The department has identified the voices of at least 16 firefighters on the tape, and on Friday, their families were invited to listen to it in a ballroom at the Southgate Tower Suite Hotel near Pennsylvania Station. First, they were required to sign a statement prepared by city lawyers saying they would not disclose the last words of their husbands, brothers and sons.
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told the families that he had not known the tape existed until very recently. Later, he declined to discuss its contents, but said it had a powerful effect on him. "Every time I've seen videotapes, listened to audio recordings or read the accounts of firefighters and their actions on Sept. 11, I've felt the same thing: an extraordinary sense of awe at their incredible professionalism and bravery."
As the tape played over the hotel sound system, a transcript was displayed on a video screen.
Chief Palmer's widow, Debbie Palmer, said she attended the session with trepidation, but as Commissioner Scoppetta did, she used the word "awe" to describe her feelings afterward. She had known little about her husband's movements on Sept. 11. Mrs. Palmer stressed that she would not break her promise to keep the tape confidential but said it had given her some peace about her husband's last moments.
"I didn't hear fear, I didn't hear panic," she said. "When the tape is made public to the world, people will hear that they all went about their jobs without fear, and selflessly."
Chief Palmer, 45, worked as a firefighter and officer in every borough of the city except Staten Island, said Capt. Robert Norcross, a close friend. He was a student of communication technology, publishing a study of radio equipment in the Fire Department's internal newsletter. "Every time he went to work, Orio had a project," Captain Norcross said. "He was a very brilliant man. And he also was in excellent shape -- a marathoner. When the department started giving out a fitness medal, he was the first to win it three or four times."
Chief Palmer began his assignment in the north tower after the first plane struck, helping to organize the operations there. Soon after the second plane hit the south tower at 9:02 a.m., Chief Palmer moved into that building with Chief Burns.
Although most elevators were knocked out of service, Chief Palmer found one that was working and took it to the 41st floor. At that point, he was halfway to the impact zone, which ran from the 78th to the 84th floors.
As he began climbing, he crossed paths with a handful of injured people who had been in the 78th floor Sky Lobby, where scores of office workers had been waiting for express elevators when the second plane hit. The tip of its left wing grazed the lobby, instantly killing most of a group variously estimated between 50 and 200 people. Only a dozen ultimately escaped from the building. Among them was Judy Wein.
"We saw the firefighters coming up, and they would ask us, what floor did you come from?" Ms. Wein recalled in an interview. "We told them, 78, and there's lots of people badly hurt up there. Then they would get on their walkie-talkies and report back in."
Ed Nicholls, whose arm was nearly severed by the blast across the 78th floor, recalled in an interview that he saw a firefighter somewhere around the 50th floor who had advice on how to get out. "We encountered a fireman who told us to go to the 41st floor," he said.
While it is impossible to say if Chief Palmer was the firefighter whom Mr. Nicholls saw, the chief did send radio messages with the information that he collected from civilians trying to escape the building.
As Ling Young, another survivor of the 78th floor, made her way down, she passed two fire marshals, Mr. Bucca and James Devery. They had climbed the stairs from the lobby because they did not know about the elevator that ran to the 41st floor. "Ronnie was ahead of me, like a flight, at all times -- he was just in better shape," Mr. Devery said in an interview. "And then on the 51st floor there was a woman standing there on the stairwell landing and she had her arms out and her eyes were closed. And she was bleeding from the side." That was Mrs. Young, and she seemed ready to faint, he recalled, so he decided to escort her out.