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City to Release Thousands of Oral Histories of 9/11 Today

Published: August 12, 2005

A rich vein of city records from Sept. 11, including more than 12,000 pages of oral histories rendered in the voices of 503 firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians, will be made public today.

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The Sept. 11 Records
Oral histories of rescue workers and audio of dispatch transmissions.
Audio Dispatches

The histories - a mosaic of vision and memory recalling the human struggle against surging fire, confusion, and horror - were compiled by the New York City Fire Department beginning in October 2001, but to this date, no one from the department has read them all or used them for any official purpose.

The city has announced that it will also release today a written log of calls to the 911 system, many from trapped office workers, as well as tapes of fire dispatchers. Other records, including tapes of 911 operators, are being assembled and are not yet ready for release, city officials said.

The New York Times sought the records under the freedom of information law in February 2002, but the Bloomberg administration refused to make them public and the newspaper sued the city. Earlier this year, the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, ordered the city to release most, but not all, of the records.

Over the last three and half years, The Times has obtained some of these records through unofficial channels, and they can be found on the Web at www.nytimes.com/sept11. These include the dispatch tapes, nearly 100 of the Fire Department oral histories, and a log of calls to Emergency Medical Service dispatchers that were channeled through the 911 system.

A group of families of people who died in the attack intervened in the suit brought by The Times, also urging release of the records. One of those family members, Rosaleen Tallon, noted that Zacarias Moussaoui, an admitted member of Al Qaeda who is accused of plotting with the Sept. 11 hijackers, long ago obtained the same documents in preparation for his criminal trial that were being denied to her and other families by the Bloomberg administration. The city also initially refused access to the records to investigators from both the 9/11 Commission and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, but relented when legal action was threatened.

In the Fire Department accounts, the testimony of many fire officers and firefighters was both moving and blunt. When the accounts obtained by The Times were made public, they opened a new dimension to the discussions about fire operations that day and pointedly raised questions about whether some of the department's deaths might have been avoided.

In the histories, the firefighters recalled losing touch with one another that morning and being unable to deliver or hear warnings about the imminent collapse of the towers. They described the physical toll of climbing 20 and 30 flights of stairs, laden with gear and outfits that weighed nearly 100 pounds. They included descriptions of a loss of command of the firefighters going up the stairs, the lack of communication between the police and fire departments, and the small measures by which people survived or died.

The accounts include such serendipities as an aide to a chief, who stood by his side in the lobby of the south tower at the Trade Center site, then left for the adjoining hotel to use a bathroom. Shortly after he left, the south tower collapsed, killing everyone inside.

For all their power, the oral histories are individual narratives, the accounts of men and women who saw the day, at times yards from death. They were originally gathered on the order of Thomas Von Essen, the city fire commissioner on Sept. 11, who said he wanted to preserve those accounts before they became reshaped by a collective memory. He was succeeded as commissioner in January 2002 by Nicholas Scoppetta. Some of the oral histories were reviewed, but not all, a spokesman for Mr. Scoppetta said last night. Mr. Scoppetta declined to be interviewed.

Sally Regenhard, the mother of Christian Regenhard, a firefighter killed that day with his engine company, had been one of those who joined the suit for the release of the records, in hope that the oral histories might provide some clue on where her son had been.

"It has been almost four years, and I've been waiting for any information on my son," Mrs. Regenhard said. "He disappeared that day with his entire engine company. No one can tell me what happened to him - not even the smallest detail."

Early in his administration, Mr. Scoppetta refused to release the oral histories because he said he had been advised by federal prosecutors that their publication might impede the prosecution of Mr. Moussaoui. The department also advanced the position in court that the firefighters who had provided the oral histories did so with specific promises of confidentiality.

The department withdrew that claim. Mr. Scoppetta later found little support from federal prosecutors, judges, or defense lawyers for the position that Mr. Moussaoui's right to a fair trial would be hampered by publishing the recollections of firefighters or paramedics.

The city found more success in another line of argument: that release of certain records would violate the privacy of the dead, or cause emotional distress to the living. The Court of Appeals allowed the oral histories to be edited under a limited set of circumstances. It also refused to order the city to release all of the 911 tapes, saying that the callers' voices should not be made public. The other half of the conversations, involving the operators who spoke with the callers, will eventually be made public.

"We're gratified that it's finally being done," said David E. McCraw, a lawyer for The Times. "We believe it should have been done a long time ago. We believe the public is ultimately the beneficiary. We hope the city will move quickly to release the 911 tapes."

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