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The chinks in his 9/11 armor

Times Staff Writer

On Sept. 11, 2001, Rudolph W. Giuliani emerged from the ash plumes of the ruined World Trade Center as much an icon as the fallen towers. His drawn face was coated in concrete dust. His painstaking words were freighted with the unimaginable.

“There were so many people around, so many problems,” Giuliani recalled in his autobiography. The counting of the dead had not begun, and he had to publicly reckon with the disaster’s human toll. “The number of casualties,” he told the world, “will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”

Giuliani’s composed performance on Sept. 11 is the foundation of his quest for the presidency. But some of the chaos that hobbled rescuers that morning was rooted in his blind spots as New York’s mayor. The man who titled his autobiography “Leadership” proved to be masterfully reactive to crisis but sketchier in preparing for the unknown.

“He did great things and some stupid things,” said former New York Deputy Fire Chief Charles R. Blaich, who was a ground zero commander on Sept. 11 and later highlighted the handicaps that fire officials faced. “There’s a lot there to admire. The problem is that when it came to a serious discussion about lessons learned, he didn’t want any part of it.”

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The long day was Giuliani’s crucible -- a moment that showed his mettle and humanity under extreme pressure. Despite the heroic actions of hundreds of firefighters and police, it was also a public-safety meltdown caused not only by the streaking suicide planes, but in part because of lapses that occurred on Giuliani’s watch.

He had outfitted his firefighters with flame-retardant gear, but their patchwork radio system sent many urgent evacuation calls vanishing into the ether. His trek through the rain of rubble to secure a temporary command center showed poise. But coordination between his field commanders was sporadic, and there was no backup for the shattered nerve center he had built in the tower complex.

Giuliani had responded quickly to terrorist threats over his eight-year mayoralty. But his administration failed to comprehensively cure organization and equipment flaws exposed during the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

Even afterward, the temperamental Giuliani had little use for public displays of self-doubt. He did not press for internal inquiries into what went wrong that day, leaving the soul-searching to the incoming administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the federal 9/11 Commission. Both documented shortcomings.

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Amid falling poll numbers that have bumped him from front-runner status among the Republican contenders for the presidency, Giuliani alluded late last month to the possibility that he had not covered every base before the attacks.

“I did everything I could think of doing in that situation to help,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I think I made mostly the right decisions. Probably didn’t make all the right decisions, but I tried very hard to alleviate the problem as much as I could.”

It was a rare, if terse, admission for a decisive, high-strung public figure who had been lionized since the attacks. Glorified as “America’s mayor,” Giuliani built a career out of his association with Sept. 11, going on the inspirational lecture circuit and launching a private consulting firm that made him a multimillionaire.

In the presidential race, as he has tried to capitalize on his stature, Giuliani has found himself targeted by critics who blame him for some of the Sept. 11 disarray among rescuers. When the towers crumbled, 343 New York firefighters and 23 police officers died.

“TV made him a hero, but there’s more to leadership than standing calmly before the cameras,” said Jim Riches, a New York deputy fire chief whose firefighter son, Jimmy, died in the collapse of the north tower.

Riches heads a group of relatives of Sept. 11 victims who question Giuliani’s leadership. They are gathering in Florida for a publicity campaign against him ahead of Tuesday’s state primary, which is widely viewed as crucial to Giuliani’s bid for the GOP nomination.

Giuliani dominated the cameras from the moment he took office in January 1994. New York was crime-ridden, its tax base dwindling. When three firefighters died two months later in an inferno in Greenwich Village, a stunned Giuliani showed himself on and off camera as a restless agent for change.

His new fire commissioner, Howard Safir, asked for $12 million in flame-resistant “bunker gear.” Giuliani summoned his budget chief at 2 a.m. to approve the outlay. Cynics noted that the protective outfits were already on order by his predecessor, David N. Dinkins. But the incident showed a classic Giuliani trait -- swift reaction to a crisis on his watch.

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“He built his government to be responsive,” said Randy M. Mastro, who was Giuliani’s deputy mayor in the mid-1990s.

There was less urgency when it came to leftover business from his predecessors.

Nearly a year before Giuliani took office, Islamic terrorists exploded a 1,500-pound bomb in the World Trade Center’s underground garage. The prelude to the Sept. 11 attacks killed six people, injured 1,042 and forced thousands to make harrowing descents through palls of smoke. Fire and police rescuers who climbed into the towers were hampered by poorly lit stairwells, radio failures and command chaos on the ground.

Dinkins launched a postmortem that continued under Giuliani. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the skyscrapers, improved stairwell safety. The city’s reaction was more piecemeal.

During his eight years in office, Giuliani repeatedly ratcheted up the police presence in response to terrorist threats -- including a shooting at the Empire State Building in 1997, Al Qaeda bombings abroad and the millennium celebration in 2000.

“His interest was very deep, continuous and detailed,” said former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, a close friend and endorser who recalled briefing Giuliani at least half a dozen times on terrorist threats.

Other former law enforcement figures said Giuliani’s terrorism concerns spiked with each new threat, only to subside.

“He was obsessed with crime reduction. Terrorism was secondary,” said Louis R. Anemone, the former chief of department in the NYPD, the highest-ranking uniformed officer.

