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Tapes of frenzied Sept. 11 rescue effort released

/ Source: The Associated Press

City 911 operators caught up in the chaos of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks offered calm compassion but little help to callers trapped in the doomed World Trade Center, partial transcripts of several calls released Friday show.

““Just sit tight. Just sit tight. We’re on the way,” a dispatcher says at 8:50 a.m., four minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

Twenty minutes later, seven minutes after the second plane hit, a fire department operator assures a caller stuck on the 106th floor, “The Fire Department, EMS, is crawling all over the place. They’re trying to help everybody as much as they can, OK?”

The tower collapsed 49 minutes later.

The words of the operators — but not the callers — were released after The New York Times and a group of victims’ relatives sued to get them. An appeals court ruled last year that families should have the option to release the tapes made by 28 callers who could be identified.

The Times and family members hoped the audiotaped calls would reveal details of what happened inside the towers and whether 911 operators misdirected the victims. The Sept. 11 commission had concluded in 2004 that many operators didn’t know enough about the attacks to give the best information to those trapped.

The tapes reflect the chaos amid the attacks that killed 2,749 people.

Desperate attempts to get help
One fire department operator mentions problems with the computer crashing. Another exchange between police and fire operators indicates frustration in trying to deal with a once-unimaginable situation.

Even with the callers’ words redacted from the tapes, their desperation is evident in the heavy breathing audible as operators respond to their frenzied calls.

“I’m still here,” an operator tells one caller trapped on the 105th floor. “The Fire Department is trying to get to you. OK, try to calm down.”

A police operator says a caller from a downtown business “states that on the northwest side (of the trade center), there’s a woman hanging from — an unidentified person hanging from the top of the building.”

“Alright, we have quite a few calls,” responds a fire operator.

“I know,” says the police operator. “Jesus Christ.”

The transcripts have long blank spaces where the callers’ words would have appeared, while detailing how word of the terrorist attack spread quickly through the operators.

Determining it was a terrorist attack
“Another plane,” says a 911 operator. “This is a whole new thing going on. ... They’re saying it was a terrorist attack.”

The operators offer various advice to callers: open a window, stay where you are, use soaking wet towels to keep out the smoke. In some cases, they are simply stymied by what they hear.

“I’ve got a guy on the 106th floor and he wants to know how to deal with a hundred people,” a fire operator says. “He wants some directions. I don’t know.”

One operator tells a caller at 9:02 a.m., one minute before the second plane hit: “If you feel like your life is in danger, do what you must do, OK? ... I can’t give you any more advice than that.”

Several relatives of the victims gathered at a law office to listen to the recordings. They read the transcripts mostly in silence, occasionally whispering to each other.

Al Santora, a retired deputy fire chief whose firefighter son died in the attack, said he was amazed at the professionalism and calmness of some of the dispatchers. But he was also surprised at how little information they seemed to have, and at how little constructive advice they offered.

“It’s just incredible to read this. It’s an hour in and this is the first time I’ve heard someone give advice on what to do about smoke,” he said.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a statement praising the city’s 911 operators for their “professionalism and compassion under the most trying of circumstances.”

One victim identified
An order to release the names of 28 callers who identified themselves is under appeal, however one of those tapes, involving trade center victim Christopher Hanley, was made public Thursday after his parents released their audiotape to the Times.

Hanley was in the 106th floor and called at 8:50 a.m. — four minutes after the first plane struck.

“We have about 100 people here. We can’t get down the stairs,” the 35-year-old tells a dispatcher. Later, he says, “We have smoke and — it’s pretty bad.”

A dispatcher tells him: “Just sit tight. Just sit tight. We’re on the way.”

“All right,” Hanley says. “Please hurry.”

Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son and is one of the plaintiffs, said the public should be allowed to hear both sides of the conversation, and that family members should be able to listen to all the voices, in case they recognize their loved ones.

“Only a mother could listen to recordings and maybe hear some glimmer of your child’s voice,” she said, “even though his name may have been garbled.”

Kate Ahlers O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the city Law Department, cited the Court of Appeals ruling that said families’ privacy interests outweighed the public’s right to know.

The first transcripts released as part of the 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 of its emergency recordings in 2003.