor and not open the windows.
"We are trying to get up there, sir. Like you said, the stairs are collapsed, OK?" the dispatcher said. "I know it's hard to breathe. I know it is."
The transcripts and nearly nine hours of audio recordings were released after The New York Times and relatives of Sept. 11 victims sued to get them. An appeals court ruled last year that the calls of victims in the burning twin towers were too intense and emotional to be released without their families' consent.
As a result, the transcripts held long blank spaces where the callers' words would have appeared.
Often, it was clear from conversations between police and fire department operators that they were not sure what had occurred. At one point a police operator told a fire dispatcher that a helicopter had hit one of the towers.
The operators managed generally to maintain their composure even as word spread that what initially appeared to be a tragic accident was actually a choreographed terrorist attack involving two planes and both towers.
Sirens screamed in the background as the callers pleaded for help. Although there were no voices, their desperation was evident in heavy, audible breathing on the other end of the operators' calls.
"If you feel like your life is in danger, do what you must do, OK?" one dispatcher told a caller at 9:02 a.m., just a minute before the second plane hit. "I can't give you any more advice than that."
The comment was typical of the frustration that came through amid the calm professionalism.
"All right, we have quite a few calls," said a fire operator.
"I know," said a police operator. "Jesus Christ."
Many dispatchers complained about computers failing in the chaos.
"Oh goodness. Hold on a second, because we are so backed up here," a fire dispatcher told one caller. "Because we have so much information on here, that our computers are down. OK?"
In the background of another call made from the 105th floor of the north tower at 9:17 a.m., a public address announcement could be heard in the background: "We aware of it down here. The condition seems to have subsided."
Sally Regenhard, one of the plaintiffs whose firefighter son was killed on Sept. 11, said the tapes showed that the operators were untrained to tell people how to save their lives.
"I'm hoping that the public and the system will learn how unprepared the City of New York and the Port Authority were on that day," Regenhard said.
Many of the operators told frantic callers to stay put and wait for help, which fire dispatcher supervisor David Rosenzwieg said is standard procedure in high-rises when fires break out on lower floors.
"Telling people to stay - for some reason people think that's the wrong thing to do," Rosenzwieg said Friday. "But the same instructions saves lives every day."
Rosenzwieg said some dispatchers were so traumatized by their encounters with the trade center victims they never came back to the job. Others retired early. "Unfortunately, they took it very much to heart," he said.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the police emergency operators "displayed professionalism and compassion under the most trying of circumstances, often staying on the line with anguished callers until the very end."
At 9:47 a.m., one police operator did exactly that, telling another unidentified caller, "Yes, I'm here, I'm not going to go nowhere. ... You know there are people there trying to get you all out right now, all right? You're not by yourself."
The dispatcher then took a telephone number of the caller's family and promised to reach them. Then the call went dead: "And who is this? Hello?"
The first transcripts released as part of the Times lawsuit came last August, when thousands of pages of oral histories of firefighters and emergency workers, as well as radio transmissions, were released. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center and has its own police force, released all its emergency recordings in 2003.
The Sept. 11 commission concluded in 2004 that the operators did not have enough information to allow more people to escape from the twin towers.
"Are they still standing?" one dispatcher asked at 10:15 a.m., 16 minutes after the south tower collapsed. "The World Trade Center is there, right?"
emergency calls provide new look into 9/11 attacks
Published: April 1, 2006, 9:37 am