N.Y. Releases Recordings Of 911 Calls Made on Sept. 11

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006

New York authorities released partial recordings yesterday of 911 calls that began pouring in on the sunny and deadly morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as emergency operators struggled to comprehend the chaos unfolding at the burning World Trade Center.

"You saw an explosion?" one fire department operator asked at 8:47 a.m., about a minute after American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower at the start of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. "You saw an explosion at the twin towers?"

About 18 minutes later, a police operator told the fire department that "on the northwest side there's a woman hanging from -- an unidentified person hanging from the top of the building."

"It's chaos here," the same operator added a moment later. "Uh-huh," the fire dispatcher replied. "It's another World Trade all over again."

The recordings of about 130 calls last more than nine hours, but the calls and their accompanying transcripts were edited to include only remarks from emergency dispatchers and operators. In response to a lawsuit by the New York Times and a group of victims' relatives, a New York appeals court ruled that the privacy concerns of many families of Sept. 11 victims outweigh the public interest in the release of the tapes in their entirety.

The calls further confirm the chaos and confusion among the city's emergency workers as they struggled with balky radios, poor command-and-control structures, and other obstacles in responding to the al-Qaeda attacks. The Sept. 11 commission had previously concluded that rescue efforts were severely hampered by communication problems and turf battles, and that many panic-stricken workers in the World Trade Center were given conflicting information -- including instructions not to evacuate.

The recordings include complaints from operators about malfunctioning computers, overloaded telephone networks and other glitches. Callers were told to use damp towels to keep out the smoke, to break -- or not break -- windows and, in numerous instances, to simply lay low and stay put. Information available to the workers was often sketchy or inaccurate; some operators initially thought a helicopter, rather than a jetliner, had crashed into the North Tower.

In addition to capturing the confusion of that morning, the calls also illustrate the mounting anguish among dispatchers as the scope and nature of the al-Qaeda attacks became clearer.

Just before 10 a.m., one fire department operator talked with a police colleague about five people trapped on the 83rd floor of the South Tower. "And it's an awful thing, it's an awful, awful, awful thing to call somebody and tell them you're going to die," the operator said. "That's an awful thing. I hope -- I hope they're all alive because they sound like they went -- they passed out because they were breathing hard, like snoring, like they're unconscious."

After United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, at about 9:03 a.m., operators continued to offer assurances, but little detailed information, to frantic callers. In one call, at about 9:10 a.m., a dispatcher instructed trapped occupants to "remain where they are" and assured them that the fire department was on the way. Less than an hour later, just before 10 a.m., the South Tower collapsed. At about 10:28 a.m., the North Tower also fell.

Yesterday's release of fire department calls was the latest limited release of emergency communications from the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Oral histories and some radio transmissions from firefighters and other emergency workers were released last year as part of the Times lawsuit, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey released its emergency recordings in 2003. Some recorded exchanges were also disclosed during the hearings and in the report of the Sept. 11 commission.

The Times is appealing the order censoring the 911 communications, which include calls from 28 victims who identified themselves. The parents of one of those victims, Christopher Hanley, released to the Times on Thursday an audiotape of their son's call at about 8:50 a.m. from the North Tower's 106th floor.

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