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Port authority releases 911 transcipts { August 29 2003 }

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August 29, 2003
Hope and Heroism Turned to Horror on a Fateful Day

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey yesterday released transcripts of radio transmissions and phone conversations that it recorded in the moments immediately after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The transcripts, together with written accounts by Port Authority employees, numbered about 2,000 pages and covered over three hours of recorded conversation, most of it between agency employees, rescue workers and people trapped inside the towers.

They were made public in response to an order by a New Jersey Superior Court judge, who last week ruled that the authority must abide by an agreement it signed in July to settle a lawsuit filed by The New York Times.

The Times argued in court that the records were public and could provide important insight into the day's events, including the way emergency operations had been handled. The authority initially agreed to turn over the records, but it later balked, citing privacy concerns and its sensitivity to the victims' families.

The Port Authority lost 84 employees in the attack, including 37 police officers.

An authority spokesman said that by early yesterday evening, 49 news organizations had requested copies. The Times originally asked for the records 17 months ago through a Freedom of Information request. It filed suit in June.

The families of victims were split on the release. Some characterized it as a painful and unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of those who had died and their survivors. Others said they welcomed the opportunity to learn more about what had happened to family members. Authority officials gave the families an opportunity to view the transcripts before their release, although several declined the invitation.

While some people in the transcripts are identifiable by context or job title or because they identify themselves, many are simply listed as a male or female voice.

The transcribed conversations included phone calls that were made to police desks by people within the towers and radio transmissions between agency personnel, including those who worked at Newark International Airport, at agency offices in Jersey City and at various stations on the PATH train lines.

"In general, they show people performing their duties very heroically and very professionally on a day of horror," the authority's statement said.

On the 64th Floor
Advice to Stay Put May Have Sealed Fates

They had gathered at a natural spot for anyone desperate for information: a Port Authority office on the 64th floor of the north tower that was equipped with video monitors displaying live scenes from the city's tunnels, airports and bridges.

Patrick Hoey, 53, a civil engineer and the manager of the Port Authority's bridges and tunnels, was there, as were a dozen or so other engineers from his office, unsure what had caused the terrible explosion 30 floors above them, unsure what they should do.

"What do you suggest?" Mr. Hoey asked a sergeant at the Port Authority's central police dispatch desk in Jersey City, whom he reached by telephone about 25 minutes after the first plane hit, and shortly after the second plane hit the south tower.

"Stand tight," came the reply from the sergeant. "Stay near the stairwells and wait for the police to come up."

It was a piece of advice that may have cost Mr. Hoey and the other Port Authority engineers their lives.

Thousands of office workers who were below the plane impact floors in the north and south towers survived on Sept. 11.

The mystery for two years now has been why certain pockets of office workers, like those Port Authority engineers on the 64th floor, died, while hundreds who were on higher floors got out alive.

"They will come up, huh?" Mr. Hoey asked the sergeant again, after being told to hang tough and stay put. "They will check each floor? If you would, just report we're up here."

"I got you," the sergeant replied.

The group did as the sergeant suggested. Finally, nearly an hour and a half after the north tower had been hit, Mr. Hoey called in again. "The smoke is getting kind of bad," he told the police desk. "We are contemplating going down the stairwell. Does that make sense?"

This time, the reply was different.

"Yes. Try to get out," the police desk officer said.

"All right. Bye," came Mr. Hoey's response.

On the Phones
Many Questions, but Few Answers

Each time the phone rang, another fearful, confused, urgent or sometimes oblivious voice asked for information that the Port Authority police officers at their various command desks mostly did not have.

But whether it was a worried spouse, an NBC News reporter or someone who believed missiles had been fired from the Woolworth Building at the trade center, the callers found officers who, by and large, kept their composure under tremendous duress and passed along the scraps of knowledge they had been able to glean within the constrained universe of their desks.

"Yeah, we heard from him," said a Sergeant Holland, answering a call at the PATH train station in Jersey City from the distressed wife of another Port Authority police officer. "None of our guys are hurt and injured right now," Sergeant Holland said.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "Because he was going up the stairs, he told me."

"I understand," Sergeant Holland said. "I . . . I understand, it's got to be awful, you know."

Sometimes, the sense of helplessness must have been overwhelming. "People stuck in the stairway," said a distressed man on the 103rd floor of the north tower, a place where no one would ultimately survive, in a radio call to the police desk at the trade center itself. "Open up the goddamn doors," the trapped employee pleaded.

