September 12, 2002
We need to know

Via Josh Marshall comes this NYT article which talks about how little we know about the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Of course the country had to understand what went wrong. One of the largest structures ever built had failed, at a terrible cost in lives. When warned of danger, those in charge had shrugged. Many died because the rescue effort was plagued by communication breakdowns, a lack of coordination, failure to prepare.

These findings on the sinking of the Titanic entered the public record after the Carpathia docked at the Chelsea piers in Manhattan on April 18, 1912, with the 705 survivors plucked from the North Atlantic. Starting the next morning at the Waldorf-Astoria, the barely dry witnesses provided a rich body of facts about the accident, the Titanic, and maritime practices to the United States Senate Commerce Committee, which held 18 days of hearings. Their testimony gave form to a distant horror, shaping law and history.

No inquiry remotely similar in scope, energy or transparency has considered the attacks of last Sept. 11, the devastating collapse of two of the world's tallest structures, the deaths at the Pentagon or on United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. A handful of tightly focused reviews have taken place mostly in secret, conducted by private consultants, or by Congressional committees.

One year later, the public knows less about the circumstances of 2,801 deaths in Manhattan in broad daylight than people in 1912 knew within weeks about the Titanic, which sank in the middle of an ocean in the dead of night.

The part that I found hardest to read and hardest to comprehend had to do with the lack of communication between the police and fire departments. No one seems to have learned the lessons of the 1993 bombing.

In 1993, fundamentalists parked a truck bomb in the trade center basement. Six people were killed. For rescuers, "Communications in that complex was the No. 1 issue, a big problem that had to be fixed," said Dennis Smith, the author of "Report From Ground Zero" (Viking, 2002) and a retired firefighter who has studied both attacks.

The firefighters returned Sept. 11 carrying the same radio equipment, with one big difference: the department had arranged to link the radios to a system of boosters and cable lines. Even so, nearly every surviving firefighter reported problems sending and getting messages.

Yet Fire Department officials did not obtain the single known recording of their operations inside the tower until after The New York Times reported its existence in July. At that point, the response study had already been drafted.


As the towers were burning, Randy Mastro, a lawyer who served as deputy mayor under Mr. Giuliani, was asked on CNN if the city had changed its approach since 1993. Indeed it had, he said.

In 1993, Mr. Mastro said, "There was no coordinated city response. There was no Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. Rudy Giuliani established that. It's been one of the hallmarks of his tenure. And unfortunately, there are circumstances like this one where that coordinated effort has to come into play and is coming into play now."

The belief in the coordinated public safety efforts of the Giuliani administration turned out to be much like the belief in the unsinkability of the Titanic. Early in the crisis, the Office of Emergency Management had to be evacuated. It had been located in the trade center complex by Mr. Giuliani, against much advice that it was unwise to put an emergency center in a terrorist target. The Police and Fire Departments barely spoke on Sept. 11. They set up separate command posts. The firefighters stayed on the ground, 900 feet below fires that police officers in helicopters were seeing up close. The two departments had not practiced helicopter operations for at least a year before the attack.

Literally as Mr. Mastro was speaking, police in the sky were urging that everyone pull back from the tower, saying that a collapse appeared inevitable. This message was sent over police radios, but went unheard by firefighters. As many as 100 were resting on the 19th floor of the north tower. "A wall of firemen, shooting the breeze, as if we were in a park," said Deputy Chief Joseph Baccellieri, the commanding officer of the New York State Court Officers Association.

It's hard for me to adequately express my anger and frustration at this. It's hard for me to believe that 100 firefighters had to die because the police had no way of communicating with them.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I haven't paid more attention to this story. I saw the Salon article about the McKinsey press release where much of this information was first published, but I didn't read it at the time. I know I haven't seen this story in the Chron - I searched the archives for "McKinsey" and "World Trade Center" and found nothing related.

I may be late to this party, but I'm here now. I plan on learning more. I want to see this story get more exposure.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 12, 2002 to National news

Book recommendation Inviting Disaster

Human beings are stubbornly stupid animals.

Posted by: Dancelf on September 12, 2002 12:36 PM