Transcripts of 9/11 Calls Show Fear, Confusion
Minutes after an airplane slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower, the assistant general manager of Windows on the World made the first of her four emergency phone calls to police, frantically seeking a way to help scores of guests escape the 106th-floor restaurant.
“We’re getting no direction up here,” said Christine Olender, who reported that smoke was filling the dining room. “The condition up on 106 is getting worse.”
Port Authority Officer Steve Maggett, who was inundated with calls at the time, told her that rescue officials were trying to reach the restaurant, and asked her to call back in two minutes.
She phoned again, pleading, “We need a safe haven.... The fresh air is going down fast, and I’m not exaggerating!” Maggett tried to reassure her, but she told him: “The hallways are filled with smoke.... What are we going to do for air?” The officer said Olender could try to break one of the windows. She never called again.
The record of Olender’s last moments -- and those of other voices captured over police communication lines on Sept. 11, 2001 -- was released to the public Thursday by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Filling nearly 2,000 pages, the telephone calls and radio transmissions logged by Port Authority officers are a deeply human portrait of terror, disbelief and an often-frenzied emergency response.
The Port Authority, which owned the World Trade Center, had initially refused to release these documents, saying they would invade the privacy of people who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. But officials agreed last week to release the materials to comply with a New Jersey court order, following a successful lawsuit filed by the New York Times.
These materials, released two weeks before the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, provide the most complete record to date of how emergency personnel responded to the crisis in New York. But they are not the first such documents to be released; last year, the Port Authority made available a 78-minute tape recording of fire department communications during the response.
“In general, these materials show people performing their duties very heroically and very professionally on a day of unimaginable horror,” said Port Authority spokesman Greg Trevor. Officials also said they hoped that the media would “refrain from publishing gruesome, gratuitous or personal details that do nothing to further this discussion.”
Family members offered mixed opinions. Leila Negron of Bergenfield, N.J., whose husband, Peter, was among the about 2,000 killed in the attacks, said “it’s not the right time” to distribute such materials. But others applauded the release, saying the public had a right to know the full story of what happened at the World Trade Center and how emergency workers responded to the crisis.
“We need more information, not less, and this is exactly the kind of material that people have a right to inspect,” said Monica Gabrielle, co-chairperson of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, a citizens group lobbying for tougher safety laws regulating high-rise buildings. “We need answers about why people died on 9/11,” added Gabrielle, whose late husband, Rich, worked on the 103rd floor of the south tower.
The Port Authority police transcripts begin during the first moments after the terrorist attacks, when civilians and police alike were struggling to digest the enormity of what had happened in Lower Manhattan. In one call, an unidentified officer told fellow Port Authority workers, “The scene down here is like chaos. We’ve got people coming out of the buildings ... numerous debris coming from the upper levels, including bodies.”
On-duty officers gasped at news that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and there were rumors about other planes heading for New York; stories that people were seen firing missiles at the World Trade Center from atop a nearby building, and accounts of bombs detonating on the George Washington Bridge.
Amid the chaos, Port Authority Officer John Kannuzo sought to reassure his young son Anthony. But he could only offer so much solace:
Kannuzo: “A terrible thing happened, Anthony. Some very sick people.”
Anthony: “Are they dead?”
In other exchanges, people trapped on the upper floors of both towers beseeched police for help that would never arrive. In most cases, the best rescue workers could tell them was to evacuate the buildings any way they could. Help was on the way, they said, but it soon became apparent that police and firefighters would not be able to make their way to the higher floors, according to the transcripts.
Callers on the ground, including those lucky enough to escape the building, poured their hearts out to police officers. An unidentified woman near the towers called and said: “There’s this girl who watched her friend die, burning alive in an ambulance. Like, oh my God. I mean, I’m crying listening to all these people.”
On emergency radio networks in New York and New Jersey, police dispatchers struggled to master the growing ripples of panic as cellphones died and radio transmissions became increasingly garbled. The emergency mobilization took hold in dozens of terse radio exchanges and calls.
The calls came in from off-duty police, firefighters and emergency workers from across three states. Get suited up and go, they were told over and over.
Those trapped in the towers left their messages.
“I’m here; you know, the building is full of smoke,” one male caller caught on the upper floors of one of the two towers reported to a police sergeant. “The stairways are packed, like [inaudible]; on one of the floors, there’s this big hole down.”
Pat Hoey, a 53-year-old executive with the Port Authority in charge of special projects at the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel, left his last public words in the transcripts.
He called a police desk sergeant from the 64th floor of the north tower minutes before it collapsed.
“I’ve got 20 people here with me,” he said. “What do you suggest?”
“Stand tight,” the desk sergeant told him. “Stay near the stairwells and wait for the police to come up.”
“They will come up, huh?” Hoey asked. “OK. They will check each floor?” Then there was a loud commotion, the transcript said.
“If you would, just report that we’re up here,” Hoey said.
He called back a few minutes later. “The smoke is getting kind of bad. So we are going to ... we are contemplating going down the stairway. Does that make sense?”
“Yes,” the police desk man on the line replied. “Try to get out.”
When Hoey reached the 50th floor, he took time in the smoke and darkness to call his wife. He didn’t make it to the street.
But the voices of command also could be heard cutting through the incredulity and confusion. From the Port Authority came a terse call to a nameless official responsible for the bridges leading to Manhattan. “Listen,” the voice ordered, “shut down the bridges. Shut ‘em down.”
“I’ll -- I’ll shut them down,” the man stammered in reply.
As the scope of the attack became clear, the airwaves and land lines were choked with desperate pleas for medical supplies, for crowbars and masks, and finally for cadaver dogs, the transcripts show. The calls were sometimes frantic, often poignant and at moments prophetic:
As the rumble of the buildings’ collapse still reverberated through emergency radio channels, a worried wife reached her husband on duty at a police desk. “I’m OK,” he told her.
“I didn’t hear from you,” she said. “How are you doing?”
“I’m OK,” he said.
“It looks like we’re going to war,” he replied.
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After a plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, callers from the top floors of the second tower were told by Port Authority police to stay where they were.
“We need to know if we need to get out of here, because we know there’s an explosion.... Should we stay or should we not?”
-- Male caller from the 92nd floor of the second tower
“I would wait till further notice.”
-- Port Authority police officer
“OK, all right. Don’t evacuate.”
The caller, who then hung up