Rudy’s Grand Illusion


When Rudy Giuliani looks back to September 11, he relies not upon the memory of the day itself, but on his memory of the telling of the tale, which he has recounted over and over. That is always the way for people who have lived through a complicated, high-adrenaline event. We sort it out in our minds, assigning order to the confusing rush of images. But there are invariably other realities—sights and sounds and irrefutable facts that we failed to notice at the time, or that we edit out later to give some order to the story in our own minds.

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 more—about 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.

Kerik and Ganci talked briefly. It was the only time the two leaders of these often dueling departments would speak that day. Uncomfortable about the exposed location, Kerik then said, “Mayor, we’ve got to get you out of here and set up a command post.” Hector Santiago, a member of Kerik’s detail, heard the false alarm of a third plane over the radio and yelled, “Boss, we have to go. There’s a third plane coming. We’re underneath the building. We have to go.” With chunks of the towers falling on West Street, Giuliani urged Ganci to move the command post. They exchanged God-bless-you’s.

Then the mayor, Kerik, Deputy Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy, and other top cops all left. The chief of the department, Joe Esposito, was on his way to the fire command post when Giuliani left. Informed by radio that the group was leaving just as he approached, Esposito, the highest-ranking uniformed officer, was also diverted to Barclay Street. Joe Dunne, the first deputy police commissioner, arrived shortly after Giuliani departed and was told to turn around and join the mayor. Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota, who also met Giuliani on Barclay and went to West Street with him, said, “There were no police officials at the command post when we got there and none when we left.”

After presiding over endless turf battles between the two proud departments, Giuliani knew how critical police-fire cooperation was, and he knew it wouldn’t happen automatically. Yet in his book Leadership, Giuliani wrote: “I turned north and headed to the Police Department command post.” In his 9-11 Commission testimony, he said, “I then walked up with, at this point, the police commissioner, the deputy police commissioner, and the chief of the department. I was really brought into 75 Barclay and told this would be our command post.”

The “our” was the police and the mayor. Yet the fire department was responsible for managing the city response to any fire—a series of interagency directives that Giuliani had signed only a few months earlier said so. Giuliani’s role at that moment was to do everything he could to put police and fire commanders at the same post, not participate in setting up a police command post at Barclay that would be separate from Ganci’s. If the mayor felt that he needed to go to Barclay—for reasons of safety or to get hard phone lines and hold a press conference—why did he bring all of the top police commanders with him? Why did he never raise the subject of a joint response while at West Street? And since Ganci said he was moving his post, why was there no discussion of a new joint location that would include some of the top police decision makers?

Everyone agrees that a critical problem that day was that the police and fire departments could not communicate; that’s one of the reasons the lack of inter- operable radios became such a focus of fury. If the top brass of the two departments were at each other’s sides, they could have told each other whatever they learned from their separate radio systems. Many of the command and control issues that might have saved lives could clearly have been better dealt with had Giuliani stopped, taken a deep breath, and pushed Kerik and Ganci to fully and effectively join forces. Insisting that Kerik, McCarthy, Esposito, or Dunne stay at the incident post would have established a joint operation.

Even Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen, who also left West Street to join the mayor, said later: “There should be a representative from the Police Department there; there should be a high-level chief from the Fire Department there. They should be controlling the operation from that command post. That day the police did not hook up with the Fire Department. I don’t know why.”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology found that “functional unified operations were diminished as a result of the two departments’ command posts being separated.” In fact, said NIST, there’s no record that “any senior police department personnel” were assigned “to provide liaison or assist” with Ganci’s incident post. The longtime head of Giuliani’s emergency management office, Jerry Hauer, pointed out the most dire consequence of the split command posts: “Had there been a senior police liaison at the command post, information about what the police were observing in the air could have been relayed to the ground.” He, the 9-11 Commission, and NIST agree that at a joint post, the fire chiefs would have gotten the warnings of collapse issued by police helicopters that they otherwise missed.

