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CNN Live Event/Special

Better Communications Might Have Helped FDNY

Aired September 11, 2002 - 12:53   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: It is a little uncomfortable, I suppose, to talk about what went wrong in the response at the World Trade Center. At least, it feels a little awkward but it is also important business to do, because the truth is, many thousands more could have died than did.
We all know that, and we have all come to accept that, but there is no getting over one awful statistic, that 343 firemen died that day.

Their efforts were hampered in part by organizational and communications break down. It has been the subject of considerable investigation and considerable reporting as well.

Here is CNN's Deborah Feyerick.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When firefighters arrived at the north tower, commanders knew right away the fire was too big to fight. The plane had wiped out the tower's water pipes and sprinklers, also destroying loudspeakers and radio repeaters which amplify and rebroadcast messages.

CHIEF JOSEPH CALLAN, FDNY: Without the repeater system and without the hard wire system, we were going to rely completely on our handy-talky capability, and we knew that that was going to be a severe problem.

FEYERICK: Chief Joseph Callan was among those in charge of operations in the north tower. Forty-five minutes after the plane hit, with hundreds of people still trapped inside, Chief Callan ordered all firefighters to evacuate.

CALLAN: For me to make the decision to take our firefighters out of the building with civilians still in it, that was very tough for me, but I did that because I did not think the building was safe any longer, and that was just prior to 9:30.

FEYERICK: Yet, even with the evacuation order, almost a full hour before tower one fell, more than 100 firefighters didn't make it out. Callan blames it on hand-held radios not strong enough to reliably penetrate concrete and steel.

CALLAN; The reason they didn't come down is because they didn't get the message. The only other acceptable reason why they didn't come down immediately is because, in my mind, they were helping civilians get to the stairway and down the stairway. Other than that, I am very sure, that if they heard the command to evacuate, they would have evacuated.

FEYERICK: New York city's former fire commissioner, Tom Von Essen, says it's wrong to blame the radios.

THOMAS VON ESSEN, FORMER FDNY COMMISSIONER: It's so unfair to imply that it was the equipment. It was more the terrorism and the act of war and the confusion and the magnitude of the tragedy.

FEYERICK: Even so, Von Essen acknowledges there were problems.

VON ESSEN: You have buildings falling down and repeaters that are working or not working, recorders that are working or not working, people that are on repeater channels, and not on repeater channels. Of course you have problems with communications. If it happened today, again, you'd have the same problems with communications.

FEYERICK: It was virtually impossible to evacuate the south tower. Even though it was hit second, it fell first, without warning. But, a city report, based on eyewitness interviews, finds in the north tower, firefighters and officers on upper floors never heard the evacuation order.

Says the current fire commissioner:

NICHOLAS SCOPPETTA, FDNY COMMISSIONER: I don't think it is one got the warning and the other didn't. It's not useful to speculate on things that we don't know for sure would have happened, or would not have happened.

FEYERICK: And, even though police knew the north tower was leaning, fire chiefs didn't get that information because the two departments use different radio systems, and according to the city report, didn't share critical information.

New York City is now implementing plans for better fire radios and improved communication between the police and fire departments.

BERNARD KERIK, FORMER NYPD COMMISSIONER: We did the best we could, and I think the practice and preparation over the years resulted in the saving of 20 to 25,000 people. We lost 3,000, but had we not responded the way we did, I think the casualties would have been much, much higher.

FEYERICK: Chief Joseph Callan is still haunted by the guys who never made it out.

(on camera): Is that something that you think about a lot, about the guys who may not have heard, and just kept on going?

CALLAN: I think about it all the time. I do believe that if we had a better communications system, that we would have saved almost all of those firefighters, if they would have been able to hear that order.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.