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Roar of the plane, scream of the sirens
Star Ledger - Wednesday, May 19, 2004
By Bob Braun
NEW YORK -- She had to come out, light a cigarette, hunt down a cup of coffee.
"I really need a coffee," she said, sitting in a shady little courtyard between two buildings of the New School University, in the tony upper part of Greenwich Village.
Because what was going on inside -- the sounds and the superlatives -- had gotten to her in a way she hadn't expected.
"I guess I wasn't too good in there," said Monica Gabrielle, normally one of the toughest of the widows who follow almost everything the 9/11 Commission does.
Gabrielle, 52, a crusader for building safety standards, had broken down and wept when the commission played an "audiovisual" -- film segments to illustrate a moment-by-moment account of what happened Sept. 11, 2001.
Early on, the film -- just showing firemen working at something else -- had a soundtrack, and the soundtrack played the roar of an airplane careening into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"I heard that roar," recalled Gabrielle, who lives in the city now but kept a home in Stamford with her husband, Richard. "I heard it. I keep hearing it."
She had been on 24th Street, not far from the World Trade Center where Richard worked. She heard the roar and saw the plane and wondered why a big airplane like that should be flying so low.
"Must have changed the patterns," she recalled thinking.
Gabrielle was one of some 400 people jammed into a small auditorium at the New School University for the panel's 11th public hearing. Many were family members unable to make it to Washington, D.C., where all but three hearings were held.
The sounds in the small theater room, illuminated by harsh klieg lights, were odd.
The film, with its horrible sounds, was accompanied by the chittering of camera lenses, like legions of crabs marching on marble, as one person or the next in the audience -- all of them magnets for cameras -- began to sob quietly, or angrily raised a sign (one read, "Lies!") or hid their eyes from the screens in front of them.
Then there was the ruffling of pages, as people read along from a 21-page staff report. And now and then, because this is New York, sirens would peal outside.
At one point, the screens were showing two fire chiefs watching a videotape, part of a film by two Frenchmen who just happened to be there. The chiefs were commenting on the tape they were watching -- and the tape was playing the sounds of the sirens of 9/11, while real-time sirens were screaming outside on the narrow streets of Greenwich Village.
Shortly after that, Gabrielle had to leave.
"What I hoped to hear was admissions that the people who led the city's services did not do well and understand why," she said. "I didn't come here to hear all these superlatives about how great everything was in the face of the worst."
There was a lot of that. Representatives of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the police, fire and emergency management services all testified -- and the context was always superlative.
The worst catastrophe. Nothing in experience could prepare them. The biggest rescue efforts in the history of the city. A unique set of circumstances. No one had ever seen this level of destruction.
Typical were the words of Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner on Sept. 11, 2001. He called it "the greatest disaster in this nation's history."
Or those of Bernard Kerik, then the police commissioner, who said the cops and firemen "performed the greatest rescue mission in the history of our nation," something he called an "unparalleled and unprecedented event."
"I didn't want to hear all that," Gabrielle said.
For Gabrielle and other survivors, the sound of those words no longer means as much it once did. Because much that wasn't superlative at all has been revealed, including in yesterday's commission staff report. Radios that didn't work. 911 operators who didn't know what to do. Conflicting orders concerning evacuation.
"We keep hearing how great everybody was and, fine, I don't want to take anything away from fire and police, but so many people died, so many things went wrong," said Gabrielle.
She wasn't alone. Lenny Crisci, whose brother John, a fire department officer, died that day, said he is angered when he hears brass talk in superlatives.
"It's their way to divert attention from their own failings: They say how great everybody was, and maybe no one will look to see what went wrong."
Some of the 9/11 commissioners agreed. After Kerik and Von Essen testified, John Lehman, again and again and again, condemned what happened as a "scandal." He said the word repeatedly, and the sound of it resonated with many members of the audience who then applauded, adding yet another strange sound to the auditorium.
"These people were trained," said Gabrielle, who runs an organization called the Skyscraper Safety Campaign and has been critical of how the towers were built and how safety measures were applied. "You and I, we would be overwhelmed by the scope of what happened that day, but they shouldn't have been."
Her husband, she said, died on the 78th floor of the South Tower.
"He should have left when the first building was hit. Instead he was told it was safe to stay where he was. That should never have happened."
It was quiet in the courtyard at the New School University. Monica Gabrielle let her mind go back. She remembered running down Sixth Avenue that day, hearing a strange sound. "I was screaming. Just screaming."
As she spoke yesterday, an airplane roared by overhead, unseen. She stiffened.
"Oh my God, I don't want to hear that."
Bob Braun can be reached at (973) 392-4281 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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