NEW YORK — Responding to criticism from some family members of Sept. 11 victims, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Thursday that anger over mistakes and technical problems that prevented some from escaping the burning World Trade Center towers is misdirected.
“These people were doing the best they could,” Giuliani said on NBC’s “Today” show, referring to city officials who oversaw the emergency response to the attacks. “They were trying hard to save their loved ones. Some people did it right, some people made mistakes under pressure. And I don’t know if you want to level blame and this tremendous kind of guilt on them.”
Giuliani’s comments came a day after family members of World Trade Center victims blasted the mayor and the national Sept. 11 commission, charging that they “sugarcoated” the problems and errors during a two-day public hearing in the city that sustained the most damage in the terrorist attacks.
Shouting interrupts testimony
Relatives jumped out of their seats and shouted at the panel and the former mayor as he testified Wednesday about the city’s emergency response.
They said the commission feebly addressed crucial issues like malfunctioning firefighter radios and what they see as the city’s lack of disaster preparation, failing to push Giuliani as he testified that New York was “unbelievably capable” and “terrifically effective.”
Video: Hecklers interrupt Giuliani When asked on “Today” about addressing specific problems, like inadequate fire drills, Giuliani said, “All of those things should be reviewed.”
“All of those things in the future should be changed. All of those things should be worked on,” he said, citing the inability of people to make telephone calls on overloaded bandwidths as a key problem.
The former mayor said he had “a real understanding and empathy with the anger” of victims’ relatives but restated the cornerstone of his testimony before the commission: that blame for the attacks should fall on the terrorists alone.
‘Nobody anticipated a catastophic attack’
“Here’s the mistake: Nobody anticipated a catastrophic attack, planes being used as missiles, being driven into those buildings, and that’s the reason for the losses,” he said.
During Wednesday’s hearing, commission members repeatedly saluted Giuliani’s leadership and refrained from challenging his positive portrayals of the Sept. 11 rescue operations.
“There was not a problem of coordination on Sept. 11,” Giuliani said. “We got a story of heroism, we got a story of pride, and we got a story of support that helped get us through.”
Several relatives of victims said they were disgusted that the 10 members of the commission, each allowed about five minutes to question Giuliani, wasted time with redundant praise. One statement thanking Giuliani should have been enough, the families said.
“The commission members don’t press hard at all,” said Beverly Eckert, whose husband was killed.
“He could have been a great source for what needs to be changed,” said Wells Noonan, whose brother died in the north tower. “The panel didn’t press hard enough.”
‘We leave frustrated’
Monica Gabrielle, whose husband was killed, said the panel and Giuliani spent the morning “cloaking everything in heroism.”
“We leave frustrated,” she said. “They made a huge faux pas in letting Rudy Giuliani polish his crown.”
Targeting Giuliani is a reversal for many of the victims’ relatives, who since the attack have generally praised him as a steady leader through the chaos. After leaving office at the end of 2001, Giuliani has consistently sided with family coalitions on issues involving the trade center site, once even calling for the entire 16 acres to become a memorial.
Asked after his testimony about the outbursts from the victims’ relatives, Giuliani said he expected that reaction. “I attribute it to the stress and the trauma that they’re going through,” he said.
Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter whose son died in the attack, said he understood the emotional reaction some families had on Wednesday, but he said he thought Giuliani was “solid and stayed to the point.”
“We have to keep a clear mind that the job at hand of the commission is to make suggestions so that the events of 9/11 will not happen again,” Ielpi said. “I can’t change the past.”
In the most comprehensive probe of the issues to date, reports by the commission’s staff released this week detailed a list of failings including poor communication, gulfs in cooperation between police and firefighters and grave deficiencies in the city’s 911 emergency telephone network.
The findings led to an aggressive interrogation of Giuliani’s top fire, police and emergency management officials by the panel on Tuesday, the first day of the hearings.
Giuliani, who has become one of the Bush administration’s most vocal supporters, also told the commission that warnings of a possible terrorist attack on New York City contained in an Aug. 6, 2001, White House briefing paper never reached City Hall, but likely would not have changed local security precautions.
The intelligence briefing for President Bush referred to evidence of federal buildings in New York possibly being cased by terrorists. It mentioned New York or the World Trade Center three times.
“If that information had been given to us, or more warnings had been given in the summer of 2001, I can’t honestly tell you we’d do anything differently,” Giuliani said. “We were doing at the time everything we could think of ... to protect the city.”
The commission’s hearings resume in Washington on June 8-9 and its final report is due July 26. The panel was created by Congress last year to investigate the attacks and advise the country on ways to avoid future attacks.
Last month, commissioners heard from President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Bill Clinton and ex-Vice President Al Gore, as well as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.