View Full Version : Pages Record Painful Reality

08-30-03, 06:00 AM
New Yorkers Find 9/11 Transcripts Difficult To Escape

August 30, 2003
By JANICE D'ARCY, Courant Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- To read the World Trade Center transcripts is to be transported back and dropped in the thick of panic.

It is to accompany New York Port Authority dispatchers as they juggle calls and snap out under-informed decisions while the country's worst domestic terrorist attack is unfolding in real, harsh time. It is not a pleasant experience.

"I had to stop," Port Authority Police Officer Julio Jorge said Friday. "It was giving me flashbacks."

Even with the benefit of perspective and healing time, Thursday's release of the l dialogue recounted in 1,800 pages of transcripts from Port Authority emergency dispatchers is stirring up new anger, anguish and bad memories - just before the second anniversary of the attacks.

"Just hit the building! Another plane hit! Another plane hit the building!"

"I've got like 18 passengers stuck on the 78th Sky Lobby elevator. They're trying to get them out. We need EMS over here!"

"Get out of there. Get on the concourse. Get out of there."

Few members of the public have read the entire transcript, but many have read excerpts. Their effect has been difficult to escape, especially in New York City. Here, the newsstands were in a time warp Friday, papered with photos of the burning twin towers sprawled across tabloids. The ranks of tourists swelled around the construction site that was ground zero.

The most-often-quoted excerpts are also the most wrenching. There are the repeated calls from a Windows on the World restaurant manager looking for advice about where to direct her colleagues and breakfast guests.

Her calls begin calmly. They become more frequent and more desperate as death nears.

There is the exchange in which a Port Authority worker calls for guidance and receives mistaken directions to stay put.

It is hard to read that exchange and not hope Hollywood will cut in and change the end of the script.

"Why did they listen, why did they act like soldiers and take orders? Why didn't they just get out?" demanded a memorabilia salesman who still sells only "9-11 Gone but not forgotten" T-shirts to the steady stream of tourists who pass his stall on their way to ground zero.

The salesman, who identified himself only as "Jose," said the transcript excerpts he read in the morning's Daily News made him furious all over again.

"When I talk about it, people tell me I have to go to anger management," he said.

Even more powerful than the most visceral exchanges, though, are the simple, quick calls that, together, add up to a historic dialogue.

The recordings come from nearly 100 Port Authority and civilian radio channels and telephone lines from four points around the city. They follow the same general pattern.

Dispatchers first realize a plane has hit the north tower. There are bewildered calls for information. The second plane hits the south tower. There is a sudden realization that this is no accident.

There are calls to `"Jimmy" and "Kenny" and "Vinnie" to drop what they are doing and head into work. There are quick calls home to check in with family. There is one call in which a frantic dispatcher slows down to explain to his son that very sick people did a very bad thing.

With each passing second, the call volume, the raw language, the intensity, ratchets up. The rumors fly. The Woolworth building is under fire. Another plane is missing.

At some point, the dispatchers begin to understand their role is larger than it seems. They begin to empathize with callers and answer gently.

The dialogue is both human - fearful, rushed, confused - and humane.

Port Authority executives did not want to release the transcripts when The New York Times requested them last year. They argued that privacy rights should trump the public's right to know.

Last week a New Jersey judge ruled against the Port Authority and demanded the transcripts be released.

The Port Authority did so grudgingly, charging $500 each for copies and prohibiting their officers from speaking to the press. The agency lost 84 workers in the attacks and the transcripts contain many of their last words.

The raw feelings extend beyond police ranks.

This city has worked hard to recover, and downtown is not the same bleak neighborhood it was immediately after the attacks. The brisk bustle has returned, and most T-shirt salesman have pushed aside 9/11 slogans for the latest event, "I survived The Blackout of 2003."

But the transcripts aggravated a deep wound.

Thomas Donofrio didn't want the transcripts made public any more than Port Authority officials did. On Friday, he took his lunch break in a dusty ditch just outside the fence of ground zero where he works as a plumber.

He said the other guys eat inside the fence, but he avoids the area where he works as much as possible. He doesn't look at the memorial wall nearby, filled now with torn and fraying photos, and he turns his head when he passes images of the towers in storefronts.

He sees the Port Authority dialogue as another distraction to ignore. "I don't want to be reminded of the dead bodies I'm walking over every day," he said, kicking dust off his worn boots.

Karen Guice, a tourist from Alabama who made a pilgrimage to the site on her first trip to New York, was ambivalent Friday. She listened to the transcripts read on the television news, but she wasn't sure she should have.

"It brings back so much panic and pain. You could feel the turmoil these people were going through and I don't know if to hear that is good or bad," she said.

In the end, the transcripts do not substantially alter the already weighty public record. They offer themselves as a real-time view of the event, adding another piece to the portrait of disaster that includes the emergency calls to police and fire, the missing posters, the official reports and all the other tangible memories from two years ago.

"That day, I couldn't cry, you know, because I am an officer and if someone comes up to you crying, you have to be strong.

"Now, I read this and I remember what I really felt like," said Jorge, the Port Authority officer. "I hate it. I don't want to remember."