''We Were Just as Scared as Anybody Else'': Intimate Look at 9/11 through Firefighters' Oral Histories

NEW YORK (AP) -- In thousands of pages of oral histories released Friday, firefighters describe in vivid, intimate detail how they rushed to save fleeing civilians from churning smoke and fire before the World Trade Center collapsed in choking clouds of debris and blinding dust.

The histories, recorded in the weeks and months after the Sept. 11 attack, offer some of the most detailed and intimate descriptions to date of the day's horror, seen through the eyes of the firefighters who made the iconic rush into the twin towers and lost 343 of their brethren.

They offer a glimpse of firefighters battling their own fears as they fought to save others.

Trapped in the mall below the trade center after the collapse of the south tower, firefighter James Murphy and a group of firefighters started hunting for the exits. Frightened civilians began grabbing onto them, he said.

''We were saying, 'Don't worry, we're with the Fire Department. Everybody is going to get out,''' he recalled. But, he said, ''We were just as scared as anybody else. We were just victims too. Basically the only difference between us and the victims is we had flashlights.''

Firefighter Kirk Long, whose Engine 1 was sent to the World Trade Center's north tower _ the first to be struck by a plane and the second to collapse _ spoke of climbing upward as civilians fled in the opposite direction.

''I was watching every person coming down, looked at their face, just to make them happy that they were getting out and we were going in, and everything was OK,'' Long said in his oral history.

Emergency medical technician John Felidi recalled that when the south tower fell, ''We heard a rumble. I heard the rumble and looked _ in the back of me all I seen was a monstrous _ I can't even describe it. A cloud. Looked like debris, dust.''

And of the second collapse: ''I never forget that sound. It sounded like a freight train passing by. I never forget that sound, never forget that sound. Like a freight train.''

The 12,000 pages of oral histories were made public along with hours of Fire Department radio transmissions, their release compelled by a lawsuit filed three years ago by The New York Times and long contested by the city.

Some of the material had been released before, and the records released Friday were unlikely to fundamentally change the understanding of the Sept. 11 attack.

Still, the histories offer a poignant catalog of firefighters' still-fresh memories of the attack. The radio transmissions added new texture to the historical record of the day, beginning at 8:46 a.m. with an urgent but calm description of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

''The World Trade Center tower Number One is on fire!'' one firefighter radioed.

As the depth of the crisis became clear, the voices on the radios thickened with panic.

''Send every available ambulance, everything you got to the World Trade Center,'' a firefighter calls from Engine 1. ''Now!''

Another firefighter, Maureen McArdle-Schulman, recalled hearing someone yell before the collapses that something was falling from the towers.

She said she thought it might have been desks coming out.

''Then the first body hit and then we knew what it was,'' she said. ''I was getting sick. I felt like I was intruding on a sacrament. They were choosing to die and I was watching them and shouldn't have been. So me and another guy turned away and looked at a wall and we could still hear them hit.''

The records shed some new light onto lingering questions and long-standing complaints about the response. Firefighters described faulty communications equipment and some orders that weren't obeyed.

A group of victims' families who have become advocates of building code and emergency response reform had eagerly awaited the release of the new records in hopes they would challenge the notion 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.

Some city officials, including former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have suggested some firefighters ignored the mayday call in acts of personal heroism. But the group of families has sought to lay blame on the city for providing firefighters with faulty radios.

Firefighter Paul Bessler recalled a colleague storming up the north tower's stairs as if he was ''on a mission.''

''Just at that point, my radio came clear as day, 'Imminent collapse. This was a terrorist attack. Evacuate.'''

But Thomas Piambino said he heard ''absolutely nothing'' ordering him out of the tower.

He and others nearby left the tower before it fell, but he said he did not know why.

''It was just _ I don't know what it was,'' he said. ''It was just the culmination of intuition or what. I just decided it was time to go.''

The transcripts reinforce the perception that some firefighters throughout the trade center dropped protocol and simply acted according to their best instincts.

Firefighter Patrick Martin of Engine 229 said that after the south tower had collapsed and before the north tower came down, his lieutenant ordered him to a boat taking people to hospitals across the Hudson River.

''I told him I wasn't leaving,'' Martin said. ''We were still missing one guy.''

The oral histories underscored the small, even random, decisions that separated those who lived from those who died.

Firefighter George Rodriguez remembered sheltering with about 30 civilians in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center. Two of them wanted to get out because of heavy smoke and ash. Firefighters tried to keep them inside, but the pair eventually ran out.

''Unfortunately for them they ran to the left, which happened to be right towards Vesey Street, which was the wrong way to go,'' Rodriguez said. ''I never saw those two again.''

Sept. 11 family members pored over the records Friday, some tearing up at the descriptions and sounds.

''It's very emotional. It's very difficult,'' said Sally Regenhard, mother of 28-year-old Christian Regenhard, killed along with most of his company's firefighters that day. ''But it's no harder than knowing every day that my son is gone.''

The New York Times and families of Sept. 11 victims sued the city in 2002 to release the records, which were collected by the Fire Department in the days after the collapse of the twin towers.

The city withheld them, but in March, the state's highest court ordered release of the records, allowing the city to leave out potentially painful and embarrassing portions. Portions of 911 calls have yet to be released.

The Fire Department, in a statement, said it hoped the release of the records would not cause firefighters and their families additional pain.

''The Department believes that the materials being released today ... will serve to further confirm the bravery and courage of our members who responded to the World Trade Center,'' the statement said.

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Associated Press Writers Erin McClam, Frank Eltman, Tom Hays, Verena Dobnik, Amy Westfeldt and Jennifer Bogar contributed to this report.

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