Giuliani had the opportunity to make that kind of unified direction happen—and, by his own description, the obligation to make it happen—but he didn’t. In his first detailed post–9-11 television interview he recalled that he “walked away” from Ganci’s post “and took my people with me.” But they were not just “his” people, meaning his City Hall deputies. Included in his entourage was the entire police command.

In that same September 22 interview, Giuliani offered a different explanation for his initial decision to go to the FDNY post on West Street: “I wanted to join the Fire Department and the Police Department together at one command post, so I asked where the Fire Department command post was.” He had inadvertently described what he should have done, indeed what his own protocol required him to do. But obviously, that story didn’t fit the facts. So by the time he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on September 27, he remembered things differently. “And then when I got there,” he said, “I wanted to make sure that the police department had a command post so that we could communicate with the White House, and the fire department had one so they could actually focus their attention on fighting the fire and the rescue.”

By the time he wrote Leadership in 2002, he’d come up with a detailed rationale. He said the separation of command posts was “absolutely necessary” because “the Fire Department had to lead the rescue and evacuation,” while the Police Department “had to protect the rest of the city.” Since the departments were “performing different tasks,” he argued, they had to have different command posts. Of course, the departments have some different duties in virtually all emergencies, but that reasoning flew in the face of not only all modern understanding of how to coordinate responses to epic catastrophes, but also all the plans Giuliani’sown government had put in place. If it were true that different emergency functions required a separation of command, there would have been no rationale for a coordinating Office of Emergency Management. Everybody could just do their own thing. Unified command is now such accepted wisdom that the Department of Homeland Security requires it.

And of course, as the mayor well knew, the police department was deeply in-
volved in the rescue and evacuation on 9-11. That’s why 23 cops died. Five emergency service units were sent in to climb the steps just like firefighters, as were other plainclothes and patrol cops. Kerik recounts in his book how “our ESU guys were pulling on their masks and marching off toward the buildings” just like the “brave firefighters.”

The real, and obvious, explanation for why Giuliani left things as they were at West Street was that he was as unnerved as everyone else. The fire and police departments were acting on long-held instinct by staying apart, and the mayor shied away from interfering with men who were busy making life-and-death decisions. It was as human a response as his calming and compassionate statements later that day. But it was also a mistake with consequences, and if New York and the nation actually examined Giuliani’s unified-command dysfunction that day, both might be better prepared the next time. Unfortunately, admitting all this would not square with Time‘s salute: “When the day of infamy came, Giuliani seized it as if he had been waiting for it all his life, taking on half a dozen critical roles and performing each masterfully. Improvising on the fly, he became ‘America’s homeland-security boss,’ as well as its ‘gutsy decision-maker’ and ‘crisis manager.’ ”

There was another reason for the Barclay command post, and Kerik hasn’t been as shy as the mayor about mentioning it: security. “I was worried about the mayor and making sure we didn’t put him in harm’s way,” he said later. Kerik’s “immediate problem” was finding space “far enough removed that the mayor wasn’t in danger.” As sensible as protecting Giuliani was, it’s a far different explanation from the mayor’s rationale for the two posts.

Whatever the mix of reasons, Giuliani has never been forced to explain, by investigators or reporters, how he squares the two-post decision with his own rules for how the police and fire departments were supposed to behave. John Farmer, the 9-11 Commission’s top investigator for the city response chapter of its report, says Giuliani can’t. “I don’t know if he thought of it that day, but yes, it was not consistent with the protocol he established,” Farmer says. “I think what he would tell you is that he thought coordination was occurring. He had Kerik with him, and the reality of these situations is that the coordination has to be not just two guys at the top; it has to be more integrated.” Asked if Giuliani should be held accountable for this and other disarray that day, Farmer said, “Of course, the answer is yes. If you’re the top official, you’re accountable.”

