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July 10, 2002

Sept. 11 Tape Could Hold Some Clues to Firefighters' Deaths



Ten months after the Sept. 11 attacks that left 343 firefighters dead, and five months after fire officials undertook a study of just what happened, the Fire Department has yet to review a potentially critical trove of information: a tape of radio transmissions among firefighters at the World Trade Center that morning.

Officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said they found the tape at ground zero last January or February and offered it to the Fire Department. For a variety of reasons, however, the two agencies have never agreed to terms on sharing the tape, and so fire officials have to this day never listened to perhaps the only lasting record of conversations between the commanders and firefighters who were lost in the twin collapses.

The tape, in the end, may provide answers to some of the lingering questions about what happened to fire companies that perished after ascending into the towers how high they got, what problems they encountered, and the degree to which firefighters heard an evacuation order that was given before either of the towers had collapsed.

Fire officials have said they believe that many firefighters did not hear that order because their radio system malfunctioned.

"If the Fire Department knew there was any kind of information through a tape and the information was vital to the recovery early on, I think they should have made every effort to listen to it," said Capt. Peter Gorman, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, referring to the possibility that the conversations on the tapes could have guided the effort to recover and identify remains at the site.

"The department," Captain Gorman said, "was dying for information and was actually interviewing firefighters for anything they knew about the location of any firefighters."

Fire and Port Authority officials said yesterday that they expected that the two agencies would be able to agree on terms that would allow fire officials to review the tape in the near future. Fire officials said they were not convinced that it would provide significant new information.

"The characterization of the tape as crucial evidence was never presented to us," said Francis X. Gribbon, a department spokesman. "We haven't heard it and we are unaware that there are any substantial communication transmissions between firefighters."

Port Authority officials have said the tape is about an hour long, and contains some transmissions between firefighters and commanders as they talked that day on hand-held, two-way radios. They have, however, not characterized the content or significance of the tape, which was recorded on Port Authority equipment that monitored the fire radio transmissions in the buildings.

"The Port Authority has made repeated offers to them to review the tapes," said Allen Morrison, an authority spokesman.

Many fire commanders and firefighters have said they had trouble communicating that day. The communication problems appear to have been a factor in the deaths of at least some of the 121 firefighters who died in the north tower, even though it fell 29 minutes after the south tower. Many of those who did not escape had not heard about the earlier collapse and did not hear evacuation orders, according to the accounts of firefighters and others who survived.

Fire officials have said they believe some problems arose because a device, known as a repeater and designed to boost the radio signal in a high-rise building, malfunctioned. But Port Authority officials have cited the tape, which recorded transmissions that had been routed through the repeater, as evidence that the device had worked.

The repeater, which was at 5 World Trade Center, was later destroyed by debris when the south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m., Mr. Morrison said. The tape was found several months later in the remains of the building, said Greg Trevor, another Port Authority spokesman.

Port Authority officials at the time turned over a copy of the tape to federal prosecutors in Virginia who are handling the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of intending to be the 20th hijacker. They also offered to provide a copy of the tape to fire officials, Mr. Trevor said.

Fire officials, however, said the authority asked them to sign a confidentiality agreement before they would turn over the tape. They said the authority officials were concerned that without such agreement, fire officials might be forced to turn over a copy of the tape to news media outlets, and that that might violate a court order in Virginia that has set strict guidelines on the disclosure of evidence in the Moussaoui case.

When fire officials balked at signing such an order, they were unable to listen to the tape.

Mr. Gribbon said fire officials did not press further because they were not convinced it would provide insight into firefighter activities that day.

Mr. Morrison said his agency would still insist that fire officials agree to confidentiality restrictions.

Sally Regenhard, whose son, Christian, a firefighter, died in the attacks, said that the delay in listening to the tape was evidence that official inquiries into the events of Sept. 11 lacked depth and coordination.

"No one has told me where my son was," she said, "what floor he was on, why he was sent where he was sent. After 10 months we still have no information."

Port Authority officials say that fire officials have not sought to interview their managers who supervised the fire suppression and radio systems in the towers that day.

Fire officials have said that their inquiry will focus on identifying management and policy initiatives that would improve the department's response to the next disaster. It will not seek to outline what occurred at the trade center in exhaustive detail, Mr. Gribbon said.

Nonetheless, the tape may help to shed light on many questions that senior fire officials continue to ponder, like the location of specific companies when the towers fell.

Assistant United States Attorney David J. Novak, a federal prosecutor who is handling the case against Mr. Moussaoui, declined to comment on any decision by Port Authority officials to allow fire officials to listen to the tape. He also said he could not discuss whether the tape had been turned over to Mr. Moussaoui, who is representing himself in the case.

Frank W. Dunham Jr., the federal public defender who is serving as standby counsel to Mr. Moussaoui, said he was not sure if the tape had been included in the boxes of evidence that have been turned over to the defense. "This is the kind of stuff they have been giving us," he said. "I assume we have something like that."


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