More than 32 months later, and in the sterile setting and taut language of a formal hearing, the chaos and loss of Sept. 11, 2001 came through Tuesday as the federal panel probing the attacks returned to the city where they hit hardest.
With the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States beginning two days of hearings in New York on the emergency response to the 2001 tragedy, victims families lined up early wearing oversized pins bearing pictures of their lost loved ones. One held a sign reading, "Never forget."
Commission chairman Thomas Kean warned the audience that the hearing would be "a terrible day as we relive the loss and the terrible devastation."
"We've spoken with hundreds of people about the most painful moments of their lives," commission staff director Philip Zelikow said, reading a report based on those recollections and "the records of those who can no longer help us."
Zelikow warned that the day's testimony "may be painful for you to see and hear."
Indeed, as a lengthy report by Zelikow's staff was read, the audience watched footage of the planes hitting the towers, of firemen climbing the stairs to their deaths and the buildings collapsing.
In one video clip, Fire Capt. Joseph Pfeifer told about seeing his brother – a firefighter who died in the tower – for the last time.
The commission reported that after the planes struck, hundreds of civilians were killed instantly. Hundreds more remained alive but were trapped. They gathered in small groups and sought areas of refuge from thickening smoke.
"Faced with insufferable smoke or fire, and with no prospect for relief, some jumped," the staff report read.
The report and testimony painted a picture of confusion: public address systems and intercoms failing, conflicting information for Trade Center workers who called 911, some workers heading in vain to the roof in hopes of rescue, others told not to evacuate at all, and firefighters and cops unable to talk to each other because they used different radio channels or flooded the same one. The head of the World Trade Department for the Port Authority, Alan Reiss, said elevators may have stopped working because safety devices activated when the planes hit and shifted the building as much as ten feet in places.
Joseph Morris, a Port Authority Police commander who responded to the disaster, said that as he was racing toward the towers, he recalled the words of James Nachstein, a Port Authority Police commander, during the 1993 bombing: "We were involved in a tidal wave and it was our job not to drown and to bring order to chaos."
But while the commission staff highlighted widespread communication problems on Sept. 11, Reiss said the evacuation went better than he expected – precisely because workers inside the World Trade Center were unaware of the scope of the tragedy in which they were players.
"If they knew what was going on they would perhaps have panicked," he said. "I really expected that people would be trampled to death."
By Jarrett Murphy