The 9-11 Commission members reached conclusions similar to Farmer’s, but so quietly that no one noticed. The commission report never described Giuliani’s step-by-step actions that day, though it chronicles just about everyone else’s, and it certainly never mentioned his role in creating two posts. But when it reached its ultimate conclusion that the fire department was not “responsible for the management of the City’s response as the Mayor’s directive would have required,” the very next line was “the command posts were in different locations.” Thus, the commission’s best example of the violation of the mayor’s directive was the mayor’s own action.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology added: “Unified command was hampered by the fire department and police department setting up separate command posts.” It also found that the governing fire department protocol that day—issued in 1997 when Von Essen was commissioner—said that at a fire like this, “the departments act as ‘one organization’ and are managed as such.” Instead of “several posts operating independently,” the department circular provides that “the operation is directed from only one command post.” Daniel Nigro, the only top fire chief at West Street to survive, said, “I think there should have been one command post. It should be run according to the incident command system, and that system puts one person in command and all the other agencies are there and they work from a single location.”

Ray Kelly, the police commissioner who preceded and followed the Giuliani years, said in an interview, “Sure, the separate command post was a violation of the protocols. The radios would have been no problem if they had been at the same command post, if they’d been face-to-face. The Office of Emergency Management was supposed to make that happen under the protocols, but Jerry Hauer wasn’t there any-more. OEM had the power to direct that to happen. Giuliani had the power to direct that to happen.”

The mayor’s main mission, as he has put it in repeated accounts, was to gather the information he needed to tell a television and radio audience what they should do, especially people in jeopardy. By the time he talked directly to an audience, however, both towers had collapsed, and the message Ganci asked him to give occupants was moot. The mayor was, in the end, just one more dispatcher who failed to relay useful information. He said he went to Barclay for hard phone lines, but once he got there, his most pressing concern was reaching the vice president and that went nowhere—someone’s phone line went dead, although it’s unclear whether it was Giuliani’s or Dick Cheney’s.

Right after the Cheney call disconnected, the South Tower collapsed. No one in the police department had apparently considered how Giuliani and, by then, a very large entourage would get out of the building in an emergency. So when the tower knocked out windows and drove rubble and ash into their first-floor safe haven, the group ran through the basement until they found a way into a neighboring building and out onto the street. They walked up Broadway and then Church, finally hooking up with cameras and press, searching again for a command post, with Giuliani pointing everyone north.

Even the mayor eventually acknowledged that it might have been a mistake that his entire 25-member inner circle, including three deputy mayors, the police, fire, and Office of Emergency Management commissioners, was marching with him on this hazardous pilgrimage, a vulnerability that hardly reflected strategic thinking. This time, Giuliani’s preference for the comfort of a huge entourage had disconnected the city’s management and its fighting force at a crucial moment.

The only time this confounding management choice took the form of a critical media question was on Fox the day after Giuliani’s commission testimony in 2004, when John Gibson asked Hauer’s successor at OEM, Richie Sheirer, about it. Gibson referred to “the worry” about how the Giuliani entourage had operated, questioning whether it was “fortuitous” that a single “chunk of concrete” hadn’t fallen “on Rudy Giuliani, you, or somebody else,” causing “the whole thing” to have “fallen apart.” Gibson appeared to be questioning the wisdom of the fact that “all of the leaders of the city’s emergency structure got together and had this little command center that moved around.” Sheirer’s answer was pure bluster. “No, there was nothing fortuitous about it,” he said. “It was well planned. Our succession plan for the highest levels of government, the mayor and people like me, is very well in place and embedded. That was implemented to the degree that it needed to be.”

Kerik was actually a prime example of this managerial dysfunction all morning. For the 102 minutes when the city most
needed a police commissioner orchestrating an overall response with an embattled fire department, Kerik became Giuliani’s body
guard, just as he had been in the 1993 mayoral campaign. His own account of what he did that morning contained no indication that he was actually managing the police response to this emergency. The command center at 1 Police Plaza wasn’t opened until 9:45, an hour after the attack, a decision that led the independent consultants commissioned by the Bloomberg administration, McKinsey & Company, to raise questions about why it was “underused.”

