The Response on the Ground

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The commission's investigation showed that Clark's frustration with 9-1-1 was a common problem on September 11.

Initially, the commission had trouble finding out what went on when people called 9-1-1. The 9-1-1 calls were taped, but the city refused to release the tapes, saying it was protecting callers' privacy. The commission had to subpoena the recordings.

When investigators heard the tapes, they found that on September 11, the 9-1-1 system was overwhelmed by the volume of calls. And 9-1-1 operators had no way of getting updated information from rescue workers on the scene.

According to the commission's final report, "The 9-1-1 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… In most instances, therefore, 9-1-1 operators and the FDNY dispatchers relied on standard operating procedure for high-rise fires - that civilians should stay low, remain where they are, and wait for emergency personnel to reach them."

Some operators did advise people to evacuate, but the operators didn't know that the doors to the roofs of both buildings were locked. They didn't know that helicopters couldn't get near the roofs, in any case, because of the heat of the fires. They didn't know people should try to go down, not up. And they didn't know which staircases were passable.

Police and firefighters had trouble getting information, too. Too many rescue workers were trying to use the same radio frequencies.

Joseph Pfeifer, Deputy Assistant Fire Chief, NYFD (right) and Peter Hayden, Assistant Chief, FDNY (left) . From government video of 9/11 commission hearings.
The commission's investigators interviewed Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer, who was in the lobby of Tower 1 on September 11. He was having trouble communicating with the firefighters upstairs. Radio signals had trouble penetrating the building's walls. Similar radio problems had come up in 1993, the first time the World Trade Center was attacked. So a radio repeater had been installed to allow commanders in the lobby to communicate with firefighters on upper floors. This system was working on September 11, but a chief in Tower 1 thought it was broken, so commanders in that tower weren't using it.

"We didn't have a lot of information coming in," Pfeifer said. "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."

When the first tower fell, Pfeifer and the other commanders in the other tower had no idea what had happened. They ordered rescue workers to evacuate the remaining tower, but some firefighters inside never heard the order. Those who did hear it didn't know the other tower had fallen, so they didn't know how much danger they were in. It appears that police communication functioned somewhat better. But not all police officers got out of the second tower. Pfeifer barely escaped.

"We heard a load roar," he said. "Someone yelled that the building was collapsing."

"And, we started to run. And with bunker gear, you can't run too far, especially when a building is a quarter mile high. ... This beautiful sunny day now turned completely black. We were unable to see the hand in front of our face. And there was an eerie sound of silence."

Nearly 2800 people died in the World Trade Center that day, including 343 firefighters and 60 police officers, but Pfeifer says people should remember that most of the people who were in the towers did escape. Rescue workers and civilians risked their lives to help other people make it to safety, and 25,000 people survived.

Continued: part 4

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