BY BILL MANNING
In early August it was revealed by New York Newsday that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a month before the final 9/11 Commission Report, dispatched a strong memo lobbying the Commission for language that would cast a more favorable light on the city—and, by extension, on city management, past and present. With respect to the hottest hot-button issues surrounding the 9/11 response—radio inoperability, lack of police-fire cooperation and coordination, and the city’s poor excuse for a new, “integrated” incident management system—Bloomberg’s wish was granted. The Commission’s final report coats the three issues with a layer of political honey.
City management had almost three years to circle the wagons to deflect obvious ineptitude and irresponsibility for which it could and should have been held accountable. Capitalizing on an accommodating and docile press, they’ve controlled critical information, dismissed many concerns of 9/11 families/survivors groups as grief-driven hysteria, and, with great cunning, used the firefighters who perished in the Towers for political cover.
The 9/11 Commission Report concludes, “The technical failure of FDNY radios, while a contributing factor, was not the primary cause of the many firefighter fatalities in the North Tower.” It cites as its principle argument post-9/11 FDNY internal interviews the City has refused to release publicly under the guise of “protecting the families.” The Commission contends that 24 of the 32 fire companies in the North Tower were aware an evacuation order had been issued after the collapse of the South Tower. This conflicts with the McKinsey Report and documentation from many other credible published sources—not to mention that city management knew full well FDNY was responding to the Towers with the same communications equipment/system that didn’t work as intended in the World Trade Center Bombing eight years prior.
So what was the primary reason so many firefighters perished in the North Tower, according to the Commission? It was the firefighters’ fault, mostly. The Commission Report states, “Many of these firefighters died either because they delayed their evacuation to assist civilians, attempted to regroup their units, lacked urgency, or some combination of these factors.”
It’s hardly coincidental that the Commission’s position so closely mirrors that of high-level officials from two New York City mayoral administrations. For months the party spin has been to downplay high-rise radio inoperability and its archaic, adversarial command system with the “doomed hero” theory, suggesting that firefighters heard the evacuation order but elected to stay in the building anyway. This conveniently places “blame” squarely on the heroes, who no longer can refute it.
It’s inconceivable—given the urgency of the situation, the massive and critical nature of the incident, the fact that many companies entering the North Tower did so at risk of being crushed by falling jumpers, that knowing looks and words were exchanged confirming recognition of the seriousness of the incident, and so forth—that so many firefighters, professional to the end, would have ignored an order to evacuate immediately had such an order actually been received by all or most companies. The spinners, who themselves recognize the professionalism of the FDNY firefighters, are hoisted on their own petard.
The spin has been spun in many forums, but none so high-profile as the 9/11 Commission Hearings in New York, which entertained as evidence almost two uninterrupted hours of emotional testimony from former Mayor Rudy Guiliani without attempting to obtain answers on the critical pre-9/11 response questions that still hover over this so-called “investigation.” Are Mayor Guiliani’s actions and perceptions the first several hours on 9/11, albeit riveting and good theater, what this purportedly hard-edged body of investigators is really after?
In fact, the stage was set on the first day of the New York Hearings, wherein Commission member Bernard Lehmann was excoriated in the New York press and beyond for characterizing New York City’s sad excuse for an incident management as “not worthy of the Boy Scouts.” The spin machine twisted that comment into a political pretzel. Was Lehmann criticizing the firefighters? Of course not; he was criticizing upper management and, in doing so, getting too close to the truth that the City of New York had failed firefighters, police, emergency medical responders, and the entire population of the New York area for years leading up to that terrible day. You don’t have to be a cynic to draw the lines as to why, on Day Two of the Hearings, the Commission served up so many slow-pitch softballs to be hit out of the park.
The recommendations contained within Chapter 9 of the 9/11 Commission Report, the chapter dealing with emergency response, are disappointingly sparse in details. Surely, the largest and most tragic emergency response in history demands a more intensive, more critical investigative effort, especially since the 9/11 Commission touts its effort as the “definitive account” of the incident. More importantly, the response community, the public, and the fallen heroes and their families deserve the naked truth, whatever that may be.
To obscure the truth for political motivation is contemptible in itself. To use our fallen brothers to accomplish that political sleight-of-hand is nothing short of monstrous.
The 9/11 Commission’s treatment of the emergency response component is a disgrace. The fire service and the public must demand that a new investigative body be assembled to launch a full, complete, and politically impartial investigation into the emergency response issues leading up to and including the 9/11 disaster. Or don’t we have the stomach for it? To do anything less would be a disservice to the 343 brothers and all the other good people who perished that day, a disservice to our nation, and a disservice to ourselves.