Rivalry hampered Sept 11 rescue effort

1.00pm - By ELLEN WULFHORST

NEW YORK - Rivalry between New York's police and fire departments and conflicting advice from emergency teams on September 11, 2001, hampered efforts to save lives as the Twin Towers collapsed in a heap of smoke, the commission investigating the attacks said on Tuesday.

The panel, meeting less than 3km from the former site of the World Trade Centre, said the "long-standing rivalry" between the two departments meant they considered themselves "operationally autonomous" and failed to work together in the largest rescue operation in New York's history.

"This rivalry has been acknowledged by every witness we have asked about it," a commission staff report read out at the public hearing said.

The report also said emergency operators answering distress calls from the burning towers gave conflicting advice or were unable to provide even the most basic information, such as the floors affected by the attacks.

While some evacuees were told to return to their offices, others were told to leave the building.

Faced with choking black smoke, insufferable heat and no prospect of relief, some of those trapped in the towers jumped from the building, the staff report said.

To help analyse what went wrong on Sept. 11, the independent commission presented dramatic footage of the day nearly 3000 people, including around 343 firefighters and 23 police officers, died in the suicide airplane attacks on New York and Washington.

The videos of the crashes also included statements from fire and police officials on duty that day.

Hundreds of victims' relatives were attending the hearings, some with pictures of their lost loved ones pinned to their shirts. Gasps filled the auditorium as the commission showed footage of the low-flying passenger planes smashing into the World Trade Centre and erupting into balls of fire.

"I feel a responsibility to know everything that impacted my brother. He died without anybody to give him the information. I need to give him that respect," said Wells Noonan, whose brother Robert Noonan, 36, worked on the 103rd floor of one tower and died in the attacks.

The commission report said rescue efforts were also hampered by communications equipment that was damaged in the attacks or was not "interoperable" between departments. This meant rescue teams had little idea what was going on other floors, in other buildings, or outside the towers.

For example, forces inside the towers did not know about the damage visible from police helicopters circling overhead.

The commission report said rescue officials did not anticipate the towers would collapse, and certainly not so quickly. The two towers imploded within roughly 1-3/4 hours of the first airplane impact.

"We didn't have a lot of information coming in. We didn't receive any reports from what was seen from the helicopters," said Joseph Pfeifer, a battalion chief for the New York Fire Department who was at the disaster site that day.

"It was impossible to know how much damage was done on the upper flowers, whether the stairwells were intact or not ... As a matter of fact, what you saw on TV, we did not have that information," he said of the video footage.

When the first tower collapsed in a tremendous roar, rescue officials in the remaining North Tower had no idea what had happened. Unaware of the extent of the disaster, rescue officials lacked a uniform sense of urgency to evacuate the remaining building, which collapsed about half an hour later.

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: September 11

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