NEW YORK (AP) -- The Fire Department on Friday released thousands of pages of oral histories recorded by firefighters about Sept. 11 and hours of radio transmissions, a vast mine of records that evoked anew the chaos and horror of the attack.
''Somebody yelled something was falling,'' firefighter Maureen McArdle-Schulman recalled. ''We didn't know if it was desks coming out. It turned out it was people coming out, and they started coming out one after the other.''
''I felt like I was intruding on a sacrament,'' she said. ''They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn't have been.''
Compelled by a lawsuit filed by The New York Times, the department made public 15 hours of radio transmissions and more than 500 oral histories describing the rush to the World Trade Center, which saved an unknown number of civilians and cost 343 firefighters their lives. In all, 2,749 people died in the twin towers' collapse.
Deputy Commissioner Thomas Fitzpatrick, said, ''Based on the number of jumpers, we could only assume that hundreds of people were trapped.''
At least 450 relatives of dead firefighters requested copies of the oral histories and radio recordings, and they received them by express mail Friday, the fire department said.
Some families and other critics of the city's response have been hoping the new documents would help them challenge the conclusion that many firefighters in the north tower heard, but chose to ignore, an evacuation message issued after the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m.
At least one fire lieutenant quoted in the oral histories heard the call and saw his colleagues leaving.
Fire Lt. Gregg Hansson, whose Engine 24 was called at 8:47 a.m. _ one minute after the first plane crash _ described hearing the call to evacuate while he was on the 35th floor of the north tower.
''I was in the vicinity of the battalion chief, who was on the command channel, when I heard a mayday given over the command channel to evacuate the building,'' Hansson said in his oral history. ''He started to tell everyone to evacuate, and I did also. I saw all the units get up, everybody got their gear, everybody started for the staircases to evacuate.''
Independent investigations with access to the documents have already described major flaws in the city's response to the attack _ emergency radios did not function properly, police and firefighters did not work together and vital messages went unheard.
A reading of just a few of the 12,000 pages of transcripts from the oral histories made the day's drama clear.
''You could hear maydays going over the radio at that point. It was just so many, I really didn't know where they were coming from,'' firefighter Thomas Turilli said.
Firefighter Kirk Long described leaving the north tower and being helped by another firefighter to a building nearby that had some clean air.
''There was a lot of mothers and babies there,'' he said. ''I was ready to leave. They were a little shook up because I was covered up with all this dust. I was leaving and they started to cry. They didn't want me to go without them. So I stayed for maybe 10 or 15 minutes until it cleared up a little bit. Then I walked them over to the west side, where there were boats and fresh air.''
Another firefighter, Patrick Martin, said that after the south tower had collapsed and before the north tower came down, his lieutenant instructed him to go on a boat that was taking people to hospitals across the Hudson River.
''I told him I wasn't leaving,'' Martin said. ''We were still missing one guy.''
The city had withheld the material, claiming the release would violate firefighters' privacy and jeopardize the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers.
In March, the state's highest court ordered the city to release the oral histories and radio transmissions but said the city could edit out potentially painful and embarrassing portions.
In another oral history, fire Lt. Howard Hahn described using his cell phone that day but said his fire department radio was barely functioning.
''I was able to get through, but the transmissions was very hard,'' Hahn said. It was very hard to control. You're basically doing your own show.''