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August 4, 2002

Lost Voices of Firefighters, Some on the 78th Floor



A lost tape of lost voices, ignored until recently by investigators studying the emergency response on Sept. 11, shows that firefighters climbed far higher into the south tower than practically anyone had realized. At least two men reached the crash zone on the 78th floor, where they went to the aid of grievously injured people trapped in a sprawl of destruction.

Until the building's final minutes, one of the two firefighters, Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer, was organizing the evacuation of people hurt by the plane's impact. He was accompanied by Fire Marshal Ronald P. Bucca. Both men died.

Only now, nearly a year after the attacks, are the efforts of Chief Palmer, Mr. Bucca and others becoming public. City fire officials simply delayed listening to a 78-minute tape that is the only known recording of firefighters inside the towers. The Fire Department has forbidden anyone to discuss the contents publicly on the ground that the tape might be evidence in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the man accused of plotting with the hijackers.

According to four people who have heard it, the tape provides new, sharp and unforgettable images of the last minutes inside the trade center complex.

For months, senior officials believed that firefighters had gone no higher than about the 50th floor in each tower, well below most damage. The transmissions from Chief Palmer and others reveal a startling achievement: firefighters in the south tower actually reached a floor struck by the second hijacked airplane. Once they got there, they had a coherent plan for putting out the fires they could see and helping victims who survived.

About 14 or 15 minutes before the south tower collapsed, a group of people who had survived the plane's impact began their descent from the 78th floor. As they departed, Chief Palmer sent word to Chief Edward Geraghty that a group of 10 people, with a number of injuries, were heading to an elevator on the 41st floor. That elevator was the only one working after the plane hit. On its last trip down, however, the car became stuck in the shaft. Inside the elevator was a firefighter from Ladder 15, who reported that he was trying to break open the walls. It is not clear whether the group of 10 had reached that elevator before it left the 41st floor but those who listened to the tape said it was most unlikely that they had enough time to escape, by the elevator or by stairs.

Only a minute or two of the tape covers transmissions from the north tower; the rest are from the south tower. Senior officials said this suggested that the communications problems that plagued the Fire Department's response to the attack were caused not simply by equipment failures, but possibly also by misunderstandings over how certain radio gear was working.

On the tapes, the commander of operations in the south tower, Donald Burns, is heard repeatedly calling for additional companies, but many firefighters headed for that building became caught in traffic or became confused about which tower they should report to. As events developed, the inability to get more firefighters into the south tower may have spared some lives, officials said.

The tape was recovered months ago by staff members from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, although authority officials could not be precise about the time. In January or February, the Port Authority offered a copy of the tape to Fire Department officials, but they declined the offer.

The fire officials said they were not told at the time that the tape contained important information and did not want to sign a confidentiality agreement demanded by the Port Authority.

In early July, after The New York Times reported the existence of the tape and the fact that consultants studying the department's response to the attack had not listened to it, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the fire investigators would immediately review it. A draft of the consultants' report does not take account of the tape's contents.

The department has identified the voices of at least 16 firefighters on the tape, and on Friday, their families were invited to listen to it in a ballroom at the Southgate Tower Suite Hotel near Pennsylvania Station. First, they were required to sign a statement prepared by city lawyers saying they would not disclose the last words of their husbands, brothers and sons.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told the families that he had not known the tape existed until very recently. Later, he declined to discuss its contents, but said it had a powerful effect on him. "Every time I've seen videotapes, listened to audio recordings or read the accounts of firefighters and their actions on Sept. 11, I've felt the same thing: an extraordinary sense of awe at their incredible professionalism and bravery."

As the tape played over the hotel sound system, a transcript was displayed on a video screen.

Chief Palmer's widow, Debbie Palmer, said she attended the session with trepidation, but as Commissioner Scoppetta did, she used the word "awe" to describe her feelings afterward. She had known little about her husband's movements on Sept. 11. Mrs. Palmer stressed that she would not break her promise to keep the tape confidential but said it had given her some peace about her husband's last moments.

"I didn't hear fear, I didn't hear panic," she said. "When the tape is made public to the world, people will hear that they all went about their jobs without fear, and selflessly."

Chief Palmer, 45, worked as a firefighter and officer in every borough of the city except Staten Island, said Capt. Robert Norcross, a close friend. He was a student of communication technology, publishing a study of radio equipment in the Fire Department's internal newsletter. "Every time he went to work, Orio had a project," Captain Norcross said. "He was a very brilliant man. And he also was in excellent shape a marathoner. When the department started giving out a fitness medal, he was the first to win it three or four times."

