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Sept. 11 panel moves on to New York

The 9/11 commission is expected to describe serious miscommunication between the New York police and fire departments when it meets Tuesday in Manhattan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a rising chorus of New Yorkers has demanded a tough-minded investigation of the city’s emergency response, a public airing of shortcomings that would assign responsibility for a series of systemic flaws.

They may be disappointed when the national commission investigating the attacks meets Tuesday in a university auditorium in Greenwich Village.

The commission is expected to describe serious gaps in communication and coordination between the police and fire departments. But members of the commission and others familiar with its work said it would also seek to dispel what they called misconceptions that cast the city’s rescue efforts in a poor light.

What is more, New York’s efforts to improve emergency response since Sept. 11 will be cited as a national model, despite charges from victims’ families, firefighters and others that poor communication and cooperation between the police and fire departments have not improved, commission members said.

“They’ve made their evaluation and made corrections and made their preparations. I think the rest of the country has a lot to learn from the New York experience, and I hope we play some role in disseminating that experience,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., vice chairman of the commission.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because the commission’s findings were not yet officially released, a person who helped produce a pair of reports to be delivered Tuesday morning said: “The picture that emerges will make people feel better about the New York authorities. There’s more good news in the story than embarrassment, for sure.”

Families want broader changes
That portrayal may not be well received by relatives of the dead, many of whom believe that long-standing problems in the city’s emergency response systems led to deaths in the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

“If the public understands that some of this could have been prevented, that there were systemic failures, perhaps that will help push change and reform,” said Monica Gabrielle, who lost her husband.

Among a host of questions, relatives of the dead want to know why the towers’ rooftop doors were locked on Sept. 11, 2001. Some workers were rescued from the north tower by helicopter when the trade center was bombed in 1993.

Whether or not the doors were locked, emergency officials have told commission researchers that heavy smoke and fire, along with a cluster of antennae on the north tower, would have made rooftop rescue virtually impossible.

“There is almost no possibility that anybody could have been rescued from the roofs,” said the person familiar with the commission’s findings.

Congress established the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to examine what led to the attacks and to advise ways the government could do a better job of tracking terrorists and responding to an attack. The bipartisan 10-member panel is scheduled to issue its final report July 26.

Last month, commissioners heard from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Giuliani to highlight testimony
The panel will release its findings on planning and emergency response Tuesday before two days of testimony at the New School University.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his heads of fire, police and emergency management are expected to portray the city’s efforts that day as a flexible, cooperative response.

While 2,749 people died, Giuliani, widely seen as heroic for his stewardship of the city through the crisis, has described the efforts — in which 25,000 people were saved — as the “greatest rescue mission in the history of the United States.”

Current New York fire, police and emergency management officials are expected to testify that relationships between the agencies have improved.

Police and firefighters fought for months over a set of rules governing which agency held sway in emergencies ranging from water rescue to biological attack. The rules were announced Friday, and they could eventually help form national standards.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is expected to emphasize New York’s continuing vulnerability to terrorist attack, citing the case of a Pakistani-born truck driver, Iyman Faris, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for plotting to cut through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge.