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Why police made it out of the World Trade Center when firefighters didn't

By Jim Dwyer, Kevin Flynn and Ford Fessenden
The New York Times

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NEW YORK Minutes after the south tower collapsed at the World Trade Center, police helicopters hovered near the remaining tower to check its condition. "About 15 floors down from the top, it looks like it's glowing red," the pilot of one helicopter, Aviation 14, radioed at 10:07 a.m. "It's inevitable."

Seconds later, another pilot reported: "I don't think this has too much longer to go. I would evacuate all people within the area of that second building."

Those clear warnings, captured on police radio tapes, were transmitted 21 minutes before the building fell, and officials say they were relayed to police officers, most of whom managed to escape. Yet most firefighters never heard those warnings or earlier orders to get out. Their radio system failed frequently that morning. Even if the radio network had been reliable, it was not linked to the police system. And the police and fire commanders guiding the rescue efforts did not talk to one another during the crisis.

Cut off from critical information, at least 121 firefighters, most in running distance of safety, died when the north tower fell, an analysis by The New York Times has found.

Faced with devastating attacks, the city's emergency personnel formed an indelible canvas of sacrifice, man by man and woman by woman. They helped rescue thousands. They saved lives. They risked their own.

From the first moments to the last, however, their efforts were plagued by failures of communication, command and control.

Now, the Fire and Police departments are approaching the end of delicate internal reviews of their responses to the attack. Those reviews have concluded that major changes are needed in how the agencies go about their work and prepare for the next disaster, senior officials say.

A six-month examination by The New York Times found that the rescuers' ability to save themselves and others was hobbled by technical difficulties, a history of tribal feuding and management lapses that have been part of the emergency-response culture in New York City and other regions for years.

To explore the emergency response on Sept. 11, Times reporters interviewed more than 100 firefighters, police officers, emergency medical workers, government officials and witnesses. Those interviews were supplemented by reviews of 1,000 pages of oral histories collected by the Fire Department, 20 hours of police and fire radio transmissions and 4,000 pages of city records, and by creating a database that tracked 2,500 eyewitness reports of sightings of fire companies, individual firefighters and other rescue personnel that morning. The city has refused to release thousands of pages of accounts by firefighters and their superiors.

The Fire Department began its first self-examination in December, when nearly 50 senior fire officials took part in a two-day planning exercise with the U.S. Naval War College. The college evaluators concluded: "As a function of command and control, it was evident that the Fire Department has no formal system to evaluate problems or develop plans for multiple complex events. It was equally evident that the Fire Department has conducted very little formal planning at the operational level."

Thomas Von Essen, the city's fire commissioner from 1996 through 2001, and a former president of the main fire union, said he agreed with that analysis, which was done to check the ability to respond to major disasters. The fire commissioner has limited authority to hold senior chiefs accountable, Von Essen said, because nearly all have Civil Service protection.

"The pain is still there, and it'll be there forever," Von Essen said. "But you have to start thinking about the reality of the world that we live in today. And that demands better leadership, more accountable leadership, a better-trained leadership, a more disciplined leadership that then filters down to a better-trained and more disciplined set of troops."

Many chiefs, for their part, have long cited Von Essen's leadership as a major department failing. The results of other reviews, covering police and fire performance, are due within a few weeks from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

For Von Essen, a searing topic is the high number of firefighter casualties in the north tower. The collapse of the south tower after 57 minutes shocked the fire commanders. Yet more than a third of the 343 firefighter deaths were in the north tower, even though it stood 29 minutes longer. The failure of more firefighters to escape in those 29 minutes baffles Von Essen. He believes many got word to leave. "Should we know the answers to all of that stuff by now? Absolutely. But do we really want to know the answers to these questions? I don't think the department really wants to know."

He could not explain why the police had not reported to fire commanders, the official leaders of the response. "That day the police did not hook up with the Fire Department," Von Essen said. "I don't know why."

Too many firefighters, he said, were sent into the towers, and too many came without being told they were needed. "I've been a firefighter since 1970 and have often stood on floors where we needed 10 people and had 30," Von Essen said. "There's a lack of control that's dangerous on an everyday basis to firefighters."

