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His vision filtered by the years of retelling, Giuliani remembers an order beneath the chaos of falling debris and jumping victims. The city's emergency services were functioning as they were meant to, with him at the helm. "The line of authority is clear," he told the 9-11 Commission. "The mayor is in charge. In the same way the president of the United States is commander in chief, the mayor is in charge. That's why people elect the mayor, so they get the choice of whether they get a strong captain or a weak captain or a lieutenant or whatever." Praised for heading toward danger rather than away from it, Giuliani replied, "That was my job. I was mayor. Part of my job description was to coordinate and supervise emergencies. The agencies that were the primary responders were all agencies that worked for the mayor. We had a format for how we did it, and part of that included my being there, so that I could coordinate and make sure everybody was working together."
Rudy Giuliani's performance on 9-11 is legendary, but for most people, the story boils down to one image: the mayor walking north from the disaster, covered with dust. Afterward, in his greatest achievement, he was able to give voice to all the things the rest of us needed and wanted to hear. He articulated our grief, shored up our confidence, and insisted on a level- headed response that gave no berth to intolerance. We resist knowing anything moreabout the eight-year history of error and indifference that preceded that moment, or the toxic disengagement that followed it.
We also actually know very little about what the mayor really did before he stood up, covered in the remnants of the World Trade Center, and began to speak to the world. Giuliani has been allowed to be his own solitary storyteller, and his unexamined 102 minutes transformed him into an international brand of public courage.
Shortly after the second plane slammed into the twin towers, Giuliani's car pulled up slightly northeast of 7 WTC, where his extremely expensive and ultra- sophisticated Emergency Operations Center was perched high up above many large tanks of combustible fuel. Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who was waiting to meet him, decided it was too dangerous to bring the mayor up to the command center he had so carefully and expensively built. Instead, Kerik pointed out a nearby office building at 75 Barclay Street and said they were "taking people out and setting up a command post" there.
"Is this going to be our main command post?" Giuliani asked Kerik in his own account of the day's events, and Kerik said yes. Then the mayor wanted to know where the fire department was set up. Kerik told him that the top chiefs had their command post two blocks away, on West Street, and the two men headed over there.
Looking back with serene hindsight, it's easy to see what the mayor's most important mission should have been at that critical moment. He needed to make sure the proud and fractious police and fire departments were working together. The fire officials were clearly at the center of the action. Chief of Department Pete Ganci, First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan, and search-and-rescue chief Ray Downey had begun the day in the North Tower. Then, looking for a location with a better view of the fires, they set up an impromptu command post on the far side of the eight-lane West Street, where they would manage the total incident, working with the board that locates all department resources involved in fighting a fire.
When Giuliani arrived at 9:20, Ganci and the chiefs told the mayor that "they had already gotten some people out above the plane," that they'd been "lucky enough to have a stairway that they could come down." Giuliani thought the chiefs were talking about a stairway in the North Tower, where, in fact, none were ever passable. But he may have misunderstood the chiefs, and they may have been talking about Stairway A in the South Tower, the single passageway to survival that, in the end, only 18 people found. Neither fire dispatch nor 911, which handled countless calls from people stuck above the South Tower fire, were ever told about an open stairway, though the chiefs apparently knew about one.
"What should I tell people? What should I say?" Giuliani asked.
"The message has to be: 'Get in a stairway and come down. Do not stay there,' " the mayor recalled Ganci saying. Of course, the city's emergency operators never stopped giving precisely the opposite advice.