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Contradicting Other Evidence,
Giuliani Says Firefighters Heard Order to Evacuate - May 20, 2004


In the epic accounts of Sept. 11 provided over the last two days by former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his aides, the Police and Fire Departments bravely worked together, and no catastrophic failure to communicate doomed scores of firefighters inside the World Trade Center.

Instead, Mr. Giuliani testified, those firefighters heard an evacuation order, but still did not leave the building. They were "standing their ground" to make sure civilians got out, he said.

Mr. Giuliani's vision of the day, offered during his testimony before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, addressed the loss of many firefighters who appeared to have had ample opportunity to escape. Along with his former commissioners of the police, fire and emergency management departments, Mr. Giuliani denied that the city's response suffered from the central problems identified by the panel and by earlier city investigations. The firefighters "were interpreting an evacuation order the way a brave rescue worker would interpret an evacuation order, which is to first get the civilians out and then get yourself out," Mr. Giuliani said.

For all the power of his voice and stature, however, Mr. Giuliani's account must compete with a substantial and diverse body of evidence that flatly contradicts much of what he and his aides say happened that day, particularly on matters that could be seen as reflecting on the performance of his administration.

On perhaps the most painful of these, the loss of at least 121 firefighters in the north tower, Mr. Giuliani suggested that they stayed inside the trade center because they were busy rescuing civilians -- never mentioning that they could not hear warnings from police helicopters, that many of them never learned the south tower had collapsed or that they were having serious problems staying in touch with their own commanders.

Witnesses who escaped from the tower tell a vastly different story than Mr. Giuliani. They say that in the north tower's final 15 minutes, only a handful of civilian office workers were still in the bottom 44 floors of the building, perhaps no more than two or three dozen. Many of the firefighters who remained in the towers were between the 19th and 37th floors, having made slow progress up the stairs in their heavy gear.

It is clear, witnesses said, that even after the south tower collapsed, many, if not most, of the firefighters had no idea that they were in dire peril, or that it was time for them to leave. In contrast, police officers received strong guidance from their commanders to get out of the building, the commission reported, thanks in large part to the information sent to the ground by police helicopters.

The situation in the north tower is described in more than 100 oral histories, interviews, and written accounts of firefighters, Port Authority police officers, state court officers and civilians who were inside the building.

Mr. Giuliani was correct that some firefighters and other rescuers were helping civilians. The witness accounts suggest that at least six people were unable to move on their own, and a handful of the firefighters were involved in helping them.

Other firefighters were resting, witnesses said. Three New York State court officers, who had come to the north tower to help, stopped on the 19th floor as they were leaving. They said they found scores of firefighters -- one of the court officers said at least 100 -- taking a break.

"The hallway was filled with firemen," one of the court officers, Sgt. Andrew Wender, said in an interview. "Some of them were lying down. Ax against the wall. Legs extended. Arm resting against their oxygen tank. Completely exhausted. It led me to believe they were not hearing what we were hearing."

The court officers, who had heard the orders to get out over a police officer's radio, said they shouted to the firefighters. The firefighters replied that they would be coming right down, though few seemed to be stirring. The court officers, who had begun their descent from the 51st floor, said they got clear of the tower less than a minute before it collapsed.

In an oral history, Fire Lt. Warren Smith of Ladder 9 described what he saw as he came downstairs: "There definitely were firefighters that we were picking up on the way down that had no knowledge," Lieutenant Smith said. "They were, like, they didn't believe us."

He added: "Definitely, the sense of urgency was a huge factor in your ability to get out of there. I don't know what you could attest that to. Experience? Knowledge of the fact that the other building went down; did you have that knowledge? I don't think a lot of guys did."

Another conflict emerged from Mr. Giuliani's explanation of why the city did not have radios that permitted firefighters and police officers to communicate with each other. A member of the panel, Richard Ben-Veniste, noted that branches of the military had found radios that permitted them to communicate, overcoming barriers of pride.

"What barrier was there that prevented you from ordering standardization?" Mr. Ben-Veniste asked.

"No barrier," Mr. Giuliani replied. "The technology. And that's the reason why there isn't technology today." He went on to say that the two departments had radios configured to serve their different missions. He agreed that they ought to have radios that could connect to each, but said, "Those radios don't exist today."

Later in the day, however, Jerome M. Hauer, who had served as director of the Office of Emergency Management for Mr. Giuliani, said the city had purchased radios to permit the two agencies to communicate, but had run into political problems.

"We attempted to get the Police and Fire Departments to communicate on both a common radio frequency at hazardous materials incidents and on an 800 megahertz frequency at major emergencies," Mr. Hauer said. "We were unable to get the two groups to share a common frequency at hazardous materials emergencies and the 800 megahertz radios were carried by fire chiefs, although rarely used, but not by the Police Department."

He added: "As I look back at Sept. 11 and what might have had an impact on the number of people lost, I see our inability to get the departments to talk with one another on a common frequency as one of the issues that might have had an impact in reducing the loss of life. Additionally, had there been a senior police liaison at the command post and/or a fire chief in the helicopter that could communicate with the command post on the ground, information about what they were observing in the air could have been relayed to the ground."

Another witness, Dennis Smith, the retired firefighter and author of a book about the recovery effort at ground zero, reminded the commission that on the morning of Sept. 11, the Navy had ordered an aircraft carrier bound for Asia to turn around and patrol the west coast. The Navy was acting in response to a request from the Air Force,

"Think of that," Mr. Smith said. "A successful communication to protect Americans, between two services, over a distance of 4500 miles, and we could not effect a communication from a police helicopter to a fire chief on the street 1000 feet away."

On Tuesday, the first day of the hearings, Bernard B. Kerik, the former police commissioner under Mr. Giuliani, offered a version of events that conflicted with the accounts of virtually every senior official in the Fire Department. Mr. Kerik testified that he saw police officers serving as liaisons to the Fire Department at the main fire command post on West Street. Mr. Kerik identified only one of those officers, a police sergeant who died in the collapse.

Mr. Kerik now works in Mr. Giuliani's consulting firm, along with Thomas Von Essen, the former fire commissioner. In June 2002, Mr. Von Essen was asked if the police had coordinated with the Fire Department on Sept. 11.

"That day, the police did not hook up with the Fire Department," Mr. Von Essen said. "I don't know why."


© Copyright 2004, The New York Times Company

Sally Regenhard,

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Monica Gabrielle,

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