Fire Department Tape Reveals No Awareness of Imminent DoomBy KEVIN FLYNN and JIM DWYER
he 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
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."
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
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.
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.
nowhere on the tape is there any indication that firefighters had the
slightest indication that the tower had become unstable or that it
"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."
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.