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911 panel cites communication failures between nyfd nypd { May 18 2004 }

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9/11 Panel Cites Communications Failures
By John J. Goldman and Jesus Sanchez
Times Staff Writers

12:48 PM PDT, May 18, 2004

NEW YORK Examining emergency response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the 9/11 commission today heard testimony of heroism and a litany of problems that hampered rescue teams and contributed to some of deaths of the more than 2,700 people who perished in the collapse of the twin towers.

Police, fire and other units were hamstrung by faulty communications, conflicting or a paucity of information, and a lack of authority, according to a preliminary commission staff report released at the beginning of two days of hearings.

The report, which echoed previous examinations of the attack and collapse of the twin skyscrapers, found that the World Trade Center did not conduct drills where tenants went down the stairs in order to escape. Tenants had not been informed that doors leading to the roof of the towers were permanently locked which would not have made a difference because smoke and turbulence made it impossible for helicopters to land on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, officials said.

"Most of the first responders were the people in the building," Rosemary Deming Phalon told the commission. "It's pretty scary when nobody is in charge. It's going to happen again."

Former and current New York officials, however, defended the city's response, saying the heroism and hard work of fire, police and other crews resulted in the evacuation and rescue of 25,000 World Trade Center tenants.

Despite the arrival of hundreds of firefighters and police on the scene within minutes of the first plane striking the North Tower, the "first responders" had trouble communicating with each other and lacked information about rapidly deteriorating conditions. Firefighters and their commanders also were frustrated by the lack of operating elevators and other systems in the massive towers, where each floor measured about an acre in size.

"We didn't have a lot of information coming in," said New York Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer in comments included in the report. "We didn't receive any reports of what was seen from the helicopters. It was impossible to know how much damage was done on the upper floors, whether the stairwells were intact or not. A matter of fact, what you saw on TV, we didn't have that information."

An order to evacuate the 110-story North Tower was never heard by its occupants because the building's public address system had failed. That order to evacuate was not passed on to 911 operators and fire department dispatchers who fielded calls from building occupants unsure what to do. In some cases, workers were advised to return to their offices and many headed up the building to the roof top, unaware that there was no access.

"911 operators and FDNY dispatchers had no information about either the location or magnitude of the impact zone and were therefore unable to provide information as fundamental as whether callers were above or below the fire," the report said. "911 operators were also not given any information about the feasibility of rooftop rescues."

Dark, smoke-filled and damaged stairways also slowed or prevented the evacuation of workers and limited the ability of rescuers to assist the injured and disabled.

"There was smoke, there was a lot of water flowing underfoot," said Brian Clark, who worked in the South Tower, in comments included in the report. "And in a couple of places there was only one layer of drywall left that was cracked, and the flames were licking up the other side of the wall."

The report chronicled the immense and overwhelming destruction that resulted after the towers were rammed by the jets, hurling fireballs down elevator shafts and into the lobby and underground levels more than 90 floors below.

"I dropped the phone, screamed and jumped under my desk," said bank employee Stanley Praimnath as he saw United Airlines Flight 175 head for his office on the 81st floor of the South Tower. "The bottom wing sliced right through the office and it stuck in my office door twenty feet from where I am huddled under my desk."

Praimnath, who was pinned underneath the metal desk, was later rescued by Clark.

Goldman reported from New York; Sanchez from Los Angeles.

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