Sometime next week FDNY will satisfy a court order by releasing the 911 calls logged on 9-11. They could shape a new story about what happened at Ground Zero. Or at least half a story: In accordance with the court ruling, FDNY will release only the operators’ part of the conversations.
“The Court reasoned that the words of persons who called 911 on September 11, 2001 are private, and that only the person who called 911, or if the person is deceased, his or her family, can waive this privacy right and allow the caller’s words to be made public,” FDNY said in a departmental bulletin earlier this week.
The 911 calls are the last of three types of material that the state’s top court ordered FDNY to turn over to the New York Times and several victims’ families. Last year saw the release of oral histories taken from personnel who were at the scene that day as well as tapes of radio traffic at FDNY’s dispatch center. The histories revealed important details about the orders firefighters were given as they ascended the towers, who did and didn’t hear the call to evacuate, and what fire commanders thought about the risks of collapse. The dispatch tapes are an eerie timeline of the tragedy in progress—from “We just had a plane crash into upper floors of the World Trade Center,” to “Attention all units, we’re receiving reports that No. 1 and No. 2 World Trade Center collapsed.”
More than morbid curiosity is behind the interest in these records. From the 9-11 Commission to a current study of WTC evacuees, investigators have tried to extract from the disaster lessons to save lives in future catastrophes. (For example, in a report card on the implementation of its recommendations in the study of the Twin Towers’ collapse, the National Institute of Standards and Technology this week noted that high-rise safety experts are waiting for the results of NIST’s pending WTC7 study for possible new information on “the effect of spaces containing unusually large fuel concentrations.”)
It might be tough to gather those lessons out of the 911 calls if we only hear the side of the person not in the towers. In its majority opinion last year, the Court of Appeals reasoned that:
The 911 calls at issue undoubtedly contain, in many cases, the words of people confronted, without warning, with the prospect of imminent death. Those words are likely to include expressions of the terror and agony the callers felt and of their deepest feelings about what their lives and their families meant to them. The grieving family of such a caller—or the caller, if he or she survived—might reasonably be deeply offended at the idea that these words could be heard on television or read in the New York Times.
So the court upheld a lower court and kept the callers’ side of the calls secret. There are precedents for that logic: The National Transportation Safety Board in barred by federal law from ever releasing tapes of the Cockpit Voice Recorders. However, an NTSB spokesman says CVR transcripts are eventually released.
Obviously, there’s a balancing between the public’s need to know and the individual’s right to privacy in their final moments. One member of the Court of Appeals thought the ruling on the 911 calls got the balance wrong. “Ordinarily, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a call to 911, and the full contents are generally subject to disclosure,” Judge Albert M. Rosenblatt wrote in his dissent, adding, “The public interest supports disclosure broader than the Court has allowed.”
Rosenblatt also predicted that one-sided phone calls will do little to answer questions about 9-11, and might even confuse issues: “The value of a response is compromised when the words that prompt the response are deleted. In some instances, the thrust of an incomplete communication can be inferred or constructed; in others it will be incoherent or even misleading.” Like when you take John Dean out of this excerpt from the famous “Cancer on the Presidency” conversation of March 12, 1973:
Nixon: That’s right.
Nixon: That’s right.
Nixon: You’ve got, in other words, I’ve got to know why you feel that, uh, that something…
Nixon: …that, that we shouldn’t unravel something.
Nixon: In other words, you, your judgment as to where it stands, and where we go now—
Nixon: That it won’t bust.
Nixon: Right, I know, I know him.
Nixon: Oh, yeah.
Nixon: January of ’72?