Chief Palmer began his assignment in the north tower after the first plane struck, helping to organize the operations there. Soon after the second plane hit the south tower at 9:02 a.m., Chief Palmer moved into that building with Chief Burns.

Although most elevators were knocked out of service, Chief Palmer found one that was working and took it to the 41st floor. At that point, he was halfway to the impact zone, which ran from the 78th to the 84th floors.

As he began climbing, he crossed paths with a handful of injured people who had been in the 78th floor Sky Lobby, where scores of office workers had been waiting for express elevators when the second plane hit. The tip of its left wing grazed the lobby, instantly killing most of a group variously estimated between 50 and 200 people. Only a dozen ultimately escaped from the building. Among them was Judy Wein.

"We saw the firefighters coming up, and they would ask us, what floor did you come from?" Ms. Wein recalled in an interview. "We told them, 78, and there's lots of people badly hurt up there. Then they would get on their walkie-talkies and report back in."

Ed Nicholls, whose arm was nearly severed by the blast across the 78th floor, recalled in an interview that he saw a firefighter somewhere around the 50th floor who had advice on how to get out. "We encountered a fireman who told us to go to the 41st floor," he said.

While it is impossible to say if Chief Palmer was the firefighter whom Mr. Nicholls saw, the chief did send radio messages with the information that he collected from civilians trying to escape the building.

As Ling Young, another survivor of the 78th floor, made her way down, she passed two fire marshals, Mr. Bucca and James Devery. They had climbed the stairs from the lobby because they did not know about the elevator that ran to the 41st floor. "Ronnie was ahead of me, like a flight, at all times he was just in better shape," Mr. Devery said in an interview. "And then on the 51st floor there was a woman standing there on the stairwell landing and she had her arms out and her eyes were closed. And she was bleeding from the side." That was Mrs. Young, and she seemed ready to faint, he recalled, so he decided to escort her out.

"Then I yelled to Ronnie, I yelled up, because he was ahead of me I said, `Ronnie, I got to help her down, I'll be back,' " Mr. Devery said. "But he didn't answer me. He must have been two flights ahead of me."

Mr. Devery and Mrs. Young took the elevator on the 41st floor to the street. She spent weeks in the hospital recuperating.

When Chief Palmer reached the 75th floor, he reported meeting a fire marshal in the stairway, and officials said that was Mr. Bucca. The two men were well ahead of all the other firefighters in the building. Mr. Bucca, 47, was very fit, like Chief Palmer, and was active in the Army Reserve.

As they passed other survivors from the impact zone, Chief Palmer informed the fire officers on the lower floors about their injuries. Chief Geraghty, who had come to the 41st floor, called down to the ground for firefighters with medical training.

Chief Palmer also found an obstruction in the stairway and told the trailing fire companies how to get around it. He asked the chiefs below him to find an elevator that reached the 76th floor, those who heard the tape said.

Throughout, the voices of Chief Palmer, Chief Geraghty, and the other firefighters showed no panic, no sense that events were racing beyond their control.

When Chief Palmer radioed from the 78th floor, he sounded slightly out of breath, perhaps from exertion or perhaps from the sight of all the people who moments before had been waiting for an elevator and now were dead or close to it.

"Numerous 10-45's, Code Ones," Chief Palmer said, using the Fire Department's radio terms for dead people.

At that point, the building would be standing for just a few more minutes, as the fire was weakening the structure on the floors above him. Even so, Chief Palmer could see only two pockets of fire, and called for a pair of engine companies to fight them.

Among those lying in the lobby of the 78th floor was Richard Gabrielle, an Aon employee who had been waiting for the elevator. He was trapped under marble that was blown off the wall, witnesses said.

His widow, Monica Gabrielle, said that she has been tormented by nightmares about her husband's last moments, and that she was appalled that fire officials had waited so long to listen to the tape. She had wondered whether her husband had died alone. The efforts of Chief Palmer and Mr. Bucca in reaching the 78th floor eased that anxiety.

"The fact that Rich, still alive, was not alone at least he knew there was help, and thought that they were getting out," she said. She added that she thought all such records should be made public.

Mrs. Palmer said that as she sat in the audience on Friday listening to the tape, she realized that she knew how events would end, but that her husband and the other firefighters did not. "In my mind, I was saying, hurry up, hurry up, get out of there," she said. "But what's done is done."


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