For more than four years they had waited to walk into a courtroom and hold someone responsible for the wreckage of their lives.
In the long days and nights since Sept. 11, 2001, they testified Monday, children have spent more time at counseling than school. Parents, unable to sleep, spent hours in their children’s rooms. A young widow gave up her fight against breast cancer. Another threw herself across her husband’s grave.
Other voices were heard Monday too, the voices -- and the final screams -- of the dead.
For the first time, the government played 911 audiotapes of two people trapped inside the World Trade Center, each screaming into the phone as they tried desperately to summon emergency crews to burning offices high above Lower Manhattan.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?” cried Melissa Doi, 32, lying across the floor, trying to find fresh air in a south tower engulfed in smoke and fire.
Sixteen stories above her, on the 99th floor, Kevin Cosgrove cried, “I’m not ready to die!”
Emergency dispatchers tried to reassure them. “We’re getting there. We’re getting there,” they said.
Both callers died in the flames.
So did Peter Hanson, his wife, Sue Kim, and their 2-year-old daughter, Christine Lee, the youngest to die that morning.
They were trapped on United Airlines Flight 175. Twice he called his father. In the last call, describing passengers vomiting as the plane rumbled nearly out of control, he said, “Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it will happen quickly.”
The testimony and recordings were part of the prosecution’s case as it seeks the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui, an admitted terrorist. Jurors last week concluded that Moussaoui had caused at least one death on Sept. 11 because of his failure to alert the FBI to the terrorist plot, making him eligible for execution.
Prosecutors expect to wrap up this final phase of the Moussaoui sentencing trial Wednesday. Monday was devoted to the victims who died in New York, and their loved ones. Today the government plans to provide similarly wrenching testimony from the families of those killed at the Pentagon.
On Wednesday, prosecutors will conclude with testimony from those aboard the fourth plane that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Prosecutors are expected to play, again for the first time, the cockpit voice recording that only relatives of the dead have heard.
At the start of testimony Monday, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema acknowledged that the victim testimony had been heartbreaking. It was difficult to hear and watch as people repeatedly broke down on the witness stand, she said.
Fifteen relatives of the 2,972 dead testified Monday. Almost all cried. Many sobbed.
“There’s just no way of avoiding some emotion in a case like this,” the judge told the lawyers.
But prosecutors agreed to streamline their victim testimony, and the judge decided to shorten the workday for jurors this week. “I don’t want to wear the jury out,” she said.
The first tape to be played was the cry of Doi, an employee of IQ Financial at the World Trade Center. Recently the government released recordings of the dispatchers’ voices on the tapes. This time the victims were heard.
“I’m on the 83rd floor,” she screamed. “Are you going to be able to get somebody up here. We’re on the floor and we can’t breathe and it’s very, very, very hot.”
“Please,” she said, over and over. Five co-workers huddled around her. “Everybody’s having trouble breathing. Some people are worse.”
A dispatcher asked how much smoke there was. “Of course there’s smoke,” she snapped. “I can’t breathe. There is fire because it’s hot.... Help help help!”
The firefighters have been notified, the dispatcher said. But Doi was not hopeful.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?” she screamed into the phone. “I’m going to die. I’m going to die. I don’t want to die.... It’s so hot. I’m burning up.... Oh my God!”
On Floor 99, Cosgrove could not get out either. Forty-six years old, he worked as a claims vice president for the Aon Corp. Three times he called 911. On the last call he could barely be heard because there was so much yelling behind him.
“We’re getting there. We’re getting,” the dispatcher told him.
Cosgrove could be heard breathing. Hard. Panting into the phone. “I need oxygen,” he screamed. “I’m not ready to die.” Then abruptly came shouts about broken windows, one long wrenching scream, what appeared to be many voices, and then silence.
Peter Hanson’s two calls from the plane were described by his father, C. Lee Hanson. In the first call, Peter was calm.
“He told us the plane had been hijacked,” his father told the jury. “His voice was soft, not too nervous. He told me that they stabbed somebody up front. He asked me to call United Airlines and tell them it had been hijacked.”
Lee Hanson called the airline, but could not get through. He alerted his local police department in Connecticut. Peter called back.
“He thought a stewardess had been killed,” his father said. “He said certainly somebody else was piloting the plane. He said it was a very bumpy ride and people were throwing up all over the place. He said he thought they were going to crash the plane into a building.”
He heard Peter say, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” The father said: “I thought I heard somebody scream in the background too. I looked at the TV and saw the plane fly into the World Trade Center.”
Mary Ellen Salamone of New Jersey knew her husband, John, worked high up in the World Trade Center. He was a stockbroker for Cantor Fitzgerald. Hearing nothing from him, she said, she tried repeatedly to reach him.
“I called him a million times. I was so desperate to talk to him, to tell him I loved him before he died.”
She never got through. Neither did John when he tried leaving a phone message at home. “He called about 10:10,” she said. “But it was just static.”
She was among those who identified the photographs displayed by prosecutors, pictures from wedding albums, from birthday celebrations and family vacations to China, from trips to the neighborhood swimming pool and a Yankees game.
Some could hardly hold their right arms straight up to take the oath, their hands shaking so badly. Some drank water from a small cup when the memories overtook them, or buried their faces in tissue. Many left the witness stand emotionally wrought but also, it seemed, relieved.
“Today is closure for me on many levels,” said Ronald Hans Clifford.
He is an Irish immigrant living in New Jersey. He happened to be in the World Trade Center courtyard, and tried to help a woman badly burned there. All the time he was unaware that his sister and niece were aboard the second plane that hit the second tower above him.
“I had no clue,” he said.
The burned woman he tried to save, Jeannieann Maffeo, was 40 and lived in agony for another 41 days in a New York burn center. Clifford did not know that either; he could only recall how together they recited the Lord’s Prayer until he and others could get her to an ambulance.
Salamone, in her testimony, told the jury she realized she was part of a much larger drama that day.
“I’m not the only widow in the world who had young children. I know that,” she said. “There are so many 9/11 stories. People with ideal families and ideal stories, and it’s such a tragedy that such happiness ended.”