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Among scores of city news releases that highlighted Giuliani’s accomplishments between 1994 and 2001, only two made reference to terrorism before Sept. 11.

In response to the 1993 failures, the Giuliani administration provided the Fire Department with a new communications truck and a supply of “repeaters” -- power boosters that allowed firefighters’ radios to work better in tall buildings. But the city was slower to act on fire experts’ advice to replace the department’s “Handi-Talkie” radios, which faded out in high-rises.

Blaich, then a battalion chief, heard from senior fire officials that Giuliani and his top aides “were concerned about communications, but there was always a money problem. As far as 1993 was concerned, the prevailing attitude was it was a one-time event that wouldn’t happen again. From where we sat, Giuliani wasn’t focused on it at all.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Blaich highlighted the city’s command failures at a conference on the event.

It was not until March 2001, under a new fire commissioner, Thomas von Essen, that the Giuliani administration unveiled a $14-million digital radio system for firefighters. The units were not thoroughly field-tested, and they quickly proved to have flaws. They were shelved -- and the old radios that had performed poorly in 1993 were returned to firefighters, who would carry them up into the disintegrating twin towers on Sept. 11.

Former Giuliani aides point to his creation of New York’s Office of Emergency Management in 1996 as his most telling response to the 1993 bombing.

“The possibility of terror on a mass scale concerned him,” Mastro said.

Giuliani hired Jerome M. Hauer, an expert in biological and chemical terrorism, to run the new office. Hauer said he was assigned to develop a new command center and unify police and fire officials who had long vied for control at disaster scenes. He also led “tabletop” drills in which senior city officials practiced responses to imagined crises. Giuliani often attended.

But larger mass drills for rank-and-file responders did not alter the city’s command stalemate. During one mock nerve-gas drill at Yankee Stadium, “it was cops on one side, firefighters on the other,” Riches recalled. “No coordination.”

Mass drills occurred more rarely than the tabletops, Hauer said, and dropped off sharply after he resigned from the Office of Emergency Management in 2000.

The push for a new command center made more headway. In 1998, Giuliani announced a new $15-million state-of-the-art nerve center, equipped with wide-screen TVs and digital communications. It was on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center.

Hauer says now that he opposed the site and preferred a Brooklyn location, worried about its proximity to the vulnerable towers. “Rudy’s people kept going back to the trade center,” said Hauer, now a Giuliani foe.

“Revisionist history,” Safir scoffed.

But Hauer and Giuliani’s loyalists concede that the city failed to set up a backup command center in case the main nerve center came under attack.

Joseph J. Lhota, a former deputy mayor, was working at City Hall on the morning of Sept. 11 when he heard the roar of a jet engine. From the front steps of the limestone building, he saw smoke pouring from the point of impact above the 94th floor of the north tower. Racing to his city car, Lhota phoned Giuliani at a breakfast meeting. He reached a police aide, telling her: “We have a problem. The World Trade Center’s been hit by a jet.”

Moments after the second plane slammed into the south tower, Lhota met with Giuliani and a group of aides. “People are jumping out of the building,” he told Giuliani.

“No, they’re not,” Giuliani insisted.

“Look up,” Lhota said. Giuliani put his hand to his mouth.

Aware that their state-of-the-art command center was too near the burning buildings, Giuliani led his aides north, searching for a backup site. Behind them, rescuers were hamstrung by many of the same operational failures that had dogged them in 1993. While top city fire officials hunkered down just outside the burning towers, police set up a separate command center blocks away. Their radios were not “interoperable,” slowing spur-of-the-moment coordination.

Giuliani and his aides later insisted that top fire officials on the scene were the “incident commanders.” But the federal 9/11 Commission concluded that the city’s failure to develop an integrated command hampered rescuers.

“It’s clear there was poor coordination,” said Samuel M.W. Caspersen, a commission counsel who investigated New York’s Sept. 11 preparations.

The old radios again performed fitfully. The higher that rescuers ascended into the towers, the harder they were to contact. Many evacuation calls into the north tower after the south tower fell did not reach firefighters on the upper floors.

The 9/11 Commission and reviews launched by Bloomberg, Giuliani’s successor, concluded that the faulty radios were part of a broad tableau of breakdowns that included repeater failures, command errors, and stubborn and weary firefighters who hesitated even after they heard calls to evacuate. None of the experts would hazard guesses about how many rescuers might have been saved if the city’s preparations had been faultless.

Moments after the towers fell, Giuliani and his aides emerged into a wasteland of ash and pulverized concrete. They pressed north to find a secure site where they could fashion a command site. Along the way, Giuliani stopped for an impromptu news conference to assure New Yorkers that their government still functioned.

The haggard group finally camped at the city’s Police Academy, where aides rounded up desks, laptops and phones to re-create a semblance of Giuliani’s obliterated command bunker.

“We didn’t want to leave Manhattan,” he later told the 9/11 Commission. “We thought it would be a terrible statement if city government left the island.”

Giuliani’s long day stretched into long weeks before his administration ended four months later. The decisions he had made and deferred over the first 7 1/2 years of his tenure were dwarfed by those he made in his last months as mayor.

“I was making hundreds of decisions,” he remembered in his biography, “one after another.”

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steve.braun@latimes.com


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