9/11 Firefighters Told of Isolation Amid Disaster

The firefighters had 29 minutes to get out of the World Trade Center or die. Inside the north tower, though, almost none of them realized how urgent it had become to leave.

The firefighters had 29 minutes to get out of the World Trade Center or die. Inside the north tower, though, almost none of them realized how urgent it had become to leave.

They had no idea that less than 200 feet away, the south tower had already collapsed in a life-crushing, earth-shaking heap. Nor did the firefighters know that their commanders on the street, and police helicopter pilots in the sky, were warning that the north tower was on the edge of the same fate.

Until last month, the extent of their isolation from critical information in the final 29 minutes had officially been a secret.

For three and a half years, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg refused to release the Fire Department's oral histories of Sept. 11, 2001. Under court order, however, 12,000 pages were made public in August.

On close review, those accounts give a bleaker version of events than either Mayor Bloomberg or former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani presented to the 9/11 Commission.

Both had said that many of the firefighters who perished in the north tower realized the terrible danger of the moment but chose to stay in the building to rescue civilians.

They made no mention of what one oral history after another starkly relates: that firefighters in the building said they were "clueless" and knew "absolutely nothing" about the reality of the gathering crisis.

In stairwells or resting on floors, they could not see what had happened or hear clearly stated warnings.

Even after the south tower fell, when few civilians remained in the lower floors of the north tower, throngs of firefighters lingered in the lobby and near the 19th floor as time ran down, the survivors said.

"That's the hard thing about it, knowing that there were so many other people still left in that lobby that could have got out," Firefighter Hugh Mettham of Ladder Company 18 said.

Although no official summary specifies where the 343 firefighters died in the rescue effort, a review by The New York Times of eyewitness accounts, dispatch records and federal reports suggests that about 200 perished in the north tower or at its foot.

Of 58 firefighters who escaped the building and gave oral histories, only four said they knew the south tower had already fallen. Just three said they had heard radio warnings that the north tower was also in danger of collapse. And some who had heard orders to evacuate debated whether they were meant for civilians or firefighters.

'Not in My Wildest Dream'

"Not in my wildest dream did I think those towers were coming down," said David Sandvik of Ladder 110.

The point made by both Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg to the 9/11 Commission - that firefighters died because they delayed their own departures while trying to save the lives of civilians and other firefighters - is, in one sense, fully corroborated by the oral histories.

Even so, measured against the waves of details in those accounts, those valiant last-minute efforts explain just a fraction of the firefighter deaths in the north tower, a small vivid thread running through the broader fabric of the day.

No one in the Fire Department has tried to use the oral histories to reconstruct the events that led to its human losses that day. Although more than 500 interviews were conducted, just about 10 percent of them involved people who had been inside the north tower. (No firefighters in the south tower, which fell first, are known to have survived its collapse.) Many who escaped from the north tower did not give histories. Few follow-up questions were asked of those who did.

The ragged character of the records does not yield a clear explanation for the isolation of the rescuers within the building, and whether it was because of radio failure, a loss of command and control or flaws in the Fire Department's management structure. Some firefighters described receiving a radio message to evacuate; others used strong language to characterize the communications gear as useless.

Despite their spottiness, the oral histories fill out incomplete chapters in the sprawling chronicle of what happened in New York that morning, much of which took place far beyond the sight of television cameras and their global audience.

Firefighters wondered aloud how they could have attacked a fire reached at the end of a four-hour climb. They marveled at the decency of office workers coming down the stairs, at the bellowing, dust-coated chief on the sidewalk who herded the firefighters clear of the collapse zone, at the voices of experience that brooked no hesitation.

The final moments of the department's senior leaders also rise from the histories as a struggle to rescue dozens of firefighters trapped in the Marriott Hotel after the south tower's collapse. As they worked, the north tower crashed down, killing, among others, Chief of Department Peter Ganci, First Deputy Commissioner William Feehan, and Battalion Chiefs Ray Downey and Lawrence Stack.

Precisely 29 minutes earlier, at 9:59 a.m., the fall of the south tower shook the north tower and stopped the slow, muscular tide of rescuers. By then, the north tower firefighters had been on the move for more than an hour. Each carrying about 100 pounds of gear, only a few had climbed much higher than the 30th floor. Some recalled hearing radio messages from individual firefighters who had made it as far as the 40's.

The calamity next door - the collapse of one of the biggest buildings in the world - was heard but not seen; felt but not understood. The staircases had no windows. Radio communication was erratic. Few firefighters even knew a second plane had struck the other building.

From the street, Chief Ganci twice ordered firefighters to evacuate the north tower, according to Chief Albert Turi, but it was not clear who inside, if anyone, heard him. Even Chief Turi, standing a few feet away, said it had not come over his radio.

Still, many decided to leave after hearing a rumor of a partial collapse some floors above them, or because they assumed another plane had hit.

On the 37th floor, Daniel Sterling, of Engine Company 24, had stopped with firefighters from Ladder 5 and Engine 33 - who did not survive - when the building rattled. A moment later, Firefighter Sterling said, Chief John Paolillo appeared.

"He thought there was a partial collapse of the 65th floor of our building and that we should drop everything and leave," Firefighter Sterling said.

A few floors below, around the 30th or 31st floor, Chief Paolillo was spotted again. "He was yelling, 'Leave your equipment and just get up and go, go, go,' like that," Lt. Brian Becker of Engine 28 said. Chief Paolillo died.

The word to leave was passed to the 27th floor, where many firefighters were resting, including Michael Wernick of Ladder 9. "I know that there was no urgency at that point trying to get out of the building," he said.

"Do you think anyone around you was aware that the other building collapsed?" an interviewer asked.

"No," he replied.

