Volume 73, Number 3 | May 19 - 25, 2004

As families grieve, 9/11 panel grills Fire, Police Departments

By Josh Rogers

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Barry Zelman’s brother, Kenneth, who worked on the 99th floor of the North Tower, died on 9/11.

Charles Wolf cried yesterday.

Wolf, a Village resident whose wife was killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, has been to dozens, if not hundreds of public meetings over the last two and a half years to discuss things like the 9/11 memorial and Lower Manhattan redevelopment issues. Usually he stays calm and tries to play the role of peacemaker at contentious meetings, but seeing the federal 9/11 Commission’s video report on Tuesday moved him to tears and sent him to the hallway during the first break of a daylong hearing filled with emotion and anger, as appointees of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani reacted strongly to criticisms by the commission.

“The whole thing of the rescuers — the Fire Dept. got me,” Wolf said in the hallway at New School University, site of the hearing “The fact that they went in so selflessly.”

Wolf, 50, whose wife Katherine, 40, worked for Marsh & McClennan in Tower One, said in many ways he has moved forward with his life but he still cries sometimes, such as recently when he was walking down the street with his girlfriend and he saw a fire engine with the names of dead firefighters written on it.

Ann Marie Mauro, whose brother died in the attack, said she had never heard the sounds of the planes hitting the buildings until watching Tuesday’s video. “It just went though my body,” she said.

The video included slow-motion shots of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, but avoided any images of people jumping from the buildings. The 10-member commission appointed by President Bush and Democratic Congressional leaders was looking to evaluate New York’s emergency response on Sept. 11, 2001, to see if any improvements could be made.

Included in the revelations at the hearing:

* Police 9-1-1 call operators put at least one person who escaped the towers on hold several times because they did not know what advice to give. The operators probably did not receive any information from the Fire Dept., and former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said to this day he does not know if the calling center received much information from police commanders at the W.T.C.

* There was little radio communication between police and fire personnel, a situation that some think may have led to the death of many more firefighters, 343, than N.Y.P.D. officers, 23.

* Richard Sheirer, Giuliani’s commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said that he never agreed with the mayor’s decision in the late ’90s to move the city’s emergency operating center from Police Headquarters to the 24th floor of 7 W.T.C.

The building was across the street from the Trade Center complex and collapsed the afternoon of Sept. 11 because of a fire started by the Twin Towers attack. Investigators believe the fire was spread by the diesel fuel stored by the O.E.M. center. No deaths on 9/11 were connected to the collapse of 7 W.T.C.

One commissioner, Timothy Roemer of Indiana, a former member of Congress, asked why the emergency center had been placed near the Twin Towers, which had been bombed by terrorists in 1993.

“I did not agree with it for the very reasons you said,” Sheirer replied.

Immediately after his testimony, at a press conference conducted by Giuliani’s spokesperson, Sunny Mindel, Sheirer said that he did voice his concerns when the center was moved to 7 W.T.C. On the other hand, he said, the new center had very advanced technology and also was in the same building as a Secret Service office. Mindel did not add anything to Sheirer’s remarks.

Giuliani and his first O.E.M. commissioner, Jerome Hauer, were scheduled to testify before the commission on Wed., May 19.

The 7 W.T.C. emergency center was dubbed “Giuliani’s bunker” by its critics, some of whom also questioned the wisdom of placing it near a previously targeted terrorist site.

Robin Forst, a Battery Park City resident who attended Tuesday’s hearing, said, “For those of us who lived through it in ’93, we were very surprised that they decided to locate [the bunker] there.”

She said seeing the images of the planes Tuesday reminded her of all the emotions from three years ago. “I haven’t seen them in a long time,” said Forst, who is now deputy chief of staff to Councilmember Alan Gerson. “Seeing them again brought it all back.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, primary election day, Forst was standing near the towers campaigning for Gerson when the first plane hit. She went back to her Gateway Plaza apartment and was evacuated to New Jersey, while her son and his classmates at P.S. 234 in Tribeca were taken up to the Village.

She said the commissioners are “asking the right questions; they’re just not getting the right answers.”

