Giuliani's 9/11 account clashes with evidence

By, May 21, 2004


Ex-mayor defends police and fire crews

In the epic accounts of Sept. 11 provided this week by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his aides, the police and fire departments bravely worked together and no catastrophic failure to communicate doomed scores of firefighters inside the World Trade Center.

Instead, Giuliani testified, those firefighters heard an evacuation order, but still did not leave the building. They were "standing their ground" to make sure civilians got out, he said.

Giuliani's vision of the day, offered during his testimony before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, addressed the loss of many firefighters who appeared to have had ample opportunity to escape.

Along with his former commissioners of the police, fire and emergency management departments, Giuliani denied that the city's response suffered from the central problems identified by the panel and by earlier city investigations. The firefighters "were interpreting an evacuation order the way a brave rescue worker would interpret an evacuation order, which is to first get the civilians out and then get yourself out," Giuliani said.

For all the power of his voice and stature, however, Giuliani's account must compete with a substantial and diverse body of evidence that flatly contradicts much of what he and his aides say happened that day, particularly on matters that could be seen as reflecting on the performance of his administration.

On perhaps the most painful of these, the loss of at least 121 firefighters in the north tower, Giuliani suggested that they stayed inside the trade center because they were busy rescuing civilians - never mentioning that they could not hear warnings from police helicopters, that they never learned the south tower had collapsed and that they were having serious problems staying in touch with their own commanders.

Witnesses who escaped from the tower tell a story vastly different from Giuliani's. They say that in the north tower's final 15 minutes, only a handful of civilian office workers were still in the bottom 44 floors of the building, perhaps no more than two or three dozen. Many of the firefighters who remained in the towers were between the 19th and 37th floors, having made slow progress up the stairs in their heavy gear.

It is clear, witnesses said, that even after the south tower collapsed, many, if not most, of the firefighters had no idea that they were in dire peril, or that it was time for them to leave. Police officers received strong guidance from their commanders to get out of the building, the commission reported, thanks in large part to the information sent to the ground by police helicopters.

The situation in the north tower is described in more than 100 oral histories, interviews and written accounts of firefighters, Port Authority police officers, state court officers and civilians who were inside the building.

Giuliani was correct that some firefighters and other rescuers were helping civilians. The witness accounts suggest that at least six people were unable to move on their own, and a handful of the firefighters were involved in helping them.

Other firefighters were resting, witnesses said. Three New York state court officers, who had gone to the north tower to help, stopped on the 19th floor as they were leaving. They said they found scores of firefighters - one of the court officers said at least 100 - taking a break in the corridors of the 19th floor.

Another conflict emerged from Giuliani's explanation of why the city did not have radios that permitted firefighters and police officers to communicate with each other. A member of the panel, Richard Ben-Veniste, noted that branches of the military had found radios that permitted them to communicate, overcoming barriers of pride.

"What barrier was there that prevented you from ordering standardization?" Ben-Veniste asked.

"No barrier," Giuliani replied. "The technology. And that's the reason why there isn't technology today." He went on to say that the two departments had radios configured to serve their different missions. He agreed that they ought to have radios that could connect to each other, but said, "Those radios don't exist today."

Later in the day, however, Jerome Hauer, who served as director of the Office of Emergency Management for Giuliani, said the city had purchased radios to permit the two agencies to communicate, but had run into political problems.

"We attempted to get the police and fire departments to communicate on both a common radio frequency at hazardous materials incidents and on an 800 megahertz frequency at major emergencies," Hauer said. "We were unable to get the two groups to share a common frequency at hazardous materials emergencies and the 800 megahertz radios were carried by fire chiefs, although rarely used, but not by the Police Department."

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© 2004 by Neil Mishalov