Bereaved families gather in New York to listen to recordings

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NEW YORK (AP) – One thought repeated in Rosemary Cain’s mind as she listened Friday to recordings of 911 operators wrestling with pleas for help at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Some of the callers were stuck on high floors. Fire raged beneath them. Their offices were filling with smoke. What should they do?

“Just tell them to get out,” Cain said. “Tell them to get out of there.”

Instead, overwhelmed and unsure of the situation, the 911 dispatchers told many of the trapped office workers to stay put, open a window to vent smoke and wait for help. Firefighters were on the way.

One of them was Cain’s son, George, who was helping evacuate the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel when the south tower collapsed, killing him.

A small group of people who lost loved ones in the attacks gathered at a Manhattan law office to hear recordings of the 911 calls released Friday.

Several of the families fought for the release of the tapes, saying they could teach valuable lessons about the city’s heroic, but tragically flawed rescue effort.

The small audience included Cain as well as the parents of several firefighters, a woman who lost her husband, and a fire captain who was buried in the tower rubble for more than an hour before being pulled to safety.

The group listened mostly in silence, using headphones and a bank of computers set up in a conference room. Some skipped the audio recordings and read transcripts instead.

“You don’t have the hysteria,” said Maureen Santora, whose firefighter son, Christopher, was killed. “But I don’t care about hearing the voices … I just really want to know what happened.”

Like others, she said the experience of hearing the tapes left her feeling a mixture of grief, frustration and pride.

The 911 operators at times appeared unaware of what was happening inside the building and couldn’t tell people how to escape. Santora praised them, nonetheless.

“I have great empathy for all of these dispatchers,” she said. “Think of it. They were the last voices the victims heard. Think what they must be living with.”

None of the families at the law office Friday said they expected to learn anything new from the recordings about the final moments of their lost relatives.

Only the voices of dispatchers were present on the recordings released Friday.

The tapes were made public as a result of a three-year legal battle by The New York Times and the families of nine victims. The city, citing privacy concerns, succeeded in preventing the voices of 911 callers from being disclosed.

Barbara Hetzel, whose firefighter son, Thomas, died in the towers’ collapse, said she wanted to hear the tapes anyway, if there was a chance to learn something from them to prevent future disasters.

Hetzel, who was out of the country on a cruise to Russia on Sept. 11, said she still hasn’t forgiven herself for being so far away when her son died.

“I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t get to him,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “It’s not like I could have helped anyway if I were there, I know. But still, I feel like if I can help a tiny bit now, it will be as if I were there.”

Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who represented the families, said he would continue to press the courts to release the remainder of the audio.

Sally Regenhard, whose son Christian, a firefighter, died in the attacks, said that even in partial form, the recordings presented valuable information about the shortcomings of the city’s evacuation plans for tall buildings.

Regenhard said she believed more people would have survived if better information had been available to rescuers.

“I’m hoping that the public and the system will learn how unprepared the City of New York and the Port Authority were on that day,” she said.

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