In Operators’ Voices, Echoes of Calls for Help
By JIM DWYER
The city released partial recordings today of about 130 telephone calls made to 911 after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, stripped of the voices of the people inside the World Trade Center but still evocative of their invisible struggles for life.
Only the 911 operators and fire department dispatchers can be heard on the recordings, their words mapping the calamity in rough, faint echoes of the men and women in the towers who had called them for help.
They describe crowded islands of fleeting survival, on floors far from the crash and even on those that were directly hit: Hallways are blocked on 104. Send help to 84. It is hard to breathe on 97.
Be calm, the operators implore. God is there. Sit tight.
The recordings, contained on 11 compact discs, also document a broken link in the chain of emergency communications.
The voices captured on those discs track the callers as they are passed by telephone from one agency to another, moving through a confederacy of municipal fiefdoms ? police, fire, ambulance ? but almost never receiving vital instructions to get out of the buildings.
No more than 2 of the 130 callers were told to leave, the tapes reveal, even though unequivocal orders to evacuate the trade center had been given by fire chiefs and police commanders moments after the first plane struck. The city had no procedure for field commanders to share information with the 911 system, a flaw identified by the 9/11 Commission that city officials say has since been fixed.
The tapes show that many callers were not told to leave, but to stay put, the standard advice for high-rise fires. In the north tower, all three of the building’s stairways were destroyed at the 92nd floor. But in the south tower, where one stairway remained passable, the recordings include references to perhaps a few hundred people huddled in offices, unaware of the order to leave.
The calls released today bring to life the fatal frustration and confusion experienced by one unidentified man in the complex’s south tower, who called at 9:08 a.m., shortly after the second plane struck the building. For the next 11 minutes, as his call was bounced from police operators to fire dispatchers and back again, the 911 system vindicated its reputation as a rickety, dangerous contraption, one that the administration of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tried to overhaul with little success, and one that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hopes to improve by spending close to $1 billion.
The voice of the man, who was calling from the offices of Keefe Bruyette on the 88th floor of that building, was removed from the recording by the city. From the operator’s responses, it appears that he wanted to leave.
"You cannot ? you have to wait until somebody comes there," she tells the man.
The police operator urged him to put wet towels or rags under the door, and said she would connect him to the Fire Department.
As she tried to transfer his call, the phone rang and rang ? 15 times, before the police operator gave up and tried a fire department dispatch office in another borough. Eventually, a dispatcher picked up, and he asked the man to repeat the same information that he had provided moments earlier to the police operator. (The police and fire departments had separate computer dispatching systems that were unable to share basic information like the location of an emergency.)
After that, the fire dispatcher hung up, and the man on the 88th floor apparently persisted in asking the police operator ? who had stayed on the line ? about leaving.
"But I can’t tell you to do that, sir," the operator said, who then decided to transfer his call back to the Fire Department. "Let me connect you again. O.K.” Because I really do not want to tell you to do that. I can’t tell you to move."
A fire dispatcher picked up and asked ? for the third time in the call ? for the location of the man on the 88th floor. The dispatcher’s instructions were relayed by the police operator.
"O.K.," she said. "I need you to stay in the office. Don’t go into the hallway. They’re coming upstairs. They are coming. They’re trying to get upstairs to you."
Like many other operators that morning, she was invoking advice from a policy known as "defend in place" ? meaning that only people just at or above a fire should move, an approach that had long been enshrined in skyscrapers in New York and elsewhere.
At Keefe Bruyette, 67 people died, many of whom had gathered in conference rooms and offices on the 88th and 89th floors. Some tried to reach the roof, a futile trek that the 9/11 Commission said might have been avoided if the city’s 911 operators had known that the police had ruled out helicopter rescues ? another piece of information that had not been shared with them ” and that an evacuation order had been issued.
The calls were released today in response to a Freedom of Information request made by The New York Times on Jan. 25, 2002, for public records concerning the events of Sept. 11. The city refused to release most of them on the grounds that they were needed to prosecute a man accused of complicity in the attacks, or contained opinions that were not subject to disclosure, or were so intensely personal that their release would be an invasion of privacy. The Times sued in state court, and nine family members of people killed in the attacks joined the case.
Judge Richard Braun of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled in early 2003 that the vast majority of the records were public, but said that the city could remove the words of the 911 callers on privacy grounds. Over the next two years, the core of his ruling was affirmed by the appellate division and the New York State Court of Appeals.
