September 11 panel to probe 'confusion' on tragic day

NEW YORK - New York City remains a top terror target but still lacks the funds to equip and train rescue officials more than 2 1/2 years after Sept. 11, the commission investigating the attacks will hear on Tuesday.

Meeting less than 3km from the former site of the World Trade Centre towers, the independent panel will also examine if police and fire officials have overcome the communication problems that bedeviled their rescue operation in 2001.

"There was so much confusion on that tragic, tragic day. What we really want to learn is, have those problems been fixed? Are things better now?" Commission Chairman Thomas Kean told NBC's "Today" show.

To analyse what went wrong on Sept. 11, 2001, the commission will hear from police and fire officials and review dramatic footage and audio tapes of the day when nearly 3,000 people, including around 343 firefighters and 23 police officers, died in the suicide airplane attacks on New York and Washington.

Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said the commission had also passed questions to al Qaeda detainees to learn more about the attacks, and said the answers had been funnelled back to the commission. He gave no further details.

Ahead of the two days of hearings, rescue officials said "first responders" in the police, fire and other departments still lacked the resources to thwart or respond to another catastrophic attack.

"The city of New York remains a high-risk target," said Frank Gribbon, a deputy commissioner at the New York fire department. "We clearly have needs that exceed the allocations we've received."

A senior city police official said the police department was spending at least $200 million a year on overtime alone as it seeks to provide round-the-clock protection against potential attackers.

"We want to tell the commission that our job is to make certain another attack on New York is not inevitable, that we're in a position to thwart it and that we need federal operational support to do it, and by that I mean money," the official said.

COORDINATION PROBLEMS

Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton told the "Today" show that coordination and communication problems among the police, fire and other departments would be addressed.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the city still was struggling to coordinate the disaster-response plans of its long-feuding police officers and firefighters, and posed the question in a headline: "Why wasn't the city prepared?"

Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said on CNN answering that question would be central.

Memories of the attacks are still fresh in the United States and especially in New York, where a huge construction site now marks the spot where two of the world's tallest buildings crashed into smouldering heaps of metal and glass.

In addition to current and former heads of the New York police, fire and emergency management departments, the commission of five Republicans and five Democrats will hear testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has grilled a range of officials, including President Bush, to find out why the United States failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and what steps are needed to provide better security now.

The commission is working to complete its final report by July 26.

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: September 11

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