November 9, 2002
9/11 Tape Raised
Added Questions on Radio Failures
By JIM DWYER
and KEVIN FLYNN
The New York Times
For much of the last year, New York City has said the devastating
breakdown in fire communications at the World Trade Center was
largely caused by the failure of an electronic device in the
complex called a repeater, which was designed to boost radio
transmissions in high rise buildings.
Now, however, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's
analysis of its 78-minute tape of firefighter communications from
Sept. 11 flatly contradicts the city's version of what went wrong.
It also raises questions about the thoroughness of the city's
investigations into the worst loss of life any fire department has
ever experienced - 343 men.
If the Port Authority's position is correct, it raises the
possibility that different factors - failure of other equipment,
design of communications consoles in the tower lobbies, or a
simple mistake made at a moment of high stress - might have
accounted for the communications breakdowns. Many firefighters
believe those breakdowns contributed to the department's
On the tape, which recorded transmissions as they were passed
through the repeater, firefighters in the south tower can be heard
speaking over their radios until the building collapses.
Practically no communications are recorded from firefighters in
the north tower, even though the same repeater served both of the
Before the voices from the south tower are heard, a series of
coded tones are captured on the tape, marking the moment that the
radio repeater was turned on, a spokesman for the Port Authority
In the view of Port Authority officials, those transmissions show
beyond any doubt that the repeater worked, contrary to the
accounts given in an official study of the emergency response that
has been endorsed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Fire
Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta.
Asked, then, what would account for the communications failures, a
spokesman for the Port Authority, Greg Trevor, said, "You will
have to put those questions to the Fire Department."
The tape is likely to be remembered as far more than a record of
what went wrong. It contains the only permanently preserved voices
of firefighters from the tower stairwells, including transmissions
from the fire chief who climbed highest into the building. As the
firefighters raced up the stairs of the south tower, and right
until the final seconds, they can be heard calmly organizing help
for injured civilians as high as the 78th floor.
"All right, Tommy," a firefighter from Ladder 15 is heard saying
minutes before the collapse, "it's imperative that you try to get
down to the lobby command post and get some people up to 40. We
got injured people up here on 70. If you make it to the lobby
command post, see if they can somehow get elevators past the 40th
floor. We got injured people all the way up here."
A spokesman for the Fire Department, Francis X. Gribbon, said
yesterday that the department still believed the machinery had
failed in some way. "The system was tested in the lobby by two
experienced chiefs who came to the conclusion that it was not
functioning," he said, referring to the north tower.
That leaves unanswered one of the most stinging of all the
questions about fire operations that day. Even though the north
tower stood 29 minutes longer than the south tower, at least 121
firefighters did not escape from it. While chiefs in the north
tower lobby issued orders to come down, they received no response.
The accounts of witnesses and firefighters who survived suggests
that most of the men in the building simply did not know how much
trouble they were in. Witnesses said that scores of firefighters,
unaware of the peril, were resting on the 19th floor of the north
tower during its final minutes. Some firefighters who managed to
get out said they had no idea the other building had already
fallen, and said that they thought that few of those who perished
In February, even as the department was beginning a study of its
Sept. 11 response, fire officials declined invitations to listen
to the Port Authority's tape, which was recovered by Port
Authority police officers from the rubble.
Not until the tape's existence was reported by The New York Times
in July did fire officials decide to listen to it. Mr. Scoppetta
has said that his aides did not tell him about the tape.
By then, the department's study of the Sept. 11 response was all
but complete. The consulting firm that was conducting the study,
McKinsey & Company, sent one of its associates to listen to the
tape and to hear the analysis by the Port Authority, according to
Carlos Kirjner, the McKinsey official who led the study.
In the end, Mr. Kirjner said that, even with the tape, it was not
clear that the repeater had worked flawlessly throughout the
buildings. No one could prudently ignore the perspective of senior
fire chiefs, who had tested the system and believed it was not
operating, he said.
"We came to the conclusion that arguing about the different
versions was not a fruitful exercise," Mr. Kirjner said. So the
report from McKinsey addressed the communications failure from the
perspective of the fire chiefs, who believed the repeater did not
work. Mr. Kirjner, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering
and specializes in wireless communication, said his firm did not
take a position on the repeater.
At the Port Authority, officials have long felt that the complaint
about the failure of the repeater simply shifted the blame. While
blame for the catastrophe is the subject of many lawsuits, Port
Authority officials have resented the suggestion that their
The repeater was installed on the top floor of 5 World Trade
Center after the first terrorist bombing in 1993. "During our
radio coverage tests, we concluded that the system worked
exceptionally well," Deputy Fire Commissioner Steven Gregory wrote
in a 1994 letter to Allen Reiss, the Port Authority official who
oversaw the installation.
On Sept. 11, it did not seem to be working well to Battalion
Chiefs Joseph Pfeifer and Orio Palmer, two of the first chiefs to
respond. They tested their radios but could not hear each other,
an effort that was recorded by the repeater tape.
One possible explanation, according to a Port Authority radio
expert who reviewed the tape, is that the problems originated with
a radio console that had been set up in the lobby by the Port
Authority at the request of the Fire Department. The console
resembled a telephone and served as a fire radio. The official
suggested that a broken earpiece could have made it impossible for
Chief Pfeifer to hear Chief Palmer. Another possible explanation
is that the volume had been turned all the way down before they
In any event, Chief Pfeifer needed to establish communications
quickly, so he turned to a backup repeater in his car, the tape
makes clear. That repeater also did not appear to work. When the
second plane hit, Chief Palmer was dispatched into the south tower
with a senior chief, Donald Burns. There, both were able to speak
over the trade center's repeater channel that had stymied Chief
Palmer a few minutes earlier.
Chief Palmer took an elevator to the 40th or 41st floor, and then
climbed on foot to the 78th floor within 30 minutes. As he
ascended, he radioed reports on the conditions to the chief in the
lobby and to other firefighters in the stairwells.
To Port Authority officials, those reports from the core of the
building showed the repeater worked in the most difficult of
Despite a public position that the repeater did not work, the
city's top officials now want to replicate the trade center's
system in high rises all over the city. Indeed, two weeks ago, Mr.
Scoppetta sent a letter to the Port Authority saying that the
mayor wanted the technical plans for the trade center's repeater
"The City of New York contemplates using the WTC Radio Repeater
system as a model for future system development throughout the
City," Mr. Scoppetta wrote.