A group of families who lost firefighters on 9-11 and blame FDNY radios for those deaths is struggling to revive an inquiry into communication problems in the twin towers. The Supreme Court recently ended their lawsuit against the City of New York and Motorola. Now the kin are hoping to raise $500,000 to fund an independent investigation.
But as was clear at a meeting last night at a Queens hotel, the family members are swimming against the tides of passing time and waning interest. Only about 20 people showed up. Three of them were from the law firm that waged a two-year effort in federal courts simply to get the families’ case heard. A few were retired firefighters who survived the collapses. The rest were the bereaved, whose voices still cracked at the mention of lost sons and brothers.
After 9-11 city officials claimed that firefighters in the North Tower, despite hearing orders to evacuate, kept climbing after the South Tower collapsed. But evidence uncovered since then indicates that many firefighters never heard the orders. (A separate issue is whether the evacuation order was issued properly as a “mayday.”)
The families contend that if the city and Motorola had acted properly, the 343 firefighters who perished on 9-11 might not have had to use the same radios that did not work properly during the 1993 bombing at the towers. They contend that a new radio purchased by the city in early 2001 was not competitively bid or properly tested, so it failed and was pulled out of service, leading the FDNY to put the old radios back in firefighters’ hands.
Those claims were never heard on their merits; instead, federal judges ruled that the families had waived their right to sue when they applied to the federal Victims’ Compensation Fund. The families’ attorney, Richard Salem, argued that Congress meant for that waiver to apply only to the airline industry—it was after all ensconced in a bull called the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act, and most of it was devoted to bailing out the airlines and providing them with federally backed insurance. District and appeals courts didn’t buy that argument, and last month the Supremes opted not to take up the case.
Now the families are looking to start a Firefighter Radio Investigation Fund that would aim to save written records before they are destroyed and interview key people before their memories fade. “If you don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it. It ain’t gonna get done. We’ve been to the unions. We’ve been to the prosecutors. We’ve been to the city,” Salem told the small crowd Thursday night. “Most people want to put this issue in a box, seal it up tight, put it in a closet, and shut the door.”
It’s understandable, the plaintiffs acknowledge. The 343 families are worn out from fights over the 9-11 commission, building safety, memorial design, the Freedom Center, proper burial, and other issues. Of the 12,000 firefighters in the city, thousands came on after 9-11 and might not feel the same passion that the families do. Plus, says Jimmy Boyle, who lost his son Michael, “There is the impression that the families are after two bites of the apple,” meaning they want the federal money and a legal settlement, “and that’s in the firehouses, too.”
It was a long way from the warmth and fuzzies of autumn 2001, when every firehouse displayed mournful bunting and everyone wanted to hug a hero. It was the basement of a hotel at the edge of a LaGuardia runway. The families and their supporters tried to come up with a new plan of attack. Someone noted that the fifth anniversary looms. Some voiced hopes that they could rev up union support. Others looked to Eliot Spitzer and the press. “We are still fighting the fight,” says Maureen Santora, who mourns son Christopher. “We are not moving on.”