Requests for interviews began coming over the phone lines from news organizations within fifteen minutes after the first plane hit the north tower.

"You know what? I can't right now," Sergeant Wozack said to a caller from NBC News. But when the network phoned again, the sergeant apologized for having no insights to share: "I'm sorry, I don't mean to cut short."

When he learned that the south tower had fallen, taking many of his colleagues' lives, Sergeant Wozack struggled for anything but the most elemental response. "Oh, my God," he said to a Captain Devlin, who was on the line with him.

"All right," Captain Devlin said, "say a prayer, brother."

In Windows on the World
Doing as She's Told, but It's Not Enough

Christine Olender, an assistant to the general manager at Windows on the World, had already done everything she could. The breakfast guests and restaurant employees had been collected on the 106th floor of the north tower.

The three emergency stairwells had been checked and found to be filled with smoke. She called the Port Authority police command post, down more than 100 flights at the base of the tower.

"We are getting no direction up here," she told the Port Authority police officer who picked up the line, about 15 minutes after the north tower had been hit. "We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees as soon as possible."

The police officer did not have the most encouraging response. "We're doing our best. We've got the Fire Department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you dear," the police officer told Ms. Olender.

In the more than 1,000 pages of transcripts of Port Authority radio and telephone calls on Sept. 11, 2001, the communications with Ms. Olender, 39, a native of Chicago who lived on the Upper West Side, stand out because of the repeated calls and extended conversations she had as she futilely tried to save herself and the others trapped at Windows on the World. She got through to the police four times, obeying each of their requests, calling back precisely as instructed.

"Hi, this is Christine, up at Windows," she said, telling the police officer this time that she was with about 100 others on the 106th floor. (In fact, about 170 guests and staff members were trapped there.) "We need to find a safe haven on 106, where the smoke condition isn't bad. Can you direct us to a certain quadrant?"

Again, there was only the reassurance that the rescue squads were on the way.

"What's your ETA?" Ms. Olender asked.

"As soon as possible, as soon as it's humanly possible," the police officer said.

The final recorded call from Ms. Olender came only about 20 minutes after the attack. Smoke had quickly accumulated near the top of the tower, as it rose through the building as if it were a chimney. "The fresh air is going down fast! I'm not exaggerating," she said.

"Ma'am, I know you're not exaggerating," the officer said. He added, "I have you, Christine, four calls, 75 to 100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor."

This was hardly a sufficient answer, at this point.

"Can we break a window?" Ms. Olender continued.

"You can do whatever you have to to get to, uh, the air," the officer told her.

"All right." ERIC LIPTON

In the PATH System
Calmly Taking Riders Out of Harm's Way

Just minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Center, the full sense of chaos and panic had yet to overwhelm the PATH station below the twin towers. But the dispatcher on site knew something was seriously wrong as he directed the arrival of thousands of commuters during the morning rush.

"Rich," the dispatcher asked Richie Moran, the system's train master over the radio, according to a transcript of the conversation. "What are you going to do with us? I just unloaded."

Mr. Moran was supervising train traffic on the PATH system from his office in Journal Square in Jersey City.

"We want people out of the station, not in," Mr. Moran told the dispatcher. Load the train up again, he said, and get it out of there.

Over the next 20 minutes, PATH supervisors rerouted several trains that were already en route to the buildings. They directed one train that had already arrived to keep its passengers on board and head back out. Another was told to simply loop through the station and return to New Jersey. The efficiency of their decision-making, which Port Authority officials credit with saving hundreds of lives, was captured in the transcripts released yesterday.

"Take those passengers with you," Mr. Moran told a conductor whose train from Hoboken was approaching the trade center with an estimated 1,000 people.

"I will not open my doors," the conductor responded. "I'm taking them with me."

Passengers who had already gotten off trains were evacuated by the police, and the station emptied quickly. But a final train, with just a conductor and an engineer aboard, was dispatched from Jersey City to pick up a dozen or so PATH workers still there.

"We are going to use you as an evacuation train," Mr. Moran told the conductor. The rescue train ran into a problem, however. A man who had been sleeping on the platform refused to leave.

"You'll have to get the passenger on board. If he doesn't want to get on board, you have to leave him," Mr. Moran told the crew.

The crew asked whether a police officer could be dispatched. Mr. Moran then told them what had already become obvious above ground. "We have an extreme situation at the World Trade Center," he said.

The last train left at 9:11 a.m., 48 minutes before the south tower collapsed. No passengers were stranded in the tunnel by the collapse. The sleeping man was among those evacuated.

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