One exception was Firefighter John Drumm with Engine 39, who said that on the 22nd floor, he heard a transmission: "Imminent collapse of the north tower. Immediate evacuation."

'Few Civilians Were Left'

Then he made a point repeated in nearly every interview: "From what I saw on the way down, very, very few civilians were left."

Firefighter Sterling said, "There was nobody in the staircase on the way down."

Lieutenant Becker said, "There were no civilians to speak of in our stairway. There were a couple of stragglers being helped by somebody or other."

Probationary Firefighter Robert Byrne of Engine 24, working his first fire, reached the 37th floor. "I remember going up the stairs took us over the hour," he said. "Getting down the stairs took maybe 10 minutes, not even."

Also on 37, Capt. John Fischer of Ladder 20 discovered that two of his company had gone up ahead. "He was screaming at them for them to get back down," said Lt. Gregg Hansson of Engine 24, who was with Captain Fischer. "Then he went up to get them." Captain Fischer and his men died in the collapse.

Firefighter William Green of Engine 6 was one of the few who said he knew the other tower had fallen. On the 37th floor, "someone opened the door from the 36th floor and said Two World Trade Center just fell down," he said. Over the radio, he heard "Mayday, evacuate."

Slowed by firefighters entering the staircase below him, he switched sides. "In hindsight, I think that's what saved my life," he said.

He did not dawdle. "Around the fourth floor, I passed this civilian - he might have been 450 pounds," Firefighter Green said. "He was taking baby steps like this. I walked right past him like all the other firemen. I felt like a heel when I'm walking past him, and I'm thinking to myself, what does this guy think of me?"

Yet other chronicles show that a very heavy man in that location was eventually dragged to safety by rescuers who included Firefighter Pat Kelly of Rescue 18. Having helped move the man outside, Firefighter Kelly was the only member of his squad to survive. He did not give an oral history.

Elsewhere, crowds of firefighters lingered.

Lt. William Walsh of Ladder 1 said he heard a Mayday to evacuate when he was around the 19th floor, but did not know that a plane had struck the other building, much less that it had collapsed. As he descended, he saw firefighters who were not moving.

No Rush to Get Out

"They were hanging out in the stairwell and in the occupancy and they were resting," Lieutenant Walsh said. "I told them, 'Didn't you hear the Mayday? Get out.' They were saying, 'Yeah, we'll be right with you, Lou.' They just didn't give it a second thought. They just continued with their rest."

Three court officers reported seeing as many as 100 firefighters resting on the 19th floor minutes before the building fell, but they were not questioned by the Fire Department.

Mayor Bloomberg, in a letter to the 9/11 Commission, wrote: "We know for a fact that many firefighters continued their rescue work despite hearing Maydays and evacuation orders and knowing the south tower had fallen."

Asked to reconcile this statement with the oral histories, the city Law Department cited the accounts of eight firefighters and said that each of them surely had spread the word about the collapse of the other tower. In fact, in six of those oral histories, the firefighters specifically said they did not know the other building had fallen.

In the lobby, just yards from safety, survivors said that uncertainty doomed many firefighters.

John Moribito of Ladder 10 said there were maybe "40 or 50 members that were standing fast in the lobby." Roy Chelsen of Engine 28 said, "There were probably 20 or 30 guys down in the lobby mulling around." The interviewer asked, "They weren't trying to get out?"

"They were just - no, no," Firefighter Chelsen recalled.

His officer, Lieutenant Becker said, "There was chaos in the lobby. It was random people running around. There was no structure. There were no crowds. There was no - no operation of any kind going on, nothing. There was no evacuation."

Firefighters with Ladder 11 and Engine 4 came down together to the lobby, but not all made it out. "Everyone is standing there, waiting to hear what's going to happen next, what's going on," Frank Campagna of Ladder 11 said.

His company left, and a moment later, "it came down on top of us," Firefighter Campagna said. "Four Engine obviously didn't make it out. They were with us the whole time, so I'm assuming they were still in the lobby at that time."

The firefighters of Ladder 9 lingered briefly, and most were clear of the building for less than a minute when it fell. Firefighter Wernick remembered seeing two members of his company in the lobby, Jeffrey Walz and Gerard Baptiste. They did not escape. The funeral for Firefighter Baptiste, whose remains were identified this year, was held on Wednesday.

A Figure Coated in Dust

Over and over, firefighters who had left the building in those final minutes, bewildered by the sudden retreat, the ruined lobby, the near-empty street, mentioned a chief covered in the dust of the first collapse, standing just outside the north tower on West Street. Some knew his name: Deputy Assistant Chief Albert Turi.

"He was screaming, 'Just keep moving. Don't stop,' " Firefighter Thomas Orlando of Engine 65 recalled, adding, "I still didn't know the south tower collapsed." Chief Turi, he said, "saved an awful lot of people." The chief has since retired.

In blunt speech, free of the mythic glaze that varnished much 9/11 discourse, some firefighters wondered why an endless line of rescuers had been sent to an unquenchable fire that raged 1,000 feet up.

"I think if this building had collapsed an hour later, we would have had a thousand firemen in there," said Firefighter Timothy Marmion of Engine 16, who carried a woman on a stretcher from the staircase to an ambulance. "If it would have collapsed three hours later, we would have had 10,000 firemen in those buildings."

Had the buildings not fallen, the gear-laden firefighters would have needed about four hours - almost as long as it takes to fly across the country - to reach workers trapped on the high floors.

"We were just as much victims as everybody that was in the building," Firefighter Derek Brogan of Engine 5 said. "We didn't have a chance to do anything. We didn't have a chance to put the fire out, which was really all we were trying to do."

Aron Pilhofer provided computer analysis for this article.

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