In the public version of FDNY lieutenant Neil Brosnan’s retelling of his 9-11 experience, there are blank spots. First, Brosnan talks about racing to the scene: “We were blocked out. We tried to move traffic.” Then there are three lines blacked out. “This was reported to the police detectives on my interview with them,” he continues. “We thought it was unusual.” Later on, his questioner restarts the tape after having closed the session. “Tell me that again,” the questioner bids. Brosnan speaks. The next 40 lines are blacked out. Only the questioner’s words are visible, when he says, “Yes. That is unusual.”
Rudy Giuliani is the mayor associated with the day of 9-11, but Michael Bloomberg has been the chief executive of its aftermath. The attacks transformed the 2001 mayoral race, left ruins still smoldering at his inauguration, and fueled the fiscal crisis that the new mayor faced.
But Brosnan’s oral history and the 510 others recently released are also part of the Bloomberg record on 9-11. His administration fought hard to keep the public from seeing those oral histories or hearing the tapes of FDNY dispatch radio. Only a lawsuit by The New York Times and several victims’ families (who also unsuccessfully sought to have emergency 911 call tapes released) forced their disclosure. City Hall even hedged at providing the oral histories and dispatchers’ tapes to researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the 9-11 Commission, resisting requests for the data for months, being threatened with a subpoena, and then allowing researchers only limited access to the information under a signed agreement.
And when the 9-11 Commission actually came to New York City, Bloomberg didn’t exactly bake a cake. On its first visit in spring 2003, Bloomberg welcomed the panel, proclaiming that the city’s 9-11 response was “swift, massive, heroic, and extraordinarily effective.” The police and fire commissioners were supposed to testify separately. But the mayor surprised the commission by bringing Ray Kelly and Nick Scoppetta with him. “Unfortunately,” the mayor explained, “both of these guys have an awful lot to do.”
Schedule problems struck again in May 2004, when the commission returned to New York. Bloomberg’s commissioners answered a combined 28 queries from the panel. Giuliani’s questioning by the panel runs 12,000 words in the official transcript. But Bloomberg answered no questions. Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg says the panel was trying to accommodate the mayor’s schedule, and adds, “There were really no questions to ask him.” City Hall says it offered to take questions but was bumped by Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge. Somehow the commission did find time to quiz the likes of author Dennis Smith and Edward Plaugher, a Virginia fire chief.
“All I can remember is that we did have a good deal of trouble with New York City,” says 9-11 commission member Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington. There was the fuss about the documents, the switcheroo with Kelly and Scoppetta—”the staff had not prepared the appropriate questions,” says Gorton—and Bloomberg’s escaping with no questions the second time.
“You would always prefer that any witness that comes before you would answer questions,” says Gorton. “Do I remember thinking that it was overwhelmingly damaging? My answer would be no. I think it was our position at that time that we had learned everything that we were going to learn. It was probably frustrating to the people in the news media.”
Certainly, the commission staff was able to question the mayor and his commissioners privately. But the purpose of public hearings is, of course, to make things public, which is why commission chairman
Tom Kean insisted that Condi Rice testify publicly. That brings us back to those oral histories.
Brosnan is not the only one whose account was redacted. Firefighter Paul Beck’s first few dozen words are censored. There’s another blackout after Battalion Chief Thomas Vallebuona is asked about radio transmissions. And when a questioner asks for final thoughts from Assistant Commissioner Stephen Gregory—the man in charge of FDNY communications at the time of the disaster—all we see is a page and a half of black blocks.
The court allowed the city to omit sections that would cause “serious pain and embarrassment” if disclosed, and firefighters had a chance to review their own histories before their release, so it’s unclear who made these redactions or why. But the omissions are why Norman Siegel, the lawyer for the families who intervened in the Times lawsuit, says he might go back to court and ask that the city justify its cuts.
In court filings, the city argued that the FDNY materials were exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information law. First, releasing them would invade the speakers’ privacy. Next, there was the case of alleged 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui: The city said federal prosecutors wanted to use some of the FDNY material in the death penalty phase of his trial, and—remarkably—were worried about “the very real likelihood of tainting the jury pool.” Finally, the city claimed an “intra-agency exemption which protects material which is non-factual and not a final determination,” including those sections that “contain opinions as to the effectiveness of the departmental response to the WTC incident and suggestions as to future conduct in similar large-scale disasters.” Those, of course, were exactly the things that NIST, the 9-11 Commission, and the press wanted to learn about.
The Justice Department ended up saying that only six of the histories were key to the Moussaoui prosecution. The city never presented evidence that family members were upset about the privacy implications of the documents being released (although Pete Gorman, head of the fire officers’ union, tells the Voice that some of his members did feel “betrayed” by the disclosures). And the state’s highest court ultimately ruled that the dispatch tapes and oral histories had to be released. It sided with the city in keeping secret the emergency calls to the 911 lines.
Spokesmen for the 9-11 Commission and NIST say the delay in obtaining the FDNY material was not a major obstacle, and the private consultant the city hired to study the WTC response, McKinsey & Company, wrote that it had “unfettered access” to the material. But a few of the oral histories contain statements potentially at odds with what McKinsey, the commission, and NIST concluded.
McKinsey, for example, finds that “chief officers sent these units up into the building in a controlled, orderly way.” But in the oral histories, Lieutenant Brian Becker recalled that it was “chaos in the lobby.” Firefighter Albert Barry says his unit was told simply to “make your way up,” not instructed to go to a particular floor. Chief Peter Hayden—one of those chief officers in the lobby—said, “We were losing some control of the companies coming in.” And Deputy Chief Thomas Galvin says another chief was unaware even that a fifth alarm had been sent.
All three reports—McKinsey, 9-11 Commission, and NIST—conclude that some firefighters in the North Tower did not hear the order to evacuate after the South Tower collapsed or even know that the South Tower was gone. But the oral histories make clear just how bad their information was. “I heard there was collapse in the North Tower between the 68th and 70th floor,” says Firefighter Michael Brodbeck. Firefighter Frank Campagna recalled that after WTC2 went down, WTC1 “was still standing. Everybody kept going up.” Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto, who ordered men to leave the North Tower, even recalls hearing over the radio an order to “stand by, meaning stop the evacuation.”
In one of its most important findings, the 9-11 Commission found that “none of the chiefs present believed that a total collapse was possible.” It’s unclear if that conflicts with what Hayden says, which is that “certainly the awareness was there of the possibility of collapse,” or what Chief Al Turi remembers: “Then Steve Mosiello, Chief Ganci’s executive assistant, came over to the command post and he said we’re getting reports from OEM that the buildings are not structurally sound, and of course that got our attention really quick.”