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THREATS AND RESPONSES: NEWS ANALYSIS; Investigating 9/11: An
Unimaginable Calamity, Still Largely Unexamined
By JIM DWYER ( News Analysis ) 1795 words
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
examined 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 at the foot of 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.
That hardly seems possible, considering that 9/11 iconography has been
absorbed into everything from football pageants to pitches by speakers
peddling lessons in leadership. And yet, says John F. Timoney, once a
senior police commander in New York and the former police commissioner in
Philadelphia, the events of Sept. 11 are among the most rare in American
public life: true catastrophes that have gone fundamentally unscrutinized.
''You can hardly point to a cataclysmic event in our history, whether
it was the sinking of the Titanic, the Pearl Harbor attack, the Kennedy
assassination, when a blue-ribbon panel did not set out to establish the
facts and, where appropriate, suggest reforms,'' Mr. Timoney said. ''That
has not happened here.''
In Washington, a special joint Congressional committee met a dozen
times in secret to investigate the performance of the intelligence
services, but planned public hearings have been postponed.
In New York, which suffered the greatest loss of life in the attacks,
no formal review of the emergency response was opened until January, when
Michael R. Bloomberg succeeded Rudolph W. Giuliani as mayor. And even
then, the city proceeded with maximum circumspection. The new
administration commissioned McKinsey & Company, a management
consulting firm, to assess the Police and Fire Departments separately.
Mr. Bloomberg pointedly said that the two reports ''should not be
described as investigations; they have not attempted moment-by-moment
re-creations of the events of 9/11.'' The purpose, he said, was only to
identify ''specific and important opportunities'' for improvement.
Nor has there been a wide public demand for answers, to the
frustration of a handful of victims' families.
Why this national reluctance to face the country's bloodiest modern
disaster in all its dimensions?
The familiar narrative and images of heroism surely offer comfort and
pride. Any wide-ranging study is bound to find unflattering profiles of
self-inflicted wounds, poor preparation, even a kind of mass stupor in
the face of rising threats. Islamic fundamentalists had, after all, been
killing Americans and attacking American symbols for a decade, in New
York, in Saudi Arabia, in Africa, in Yemen. They tried to knock over the
twin towers in 1993, and were caught plotting to crash hijacked airplanes
into landmarks in 1994 and 1995.
Legislators who examine even lame and flimsy intelligence operations
run the risk of seeming to make matters worse by opening up methods to
scrutiny by enemies. Now the F.B.I. is investigating Congressional staff
members and senators to see if they were the source of news reports that
said the National Security Agency had bobbled hints of a pending attack.
In New York, different questions have undermined searching inquiries
into the emergency response.
The adequacy of the building code for skyscrapers, while a technical
issue, is by definition a matter of life and death. Also by definition,
it is a question of costs for the real estate industry. A joint
government-industry task force is now studying the New York codes,
separate from the emergency responses. After the 1993 trade center
bombing, a similar group made almost no changes because of resistance
from the building industry, said Alan Reiss, who was the director of the
trade center until last summer. By shaping basic structural requirements,
the codes resonate on issues as basic to survival as the number of
lifeboats a ship like the Titanic must carry: these laws effectively
determine how rescue workers attack fires, whether people can escape from
elevators and how many stairways are necessary.
At least 1,100 people survived the initial impacts from the planes,
but were trapped. How many might have been saved if the buildings had
stood longer? The city has not explored that question.
While Mr. Bloomberg endorsed proposed changes in police and fire
management practices, the mayor has been plainly uninterested in
revisiting the specifics of what went wrong on Sept. 11, saying that it
was far more pressing to maintain flexible, well-equipped forces than to
spend months going to school on the last calamity.
''Every single major event is different from all others,'' the mayor
said when he released the McKinsey reports last month. ''The training of
how you would respond to the last incident is not really important.''
Yet officials in New York City did have a blueprint for an attack of
this sort, and it was the last attack.
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
Mr. Reiss, of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said the
Fire Department needed to figure out why the changes did not work. ''I
felt like we spent a lot of money, we tried to do the right thing, but it
didn't work,'' he said.
Mr. Reiss was not interviewed for the Fire Department report, which
recommends that the city create tax incentives for other high-rise owners
to install the sorts of technical improvements made at the trade center
-- the very ones that, for unexplored reasons, did not work.
Another residue of the 1993 attack was the use of helicopters by the
police, who had landed on a roof and removed people stranded on the upper
floors. The firefighters, whose department has no helicopter, saw the police
as showboats taking risks.
Afterward, the Port Authority, with the agreement of the Fire
Department, decided to lock the roof doors as a security measure. On
Sept. 11, some 200 people tried to get onto the south tower's roof but
could not open the door. The police decided a landing was too dangerous.
One pilot noted that he did not see anyone on the roof. The city studies
did not consider the wisdom of locking roof doors in skyscrapers, and do
not mention if such arrangements exist elsewhere.
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 placed in the trade center complex by
Mr. Giuliani, against advice that it was unwise to put an emergency
center in a terrorist target. The Police and Fire Departments barely
spoke on 9/11. They set up separate command posts. The firefighters
stayed on the ground, 900 feet below fires that the police 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, the 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 of them 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.
The McKinsey consultants evaluated 16 tasks undertaken by the police
on 9/11. None involved cooperating with other agencies. Important as that
is, the McKinsey consultants wrote, it was ''outside the scope'' of their
As for Deputy Chief Baccellieri and other witnesses who saw crowds of
doomed firefighters resting on the 19th floor, they all said they would
gladly share their accounts with anyone investigating the events of Sept.
So far, no one has called.