That led to the release of the calls today. City officials said that 130 calls were made to 911 from inside the buildings. Of that group, officials were able to identify 27 people and notified their next of kin this week that they could listen to the complete call.
While that might seem like a small number of calls given that approximately 15,000 people were at the trade center that morning, officials said that many of those who got through to 911 were with large groups of people.
One of these groups was on the 105th floor of the south tower, a spot where scores of people had congregated after trying to reach the roof. Among them was Kevin Cosgrove, who worked on the 100th floor, and who had told his family that he had gone down stairs before turning back. He called 911, and said he was in an office overlooking the World Financial Center, across West Street, records show. He said he needed help, and was having difficulty breathing.
One of the recordings ? city officials have refused to say who made the call ? involved a man on the 105th floor who suggested desperate measures to improve the air.
"Oh, my God," said the dispatcher. "You can’t breathe at all?"
The caller’s words were deleted.
"O.K.," said the dispatcher. "Listen, when you ? listen, please do not break the window. When you break the window ? " here, the caller interrupted.
"Don’t break the window because there’s so much smoke outside," the dispatcher said. "If you break a window, you guys won’t be able to breathe; . O.K.” So if there are any other doorways that you can open where you don’t see the smoke."
The dispatcher tried to soothe the man, finally saying, "O.K. Listen, calm yourself down. We’ve got everybody outside. O.K.”"
The man spoke and the dispatcher assured him help was on the way.
"We are," the dispatcher said. "We’re trying to get up there, sir. Like you said, the stairs are collapsed. O.K.” Everybody wet the towels and lie on the floor. O.K.” Put the wet towels over your head and lie down; O.K.” I know it’s hard to breathe. I know it is."
People on the highest floors in both towers suffered acutely from the smoke and heat, even though they were many floors distant from the entry points of the planes that had crashed into the buildings. In the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald in the north tower, between 25 and 50 people found refuge in a conference room on the 104th floor. One man, Andrew Rosenblum, reached his wife in Long Island, and gave her the names and home phone numbers of colleagues who were with him. As he recited the information, she relayed it to neighbors. Mr. Rosenblum also called a friend and said that the group had used computer terminals to smash windows for fresh air.
Such drastic actions appeared to have been discouraged by the operator. Another Cantor Fitzgerald employee on the 104th floor was Richard Caggiano, who called 911 at 8:53, seven minutes after the plane hit the north tower.
"Don’t do that, sir," the operator said. "Don’t do that. There’s help on the way, sir. Hold on."
Mr. Caggiano’s words, which were not made public, prompted a question from the operator.
"Are y’all in a particular room?" she asked. "How many?"
She listened, then said, "25 or 30 in a back room. O.K. They’re on the way. They’re already there. You can’t hear the sirens?"
Just before the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., a spurt of calls reached the 911 operators. One of these was from Shimmy Biegeleisen, who worked for Fiduciary Trust in the south tower on computer systems. He was on the 97th floor where, by chance, an emergency drill had been scheduled for that day. Mr. Biegeleisen called his home in Brooklyn, spoke with his wife and prayed with a friend, Jack Edelman, who remembered hearing him say: "Of David. A Psalm. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those that live in it."
At 9:52, he called 911. The building had seven more minutes before it would collapse. Mr. Biegeleisen would spend those minutes telling first the police operator, then the fire dispatcher, that he was on the 97th floor with six people, that the smoke had gotten heavy.
The police operator tried to encourage Mr. Biegeleisen.
"Heavy smoke. O.K. Sir, please try to keep calm. We’ll send somebody up there immediately. Hold on. Stay on the line. I’m contacting E.M.S. Hold on. I’m connecting you to the ambulance service now."
As his call was transferred to the ambulance service, once again, the information about the smoke and the 97th floor was sought and delivered.
"Sir, any smoke over there?" asked the ambulance dispatcher. "O.K. the best thing to do is to keep ? keep down on the ground. All right? O.K.”"
The ambulance dispatcher hung up, but the original operator stayed on the line with Mr. Biegeleisen. She could be heard speaking briefly with someone else in the room, and then turned her attention back to him
"We’ll disengage. O.K.”" the operator asked. "There were notifications made. We made the notifications. If there’s any further, you let us know. You can call back."
Seconds later, the building collapsed.