A lost tape of lost voices, ignored until recently by investigators studying the emergency response on Sept. 11, shows that firefighters climbed far higher into the south tower than practically anyone had realized. At least two men reached the crash zone on the 78th floor, where they went to the aid of grievously injured people trapped in a sprawl of destruction.
Until the building's final minutes, one of the two firefighters, Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer, was organizing the evacuation of people hurt by the plane's impact. He was accompanied by Fire Marshal Ronald P. Bucca. Both men died.
Only now, nearly a year after the attacks, are the efforts of Chief Palmer, Mr. Bucca and others becoming public. City fire officials simply delayed listening to a 78-minute tape that is the only known recording of firefighters inside the towers. The Fire Department has forbidden anyone to discuss the contents publicly on the ground that the tape might be evidence in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the man accused of plotting with the hijackers.
According to four people who have heard it, the tape provides new, sharp and unforgettable images of the last minutes inside the trade center complex.
For months, senior officials believed that firefighters had gone no higher than about the 50th floor in each tower, well below most damage. The transmissions from Chief Palmer and others reveal a startling achievement: firefighters in the south tower actually reached a floor struck by the second hijacked airplane. Once they got there, they had a coherent plan for putting out the fires they could see and helping victims who survived.
About 14 or 15 minutes before the south tower collapsed, a group of people who had survived the plane's impact began their descent from the 78th floor. As they departed, Chief Palmer sent word to Chief Edward Geraghty that a group of 10 people, with a number of injuries, were heading to an elevator on the 41st floor. That elevator was the only one working after the plane hit. On its last trip down, however, the car became stuck in the shaft. Inside the elevator was a firefighter from Ladder 15, who reported that he was trying to break open the walls. It is not clear whether the group of 10 had reached that elevator before it left the 41st floor but those who listened to the tape said it was most unlikely that they had enough time to escape, by the elevator or by stairs.
Only a minute or two of the tape covers transmissions from the north tower; the rest are from the south tower. Senior officials said this suggested that the communications problems that plagued the Fire Department's response to the attack were caused not simply by equipment failures, but possibly also by misunderstandings over how certain radio gear was working.
On the tapes, the commander of operations in the south tower, Donald Burns, is heard repeatedly calling for additional companies, but many firefighters headed for that building became caught in traffic or became confused about which tower they should report to. As events developed, the inability to get more firefighters into the south tower may have spared some lives, officials said.
The tape was recovered months ago by staff members from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, although authority officials could not be precise about the time. In January or February, the Port Authority offered a copy of the tape to Fire Department officials, but they declined the offer.
The fire officials said they were not told at the time that the tape contained important information and did not want to sign a confidentiality agreement demanded by the Port Authority.
In early July, after The New York Times reported the existence of the tape and the fact that consultants studying the department's response to the attack had not listened to it, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the fire investigators would immediately review it. A draft of the consultants' report does not take account of the tape's contents.