Sept. 11 calls shed light on New York City 911 failings
April 3, 2006 —
After a series of appeals by both The New York Times and New York City, the recordings of 130 calls made to 911 operators by those inside the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 were given to the Times on Wednesday. After reviewing the tapes, the Times ran the story on Friday.
First, some back story. On Jan. 25, 2002, the Times filed a Freedom of Information request to acquire any and all public records regarding the Sept. 11 attacks that had happened some four and a half months earlier, including the 911 calls. The request was at first almost entirely denied by aides to the newly appointed mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg. According to the Times, the aides claimed the records were either needed to prosecute Zacarias Moussaoui for complicity in the attacks, included opinions that were not subject to public view, or were too personal. The Times sued, and in an early 2003 decision, won. However, Justice Richard F. Braun of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said that while a vast majority of the records were public, the city could remove the caller's voices from the calls to protect their privacy.
Running the story in the first place was questionable, but it certainly revealed some information that was both disturbing and insightful.
Obviously, the point of requesting the phone calls was to examine how New York's chain of emergency communications handled the calamity. The story reinforces what the 9/11 Commission initially cited in 2003: the failed link along the chain, especially between the 911 operators and the city's fire and police departments. The 911 system was one that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to overhaul and Bloomberg has since made plans to improve by spending close to $1 billion. The point here is that the ineffectiveness of the system is already well known; running a story four and a half years after the attacks is not going to make too much of a difference now.
Additionally, simply because most of the names of the callers are not identified does not mean that the families of those who perished in the attacks should be content with the Times running such a story. Granted, a blockbuster movie, aptly titled World Trade Center, is already in post-production and is expected to be released this year. This, however, does not mean the Times or whichever news outlet or movie studio should keep rehashing the issue. One of the many jobs of the press is to be the government watchdog and, in a sense, that is what the Times is doing here. But the relevance of and necessity for the story remains debatable.
With that said, the story does have two undeniably important aspects to it: the outlining of how the 911 system failed and the unveiling of the distress and trauma some of the victims were experiencing before the buildings collapsed.
One would think that a city as large and vitally important as New York City would have an effective and stable 911 system. Yet, the Sept. 11 attacks proved that this was not the case. Both fire and police commanders on the scene gave orders about 10 minutes after the first tower was hit that anyone who could find a way to evacuate should do so immediately. The 130 callers, many of whom had many other coworkers with them, were instead told by 911 operators to wait, which is the standard advice in high-rise fires. In a sense, the operators did nothing wrong. According to the Times, the city had no procedure for those commanders to share fresh information with the 911 system. It is difficult to describe the lack of such a procedure and the subsequent lack of communication as deplorable, but that is indeed what it is. As one of the few centers for global trade - the building was named the World Trade Center - it would certainly make sense for the city, state, and, most importantly, the federal government to ensure that the city's 911 system was as close to perfect as it could be.
Perhaps most insightful within the article, though, was the several in-depth accounts of specific calls. Even though the callers' voices are left out of the calls completely - not by the Times, but by the city - it is clear by the 911 operators' responses what the callers are saying and describing. One caller in particular is inside the south tower and is on the line with an operator up until the tower collapses. The intense trauma the victims are experiencing - many had difficulties breathing - make it easily understandable why they would want to evacuate.
To make it clear, we are certainly not blaming the deaths of some of the victims on the 911 operators. Those operators were simply telling the callers what they were trained to tell them. The fault lies with the city's 911 system and the local, state, and federal government's inability to put an effective system into place. The Times' article helped shed light on some aspects of the attacks that had not yet been detailed. At least we learned of it this way as opposed to on the big screen.