The New York Times The New York Times New York Region November 9, 2002  

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Fire Department Tape Reveals No Awareness of Imminent Doom

By KEVIN FLYNN and JIM DWYER

The voices, captured on a tape of Fire Department radio transmissions, betray no fear. The words are matter-of-fact.

Two hose lines are needed, Chief Orio Palmer says from an upper floor of the badly damaged south tower at the World Trade Center. Just two hose lines to attack two isolated pockets of fire. "We should be able to knock it down with two lines," he tells the firefighters of Ladder Company 15 who were following him up the stairs of the doomed tower.

Lt. Joseph G. Leavey is heard responding: "Orio, we're on 78, but we're in the B stairway. Trapped in here. We got to put some fire out to get to you."

Ladder 15 had finally found the fire after an arduous climb to the 78th floor, according to the tape. They were in the B stairwell. On the other side of the fire were hundreds of people, blocked from fleeing by smoke and flame on the stairs. Chief Palmer was facing similar fires in the A stairwell, across the floor.

"We're gonna knock down some fire here in the B Stair," Lieutenant Leavey is heard telling one of his firefighters. "We'll meet up with you. You get over to the A Stair and help out Chief Palmer."

The time was 9:56 a.m. The firefighters had just arrived at a place where, 54 minutes earlier, many people had been waiting for elevators when the second plane came crashing through the building. Now Chief Palmer and Ladder 15 were surrounded by the wounded whom they hoped to evacuate.

Like the cockpit voice recorder from a downed jetliner, this tape, discovered in an adjacent building several weeks after Sept. 11, is providing a glimpse into unseen corners of the tragedy and the resolute advance of firefighters as they encountered the largest catastrophe of their lives.

The 78-minute tape, which was found in a room at 5 World Trade Center where radio transmissions were monitored, is the only known audiotape of firefighters at the scene. In recent months, officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which maintained the recording system, have allowed fire officials and family members to listen to it. It was not publicly released, however, until this week. The release came after federal prosecutors, responding to a court motion by The New York Times, said that making it public would not interfere with the prosecution of terrorists.

Officials from the Port Authority and the Fire Department are still debating what the tape tells them about the breakdowns in radio communication that day. There are several long stretches of silence on the tape. Transmissions from only a few of the companies that operated in the south tower are recorded. A few additional snippets of conversation can be heard from firefighters in the north tower, where radios using the same frequency were also monitored.

But sections of the tape provide vivid images of the firefighters: the breathless voice of Chief Palmer, a marathon runner, after dashing up dozens of flights; the assurances from firefighters to him that they are coming on his heels; the effort to create a medical staging area for the wounded on the 40th floor.

At several points in the tape, fire commanders can be heard speaking with urgency. A commander alerts a colleague that he needs more companies to handle what he is facing in the south tower. The chiefs discuss the need to get more elevators into service, to carry firefighters up and to transport the injured back down.

But nowhere on the tape is there any indication that firefighters had the slightest indication that the tower had become unstable or that it could fall.

"Chief, I'm going to stop on 44," Stephen Belson, an aide to Chief Palmer, tells him at 9:25 as he ascends.

"Take your time," the chief responds.

A half-hour later, the tape reveals, firefighters from Ladder 15 had loaded 10 injured people into an elevator and begun a descent to the lobby. Down below, fire commanders were waiting, hoping to use that elevator, the only working one in the building, to ferry additional firefighters back up to the heavily damaged floors. But suddenly the elevator stopped, according to the tape.

"You're going to have to get a different elevator," a firefighter from Ladder 15 says over the radio. "We're chopping through the wall to get out."

A few seconds later, at 9:58 a.m., Chief Palmer tries to raise someone from the ladder company. "Battalion 7 to Ladder 15," he calls.

But the tape remains silent.






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