Voices heard

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NEW YORK – Emergency operators listening to trapped callers’ heartbreaking pleas from above the fires in the World Trade Center repeatedly said help was on the way while they fought crashing computers, mass confusion and their own emotions on Sept. 11, 2001, several hours of 911 calls showed Friday.

The 130 calls edited out the voices of those who sought help after terrorists flew hijacked jetliners into the twin towers, but the police and fire dispatchers often repeated the callers’ words, reflecting the chaos of the morning of the attack that killed 2,749 people at the trade center. The first call came within seconds of the first plane hitting the north tower.

Dispatchers assured the callers – most of them on floors above the planes – that help was coming, or already there.

“OK, ma’am. All right,” a fire dispatcher told a caller at 9:05 a.m., two minutes after a plane hit the second tower. “Well, everybody is there now. We’re trying to rescue everybody. OK?”

Twelve minutes later, another dispatcher tells a frantic caller trapped on the 105th floor of the south tower to put wet towels over their mouths, lie on the floor and not to open the windows.

“We are trying to get up there, sir. Like you said, the stairs are collapsed, OK?” the dispatcher said. “I know it’s hard to breathe. I know it is.”

The voices of the operators who heard the calls for help were released after The New York Times and relatives of Sept. 11 victims sued to get them. An appeals court ruled last year that the calls of victims in the burning twin towers were too intense and emotional to be released without their families’ consent.

The parents of Christopher Hanley, one of 28 people who identified themselves on the calls, released an audiotape of his call this week.

The transcripts of the calls held long blank spaces where the callers’ words would have appeared. Often, police and fire operators talked to each other, and weren’t sure what had occurred. At one point a police operator told a fire dispatcher that a helicopter had hit one of the towers.

In another conversation, at 8:53 a.m.: “How many people dead, do you know?” an operator asks. “The only thing I heard about was somebody fell out the window,” a dispatcher replied.

The operators, from the fire and police departments, managed to generally maintain their composure even as word spread that what initially appeared to be a tragic accident was actually a choreographed terrorist attack involving two planes and both towers.

Sirens screamed in the background as the callers pleaded for help. Although there were no voices, their desperation was evident in heavy, audible breathing on the other line of the operators’ calls.

“If you feel like your life is in danger, do what you must do, OK?” one dispatcher told a caller at 9:02 a.m., just a minute before the second plane hit. “I can’t give you any more advice than that.”

The comment was typical of the frustration among the operators, even as their computers crashed, trying to deal with the once-unimaginable situation.

“All right, we have quite a few calls,” responds a fire operator.

“I know,” said the police operator. “Jesus Christ.”

In the background of another call made from the 105th floor of the north tower at 9:17 a.m., a public address announcement is heard in the background: “We aware of it down here. The condition seems to have subsided.”

Sally Regenhard, one of the plaintiffs whose firefighter son was killed on Sept. 11, said the tapes showed that the operators were untrained to tell people how to save their lives.

“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,” Regenhard said.

Many of the operators told frantic callers to stay put and wait for help, which fire dispatcher supervisor David Rosenzwieg said is standard procedure in high-rises when fires break out on lower floors.

“Telling people to stay – for some reason people think that’s the wrong thing to do,” Rosenzwieg said Friday. “But the same instructions saves lives every day.”

Rosenzwieg said some dispatchers were so traumatized by their encounters with the trade center victims they never came back to the job. Others retired early. “Unfortunately, they took it very much to heart,” he said.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the police 911 operators “displayed professionalism and compassion under the most trying of circumstances, often staying on the line with anguished callers until the very end.”

At 9:47 a.m., one police operator did exactly that, telling another unidentified caller, “Yes, I’m here, I’m not going to go nowhere … You know there are people there trying to get you all out right now, all right? You’re not by yourself.”

The dispatcher then took a telephone number of the caller’s family and promised to reach them. Then the call went dead: “And who is this? Hello?”

The first transcripts released as part of The New York Times lawsuit came last August, when thousands of pages of oral histories of firefighters and emergency workers, as well as radio transmissions, were released. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center and has its own police force, released all of its emergency recordings in 2003.

The Sept. 11 commission concluded in 2004 that the operators did not have enough information to allow more people to escape. Some took time to even know the towers had fallen.

“Are they still standing?” one dispatcher asked at 10:15 a.m., 16 minutes after the south tower collapsed. “The World Trade Center is there, right?”

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