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Facts Divide 9/11 Memories

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani raises his hand as he is sworn in to testify before the Sept. 11 commission during hearings in New York, Wednesday May 19, 2004. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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CBSNews.com's Jarrett Murphy reports from the 9/11 hearings in New York.

United in grief over Sept. 11, victims' relatives and New York City officials were divided Wednesday over whether problems in the emergency response to the attacks might have been avoided.

"There was not a problem of coordination on Sept. 11, 2001," former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told the commission probing the attacks.

His successor, Michael Bloomberg, said, "The armchair quarterbacks forget that New York City police and firefighters work together hundreds of times a day.

"Using hindsight, self-styled experts will always be able to say we should have done things differently," Bloomberg said. "On 9/11 it is amazing how well everyone performed."

But a preliminary report issued Wednesday by the commission's staff found there was some cooperation among emergency agencies at high levels, but also a "lack of communication and coordination among responding agencies."

And while the commission did not challenge Giuliani — chairman Thomas Kean even asked Giuliani if he was worried about cities with mayors who aren't as great as he — some in the audience felt he deserved tougher questions.

Furious about radio problems that may have cost firefighters' lives on Sept. 11, some yelled: "Talk about the radios, talk about the radios."

Giuliani said the outburst was "very understandable." One heckler pleaded, "Put just one of us on that panel, please." Another audience member said she had lost her brother, and thought the mayor did a great job.

The former mayor said Sept. 11, like all disasters, involved "acts of great heroism; many, many creative things that were done and terrible mistakes that were made.

"We have to channel our anger to doing all we can to prevent and ameliorate any further attack," Giuliani told the commission during its second day of hearings on the reaction to the attacks in New York. "Our enemy is not each other, but the terror who attacked us, murdered our loved ones and continue to offer a threat to our security, safety and survival."

Giuliani said there was "a superb command structure" that morning, and that the rescue was largely a success. He had initially heard that 12,000 to 15,000 had been killed — a calculation made by the Port Authority and other agencies based "on the number of people who conceivably could have gotten out."

The final death count was less than 3,000.

"The reason that you have that difference … is the way in which a combination of the rescue workers and the civilians themselves" coordinated the rescue, although he acknowledged it was "not flawless."

One of the flaws seen by the commission's staff, in its preliminary report, was that the city's emergency management center, which Giuliani had ordered located at the World Trade Center, had to be evacuated. It "would have served as a focal point for information-sharing."

Other panelists insisted there was a problem of coordination. Duncan Smith, author of the book Report From Ground Zero, noted that 15 firefighters died for every police officers killed, and that 23 fire officers perished to zero higher ranking police officers.

"Why is there such a vast disparity in the loss of life of the first responders? Something went wrong," Smith said. "The crisis at the World Trade Center was worsened by the uncooperative connection that exists between the fire and police departments"

Specifically, Smith said, if fire officers had heard how emphatically police commanders ordered their men to evacuate, they might have issued more urgent commands to their own men.

The commission's preliminary report agreed, finding "command systems designed to work independently, not together." Too many firefighters rushed to the scene and were not managed properly.

That criticism has extended to the current emergency coordination system, which Bloomberg recently approved. It apparently fails to identify a lead agency in every type of crisis. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he'd like to see changes.

"We want one operations center … and at that operation center we want one person in charge," Ridge said.

As did other witnesses during the hearings in New York, barely a mile from the World Trade Center site, Giuliani described his actions on the morning of the attacks.

After racing to the scene, and while walking around the World Trade Center site, the mayor said he heard people yelling to "'keep looking up, keep looking up' because things were falling down around us."

"I saw a man – it wasn't debris, it was a man – hurling himself out of the 104th floor," he said. "I said to the police commissioner, 'We're in uncharted territory.'"

In the audience was Frank Crifasi, who was also at Ground Zero on Sept. 11. He recalled evacuating the post office where he worked across the street from the twin towers.

But his sister Lucy worked on the 94th floor of the North Tower – above where the plane hit. "She didn't have a chance," Crifasi said.

A day earlier, some commissioners pressed current and former New York City emergency officials for why they do not have a procedure for rescuing people – like Lucy Crifasi – trapped above flames in high-rise buildings. Crifasi thought the questions went nowhere.

"There's nothing much they can do about that," Crifasi said.

Rosealeen Tallon, whose brother Sean was a 26-year-old probationary firefighter who died on Sept. 11, held a sign outside assailing former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen for failing to improve fire department radios during his tenure.

"It's not just the rescuers' lives that were put in jeopardy because of faulty equipment and poor control, it's civilians' lives, too," Tallon said.

In his testimony, Giuliani said radio problems were largely due to the lack of available technology to solve them. Radios that overcome the problems encountered on Sept. 11, he said, do not exist.

Tallon said she was not optimistic that the commission's report would be worthwhile unless issues like the radio purchases are explored.

Asked if he thought the commission's work was fruitful, Crifasi said, "It remains to be seen if the things these people (the commissioners) recommend, if they follow up on that."

By Jarrett Murphy