The men who headed New York City's response to Sept. 11 sharply disagreed on Tuesday with a federal commission's report that painted a picture of confusion over who was in charge on the day of the attacks.
As the Sept. 11 commission began two days of hearings in New York focusing on the emergency response, emotions ran high, fueled by vivid footage of the planes striking the World Trade Center towers and firefighters climbing the stairs to their deaths.
A preliminary report from the staff of the commission also stirred strong feeling.
It found widespread communication problems on Sept. 11: 911 operators who told some trade center workers to stay put rather than evacuate, emergency dispatchers who relayed inaccurate information to the scene and firefighters and police officers unable to talk to each other over their radios.
The commission staff reported that the communication problems were commanded by a lack of clear lines of authority, partly due to a "longstanding rivalry between the NYPD and FDNY."
But former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen took issue with the report's suggestion that the response was flawed.
"It wasn't a case study or a tabletop drill. It was real, it was fast-moving and it was horrifying," he said. "Nothing worked at all times. Everything worked sometimes.
Commissioner John Lehman said the command and control of New York's emergency services was "a scandal."
"It's a scandal that there's nobody that has clear line of authority," he continued, calling it a "clearly dysfunctional system."
Former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik replied that, "There is no lack of line authority in the New York City police department."
Kerik said while the Police Department had a commander on the scene of the World Trade Center, the Fire Department had overall control.
"There's nothing scandalous about the way NYC handles its emergencies," Von Essen said, his voice rising. "You make it sound like everything was wrong about Sept. 11 and the way we functioned, and I think it's outrageous that you make a statement like that."
Richard Sheirer, the former head of the city's office of emergency management said that on Sept. 11, "there was no more coordinated effort than there could have been."
However, Sheirer did say he disagreed with the decision to locate the city's emergency operation center in the World Trade Center – one of the city's largest landmarks and the only previous target of a terrorist attack.
"This is a vital, vital facility, it should be in a hardened, secure facility," Sheirer.
The local emergency response had its roots in the 1993 bombing, which exposed major flaws in emergency response plans for the twin towers. After those attacks, radio repeaters were installed in the twin towers to improve communication for rescue workers. Batteries were installed in emergency lights. Fire drills were held for civilians.
"People who evacuated both in 1993 and 2001 say they were better prepared in 2001," the commission staff reported.
However, despite the effort to train civilians, neither full nor even partial evacuation drills were held. Crucially, civilians were never told not to go to the roof in case of a fire. Roof doors were locked, and the Port Authority – which ran the World Trade Center – had no plan for a roof evacuation, because high winds made it almost impossible.
On the day of the attacks, while some workers headed to the roof in vain, others were told to stay put. Workers in North Tower, the first one hit, received that instruction from 911 operators. It was standard procedure after the 1993 bombing, when the mass evacuation hampered emergency efforts.
After the North Tower was hit, workers in the South Tower were instructed not to evacuate. Some who started to evacuate on their own were told to go back to their offices.
Asked about the bad advice 911 operators gave, Kerik said the 911 supervisor was supposed to monitor police special operations frequencies, but may not have heard fire department transmissions.
There was particular confusion over warnings to rescuers that the towers might collapse.
For example, one worker called 911 to report that, "90-something floor was collapsing." But the 911 operator misreported that warning to the police, and the NYPD dispatcher also erred in reporting it to police at the scene. The message police eventually received was "106th floor is crumbling."
After the South Tower collapsed, firefighters in the North Tower were told to evacuate, but many did not hear the order because the radio channel they were using was overwhelmed, because they were on a different channel, or because they were off-duty rescuers who had responded without their radios.
Others ignored the order to assist handicapped and injured workers to leave.
"Many perished," the report said.
Other firefighters heard the order to evacuate, but were not aware of the degree of danger.
"Firefighters who received these orders lacked a uniform sense of urgency in evacuation," perhaps because the evacuation order did not mention that the South Tower had collapsed.
Some have questioned whether the communication problems were due to shoddy equipment. Kerik acknowledged that "there were major communications problems," but he said not even the best radios would have been completely dependable given the smoke and debris, and the sheer volume of messages.
Von Essen, near tears, said ultimately, he could not know whether his men heard the call to evacuate. All he knows, he said, is that "Firefighters do not run away."
"They do not leave if they think they can stay," said Von Essen. "They do not leave their brothers."
By Jarrett Murphy