Commission report cites rescue communication flaws

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

NEW YORK -- The former World Trade Center director told the Sept. 11 commission Tuesday that he was unaware of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden until the summer before the attacks and was not briefed by the FBI on key terrorism intelligence.

Alan Reiss' comments came during an exchange with commission member Bob Kerrey at the start of an emotional two-day hearing about the response to the attacks. The hearings are being held in lower Manhattan about 1 1/2 miles from ground zero.

Kerrey asked Reiss when he became aware of bin Laden and his potential threat. Reiss said that didn't happen until the summer of 2001, and he later added that he was never told by the FBI that Islamic militants might hijack a U.S. jetliner.

Reiss said he was more focused on fending off possible bioterrorism attacks such as anthrax, spending more than $100,000 to protect the building from such an assault.

Not placing blame"We felt anthrax was the next coming wave," he said. "We had developed plans on how to isolate the air conditioning system and shut it down but never did we have a thought of what happened on 9-11."

Reiss said he did not blame the FBI for a failure to share terrorism intelligence, but rather felt anger at the 19 hijackers. Kerrey replied that there remained a "presumption that we may not be delivering the key information" to officials outside the FBI.

To the applause of family members, the former Nebraska senator said the 19 hijackers "defeated the INS, they defeated the Customs Department, they defeated the FBI, they defeated the CIA."

Stark warningEarlier, a new report prepared by the commission and read at the hearing recounted how Sept. 11, 2001, rescuers were forced to make rapid-fire, life-and-death decisions based on incomplete communications, contributing to the death toll. More than 2,700 people were killed in the attack.

The hearing began with a stark warning from the commission's staff: "The details we will be presenting may be painful for you to see and hear."

Scores of family members were in the audience as the commission showed footage of both hijacked planes slamming into the 110-story towers, along with videotaped testimony from survivors. As the footage showed the towers' collapse, family members held hands and locked arms as they waited for the inevitable, many of them wiping tears from their eyes.

"For me, it was reliving what my mother heard, what she saw, what her last moments were," said Terry McGovern, whose mother died in the south tower.

Committee member Sam Casperson, in a minute-by-minute recounting of the second plane's crash into the World Trade Center, detailed how Port Authority workers were advised to wait for assistance on the 64th floor -- and many of them died when the tower collapsed.

Communications breakdowns also prevented announcements to evacuate from reaching civilians in the building, Casperson said. One survivor of the attacks recounted calling 911 from the 44th floor of the south tower, only to be placed on hold twice.

Emergency 911 operators had a "lack of awareness" about what was happening at the twin towers, and were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls, Casperson said.

Revisiting the jarring sights and sounds of the attack and its aftermath was a vivid departure from previous commission hearings. Some of the footage showed the confusing, rushed recovery efforts; family members shook their heads and sighed loudly at points during the recitation of those problems.

Survivor Stanley Pranmath recounted sitting in his 81st-floor office as the second plane veered toward his building, so close that he could clearly make out the letter "U" on the tail of the United Airlines plane.

"I dropped the phone, screamed and jumped under my desk," he said, adding that rubble from the crash landed within 20 feet of his impromptu hiding place.

One critical issue -- early public address announcements in Tower 2 telling workers to remain at their offices -- was recounted verbatim by a survivor.

Brian Clark, president of Euro Brokers Relief Fund, recalled this announcement: "Building 2 is secure. There is no need to evacuate Building 2. If you are in the midst of evacuation, you may use the re-entry doors and the elevators to return to your office."

The 26-page staff report offers no concrete explanation for the instruction, although it suggests two possible reasons: a concern for workers being injured by falling debris from the other tower, and the knowledge that in the 1993 bombing, many of the injuries were sustained in the crowded evacuation of the building.

Other communications gaps included a lack of coordination between the police and fire departments, a crush of radio traffic that sometimes blotted out information, and an inability to share information effectively between on-scene officials and 911 phone operators.

In the years since the attacks, a rising chorus of New Yorkers has demanded a probe into the city's emergency response. Yet, while the report found fault in a few instances, it largely sympathizes with officials and rescue personnel forced to improvise in the face of an unprecedented catastrophe.

Last month, commissioners heard from President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Bill Clinton and ex-Vice President Al Gore, as well as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and current Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge were to testify today.

Associated Press Writers Devlin Barrett and Sara Kugler contributed to this report.

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