Von Essen and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly both said that rigorous scrutiny of their agencies was vital.

Communication problems

Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer held his two-way radio to his ear. He tried to edge away from the noise in the north-tower lobby, hoping the reception would improve. Still no good. Minutes before, he stood on a street corner in Lower Manhattan and watched as American Airlines Flight 11 flew directly overhead and crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Now, as the first chief to reach the building, he was sending fire companies up the stairs, including one led by his own brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeifer, who did not survive. Then he found that he had no way to speak with the rescuers starting the long climb: Once again, the firefighters were having terrible radio problems inside this high-rise building.

Now, Pfeifer tried to turn on a device known as a repeater, which had been installed at 5 World Trade Center to help solve those problems by boosting the radio-signal strength. The repeater didn't seem to be working, Pfeifer said later.

Another fire chief arriving at the trade center tried a second repeater in his department car. That did not work, either.

By 9:30 a.m., after both planes had struck, a rumor was circulating that a third hijacked plane was headed to New York. Assistant Chief Joseph Callan recalled feeling the north tower move. "I made the decision that the building was no longer safe," the chief told the Fire Department's oral-history interviewers.

"All units in Building 1," he announced over the radio at 9:32. "All units in Building 1, come out, down to the lobby. Everybody down to the lobby."

Virtually no one answered his call. It seemed that few people, apart from those standing near him, heard it. Chief Peter Hayden, who was at the scene, said: "We had ordered the firefighters down, but we weren't getting acknowledgments. We were very concerned about it."

By the department's own estimation, the radios they used, some 15 years old, were outdated.

In many instances, firefighters said they simply never got the order to leave because the radio system worked only intermittently. Firefighter Steve Modica said he tried different channels, without success, to reach a friend who had gone up ahead of him.

"It's a disgrace," he said. "The police are talking to each other. It's a no-brainer: Get us what they're using. We send people to the moon, and you mean to tell me a firefighter can't talk to a guy two floors above him?"

Agencies don't cooperate

Nearly every state, including New York, and the federal government have adopted a structure for managing crises known as the incident-command system, in which agencies agree in advance who will be in charge. New York City has not. The Police and Fire departments did not work together that day, and they rarely did before.

Allen Hoehl, a retired police commander, disputed the idea that officers routinely refuse to work with fire officials. He said he had often designated a ranking officer to serve as a liaison.

Other police officials maintain that sharing command with the Fire Department is difficult because firefighters lack paramilitary discipline.

Lt. John McArdle, a member of the police Emergency Service Unit, was blunt in his views of the firefighters. "If someone tells them to do something, they say, 'I don't work for him,' " he said. "If a police sergeant tells a group of cops to hold up, they do."

Senior fire chiefs spelled out their resentment of the police during the Naval War College evaluation in December. Asked about interagency cooperation, some in the senior fire staff wrote: "There is none"; "You will never change the P.D."; "Let them put snowplows on the front end of their cars. They want to do everything else"; "There's a reason people hate cops"; "Most agencies try to be cooperative, helpful, but the police have a very limited ability to cooperate."

After years of bickering, the two agencies did not squabble on Sept. 11. They simply did not communicate. "There was not a link," Kelly acknowledged.

On that morning, the Police Department's elite Emergency Service Unit (ESU) sent teams into both towers. Trained in rescue tactics, the ESU officers often tackle the same kinds of work as firefighters.

In the stairwells, members of both services helped each other carry equipment, administer first aid and pass messages.

The police emergency officers did not, however, check in with the fire commanders who were in charge of the rescue.

Bypassing commanders

News of the trade-center attacks broke as shifts changed at firehouses across the city. At Ladder Co. 16 on East 67th Street, four firefighters who were scheduled to go off duty wanted to stay and help. But Lt. Dan Williams told them "to get the hell off the rig," he said later. "Why? I took one look at the TV and I said, 'We're going to lose people here today.' There was no doubt in my mind.

"A person can control a certain amount of people," he said. "I was in the military, the Marine Corps, for four years, in Vietnam. So I was thinking that way. I'm not putting anyone else down there. We're going to be in enough danger without putting more people in a situation like that. I didn't say it nicely. I said, 'Get off the rig.' "

The men got off. Then they went outside and caught rides to the trade center in a police car and a city bus. One was killed in the collapse of the north tower.