The most pointed moment in the hearing came when one commissioner, John Lehman, told the Giuliani appointees that the police and fire communication problems were a scandal and that the emergency management system was “not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city.”

Thomas Von Essen, former Fire commissioner, said, “I think it’s outrageous that you’d make a statement like that.”

“We are no different than any other city and if you think we are, you’re being foolish,” Sheirer told Lehman, an investment banker who was secretary of the Navy under President Reagan from 1981-1987.

Sheirer said he has listened carefully to all of tapes of the police and fire communications, and there was no evidence of the departments not working together on Sept. 11.

Von Essen said all of the different types of communication equipment failed at different times during the day. “Nothing worked all of the time,” he said. “Everything worked some times.”

Kerik said no company makes a communication device yet that will work in every type of emergency.

Sally Regenhard, whose son was a firefighter killed on 9/11, held up a “Lies” sign whenever an official said the emergency response system in 2001 worked well and a “Truth” sign whenever she felt a commissioner was getting to the point. “It was the greatest failure and for them to say everything was hunky dory was outrageous,” Regenhard said.

Lehman likened the communication problems to conflicts that used to occur between the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

He and a few other commissioners said the new emergency rules recently put in place by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was also scheduled to testify Wednesday, set up a confusing system in which a different agency takes the lead in different types of emergencies. He said the new system requires a “Talmudic scholar” to figure out who is in charge

Joseph F. Bruno, the city’s current O.E.M. commissioner, said police, fire and emergency commanders will all be in the same place communicating under the new system and it is best to let each agency do what it does best, such as letting police officers handle crime scenes and sealing off locations and letting firefighters battle blazes and conduct search and rescue missions.

“That’s just how things work,” Bruno said.

Kerik and the current Police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, both said the reports of long-running disputes between police and firefighters had been exaggerated.

“There have been some incidents,” Kelly told the 9/11 Commission. “They have been few and far between and they are overblown.”

He said the 9-1-1 system has improved and operators were now capable of getting information from the Fire Dept. and passing on emergency instructions to callers trapped in the middle of an emergency. But he stopped short when asked if the problem was a thing of the past.

“ ‘Cured’ is an awfully strong word,” Kelly said, responding to a question from commissioner Slade Gorton. “We have the capacity.”

Kelly told commissioner Bob Kerrey that he thought city hospitals would have difficulty handling a biological attack that affected 10,000 people at the same time.

Kerrey, former senator from Nebraska, is the New School’s president and served as the hearing’s host. He said he was alarmed, but not surprised to hear the city didn’t have the ability to handle a biological attack, since he had seen reports about a lack of preparedness across the country.

“Dealing with St. Vincent’s [Hospital] down the street and knowing what their problems are, my guess is we’re under capacity” in being prepared, Kerrey said.

He mentioned the live national television cameras and gave Kelly the chance to reiterate the call for more national anti-terror money for New York.

“God help Congress and the administration if for a third time the city is attacked, and more people die, and we’re left again with hearings,” Kerrey said, drawing applause from the audience.

Kelly said the city’s police anti-terror unit has increased in size from 17 to 250 officers, some of whom speak languages such as Arabic, Pashtun and Urdu, and has an annual budget of $200 million. He said only 20 percent of the national anti-terror aid budget for cities is based on the threat level and that the number of high-risk cities has grown from seven to 80.

Most of the commissioners were in favor of increasing the city’s anti-terror aid. But one, James Thompson, former governor of Illinois, said there was a danger of “fighting the last war,” and he was pleased to hear more places are getting funds.

But many witnesses and commissioners said New York City remained the prime American target. “It’s very likely New York is where it will happen again,” commissioner Lehman said. “New York is what we used to call in the Pentagon the forward edge of the battle area.”

When Kerrey asked Kerik if the federal government had warned the city about the high level of threats in the summer of 2001, the former Police commissioner said he did receive information from the F.B.I. But Kerik added that he has known about the level of hatred toward America in the Middle East ever since his time living in Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and ’80s. “I didn’t need anybody to tell me personally that Al Qaeda was here,” Kerik said.


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