No Concern of W.T.C. Collapse Among Fire Chiefs, Report Says

By, May 18, 2004


Barely half an hour before the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed at 9:59 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, none of the fire chiefs briefing the mayor and police commissioner at a meeting on a nearby street expressed concern that either building was in danger of falling, the staff of the 9/11 commission said in a report issued today.

"None of the chiefs present believed a total collapse of either tower was possible," the report said in recounting the impromptu meeting that occurred at 9:20 a.m.

Only after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had moved on did one senior chief present articulate his concern that upper floors on the 110-story tower could begin to collapse in a few hours, the report added. "And so he said that firefighters should not ascend above floors in the 60's," the report said.

The findings were made public as the independent, bipartisan commission created by Congress began two days of hearings in Manhattan in advance of its final report on 9/11, due in July.

The report, one of more than dozen already made public by the commission, was read aloud at the televised hearing along with accompanying videotaped interviews of witnesses and officials quoted in it and graphic scenes from the disaster. Many 9/11 families were in the audience at the New School University.

The commission staff said the purpose of this report was only to offer a "reliable summary of what happened" on Sept. 11 without "much commentary." A follow-up report tomorrow will "offer more analysis and suggest some lessons that emerge for the future."

Among the information made public today, much of which has been previously reported, the commission staff said:

Rescue operations were hampered by flawed radio communications systems or an inability to operate them properly. In one case, a radio relay device, called a repeater, that was intended to boost radio signals in the high-rise trade center complex, was thought to be inoperative; in fact the fire chief who had tested it in the North Tower failed to push one of two needed buttons. "When he could not communicate," the report said, "he concluded that the system was down. The system was working, however, and was used subsequently by firefighters in the South Tower."

Partly because they lacked comprehensive radio communications with firefighters deep inside the building, the commission said, "the chiefs in the North Tower were forced to make decisions based on little or no information."

Although firefighters, police officers and other "first responders" performed heroically, often at the cost of their own lives, interdepartment rivalries, especially between the police and fire departments, added to the confusion over what has happening and how to deal with it.

The report said that some witnesses said that such tensions "hampered the ability of the city to respond well in emergency situations."

Although the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani issued a directive in July 2001 intended to eliminate "potential conflict" among emergency agencies, each department "considered itself operationally autonomous," the report said. "Each was accustomed to responding independently to emergencies."

"By Sept. 11," the staff said of the fire and police departments, "neither had demonstrated the readiness to respond to an `incident commander' if that commander was an official outside of their department."

The confusion, agency conflicts and radio problems not only kept many tenants from leaving the doomed buildings, but led to many police officers and firefighters entering or staying in the towers even after superiors had made decisions that the fires could not be fought or that everyone, including rescue workers, should evacuate.

After the first hijacked airliner struck the North tower at 8:46 a.m., conflicting information was given to tenants in both towers over the dangers they faced and whether and when they should evacuate. Public address systems were damaged by the successive impacts to each building, and announcements that did get heard were sometimes erroneous or confusing.

"All the emergency officials that morning quickly judged that the North Tower should be evacuated," the staff said. "The acting fire director in the North Tower immediately ordered everyone to evacuate the building, but the public address system was damaged and no one apparently heard the announcement."

People who sought information from emergency telephone operators fared no better. "911 operators and F.D.N.Y. dispatchers had no information about either the location or magnitude of the impact zone and were therefore unable to provide information as fundamental as whether callers were above or below the fire," the report said. However, "civilians who called the Port Authority police desk at 5 W.T.C. were advised to leave if they could."

In the South Tower, before that building was struck, many people "were unaware initially of what happened in the other tower," the report said. "The evacuation standard operating procedures did not provide a specific protocol for when to evacuate one tower in the event of a major explosion in the other."

"According to one fire chief," the report added, "it was unimaginable, `beyond our consciousness,' that another plane might hit the adjacent tower."

As a result, people in the South Tower were at one point told over the public address system to "stay in place" — standard procedure for conventional high-rise fires for people not in the immediate vicinity of smoke and flame.

"Indeed, evacuees in the sky lobbies and the main lobby were advised by building personnel to return to their offices," the report said in recounting the confusion in the South Tower between the time the first plane's striking the North Tower and the second's striking the South Tower 17 minutes later. "As a result of the announcement, many civilians in the South Tower remained on their floors. Others reversed their evacuation and went back up."

One motivation cited for the instruction not to leave the South Tower was concern over falling debris and bodies from the North Tower. In fact, the commission staff said, the first of the 343 firefighters to die that day was killed by a person who had fallen or jumped.

Nonetheless, by 9:02 a.m. officials decided that the South Tower should be evacuated as well, and its tenants were told via public address system "to begin an orderly evacuation if conditions warrant."

"One minute later," the report noted, "a plane hit the South Tower."

No escape was possible from the roof of either building because the doors were kept locked as a matter of policy. But many of the buildings' tenants, trapped above the floors where the planes had struck, were unaware of that policy and futilely ascended smoky stairwells in hope of being plucked from the roof by helicopters. All who did so perished.

"There was no rooftop evacuation plan," the staff said. "The rooftop was a cluttered surface that would be a challenging helipad even in good conditions and, in a fire, smoke from the building would travel upward."

But that was never told to tens of thousands of people who worked in the towers. Even in pre-9/11 disaster drills, the report said, tenants "were never instructed not to evacuate up."

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© 2004 by Neil Mishalov