He was among the 60 off-duty firefighters to die. Some came from second jobs, one from a golf course. Many bypassed staging areas and commanders with whom they were supposed to check in, fire officials said. Several on-duty companies led by veteran officers did the same.

Those who responded so impulsively were upholding the Fire Department's finest tradition: the selfless struggle to save the endangered. But they were also rushing to fight a fire that department officials had already decided was unfightable. And they did so in such numbers, with so little coordination, that some fire officials are questioning whether the department known as the bravest acted too bravely that day.

Lt. Brian Becker, who escaped from the north tower with his unit, Engine Co. 28, said it was simplistic to view the day in terms of heroism or blame.

"It was a series of random events that killed thousands and saved hundreds," he said. "Not many people did anything right that day, but not many people did anything wrong that day either."

Above the impact zone, 800 people were trapped. Below it, the dying north tower was emptying. After more than an hour of evacuation, the stream of civilians was a trickle.

Then the south tower fell, and people watched around the world.

Not across the plaza. There, the crash registered only as a shudder in the bones of people up and down the north tower. "Everybody felt it, and they didn't know exactly what it was," Firefighter Frank Campagna said in an oral-history interview. "The building was still standing," he said. "So we just kept going up the stairs."

On the 51st floor, three court officers felt the violent lurch and decided to get out. "We did not know that the south tower collapsed never mind that the north tower was going to go," said Deputy Chief Joseph Baccellieri, who had rushed into the tower along with two other court officers, Sgts. Alfred Moscola and Andrew Wender. The three started down.

On the 35th floor, Lt. Gregg Hansson of Engine 24 had just spoken with Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto, when a cry of "Mayday! Evacuate the building" came over the chief's radio. "I get about halfway down the hall and the building starts shaking," Hansson said.

Picciotto hollered "Mayday!" to the four other fire companies on the 35th floor. Hansson and his men went to Staircase A. In the stairwell, they saw Lt. John Fischer of Ladder 20, who noticed that two of his men had continued up. "He couldn't get them on the radio, so he went to walk up and go get them," Hansson said. "I said, 'All right, well I'm going down, I'm taking my men down.' And that's the last time I saw him."

Somewhere around the 28th or 30th floor, Campagna, who had kept climbing after the first tower fell, ran into a crowd of resting firefighters. "A chief came down from a floor above with another company and said, 'Everybody evacuate, everybody out now,' " he recalled. Campagna and his company, Engine 28, turned around, and all survived.

Hansson stopped at the 27th floor to pick up a firefighter who had stayed with a man in a wheelchair and his friend. Then Capt. William Burke Jr. of Engine 21 arrived. "Somehow, it was decided that Burke was going to take them down," Hansson said. The captain and two men were killed.

As the court officers made their way down, they were hearing urgent evacuation messages through police officers' radios, Wender said. On the 19th floor, they came upon a sight they recall vividly. "The hallway was filled with firemen," Wender said. "Some of them were lying down. Ax against the wall. Legs extended. Arm resting against their oxygen tank. Completely exhausted. It led me to believe they were not hearing what we were hearing."

Baccellieri recalled seeing "at least 100 of them." When he shouted that rescuers were evacuating, no one moved. "They said, 'We'll come down in a few minutes,' " Baccellieri said. "These firemen had no idea that the south tower collapsed."

Near the lobby, Hansson and his men helped remove a heavy man with some Port Authority police officers. They tied the man to a chair with a belt. They barely made it through the door when the tower began collapsing.

Among those who escaped with little time to spare was Susan Frederick. After descending from the 80th floor to about the third, she found the stairway blocked. Behind her, some three dozen people stretched up the stairs.

Minutes later, word spread of a way out. A firefighter had broken through an office wall with an ax.

Daylight filtered faintly through the hole, pointing to the mezzanine and the street.

"Come this way move quickly!" the firefighter yelled, Frederick said. As she made it onto the street, she glanced at her watch, she recalled. It was 10:24 a.m., four minutes before the north tower collapsed. The firefighter did not exit with them. "He stayed there because there were more people behind us," she said.


Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company