McKinsey also criticized the “number and continual movement of command posts,” and the absence of any “clearly identifiable, main command post,” errors associated with the top brass including Kerik, who, unlike Von Essen, is an operational chief. “Many leaders of the Department,” the independent consultant found, “indicated that they operated primarily from instinct and experience during an emergency rather than according to a prioritized or structured set of objectives.” Only 45 percent of the 557 cops who were surveyed by McKinsey said they “received clear instructions regarding my role on 9-11,” with 34 percent saying they didn’t and the rest undecided. A meager 24 percent said they were “confident” that the police department had adequate emergency plans. Remarkably, 89 percent had no training in building collapse, 84 percent had none in counterterrorism, 73 percent none in fire rescue/evacuation, and 70 percent none in bio/chem. Of the few who had training in any of these areas, less than a third found it “useful.”

The McKinsey report faulted virtually everything Kerik did that day without naming him or anyone else in top management, criticizing a “perceived lack of a strong operational leader commanding the response” and the “absence of clear command structure and direction on 9-11.”

Instead of dealing with any of these complex tactical issues on 9-11, Kerik’s decisions—at 7 WTC, West Street, Barclay, and the basement—all revolved around the mayor’s safety. Chris Marley, the building engineer at Barclay who guided the Giuliani group out, said, “Kerik had his arm around the mayor to protect him.” Kerik was later asked what his priorities were that day and he told NPR, “Well, the first thing to do was to get the mayor out of there and get to a secure site.” With Kerik, Esposito, Dunne, and McCarthy guarding him at points, Giuliani was protected by the highest-ranking detail in the history of the New York City Police Department. Yet not once did he look around and ask the question: Who’s running the shop?

“I don’t know de facto who was in charge,” Kelly said. “The police commissioner was the head of the organization. I don’t know who was directing. I literally don’t.”

Kerik was with the mayor because Giuliani wanted him to be. “I need the police
and fire commissioners with me,” Giuliani said when he summoned Von Essen. He also reached out to Richie Sheirer—the third member of the team who would be at his side for every 9-11 press briefing, then go with him to Giuliani Partners. All three had no real management credentials until Giuliani promoted them. Von Essen and Kerik went from the lowest ranks of their departments to the very top without ever passing a promotional exam. Giuliani had begun his mayoralty with a circle of managers, like Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and OEM’s Hauer, who had track records elsewhere. He was ending it with a cult of personality. When he chose Kerik over the seasoned professional Dunne, he told reporters that the decision had come to him in a moment of personal inspiration. Not surprisingly, all Kerik could think about in a moment of great crisis was protecting the leader, even if it meant leaving a void in the department he was charged with commanding.

Despite all these missteps, Giuliani was depicted almost immediately as the calmest man in the eye of the worst storm—decisive, self-sufficient, ironhearted. “It was so well orchestrated that you would have thought he had prepared for it forever,” his lifelong secretary Beth Petrone-Hatton told Time. His own Time comments set the subsequent television interview tone: “There were times I was afraid. Everybody was. But the concentration was on. If I don’t do what I have to do, everything falls apart. Something I learned a long time ago, from my father, is that the more emotional things get, the calmer you have to become to figure your way out. Those things have become a matter of instinct for me at 57 years old. I didn’t have to invent them.” He told CNN, “When it’s an emergency, I’m very, very calm and very deliberate.”

If Giuliani had actually been doing all the things he now sees himself as having done that day—prioritizing, making strategic decisions about deployment of personnel, command centers, and communications—it would have been a superhuman performance. But actually, in those first hours, Giuliani was doing what most of us, in his place, would have done—struggling, stumbling, and even making a weighty mistake, in the case of the two command posts. His decision to try to get on the air as quickly as possible was sensible, as was his hunt for phones and, later, an alternative command center. But as unforgettable a visual as he was, roaming the canyons of Lower Manhattan, he did not do one thing in those 102 minutes that had any impact.

And it isn’t just his own story that he has hyped. Giuliani has repeatedly contended that 25,000 people were rescued, though government investigators determined that there were actually 15,000 survivors and that most of these people were able to make their own way to safety. While these facts do nothing to dim the magnificent bravery of the firefighters, police officers, and other responders who saved many lives that day, they do turn Giuliani’s claim into just one more self-serving boast.

The centerpiece of Giuliani’s experience on 9-11, his dust-covered march uptown, was truly important to the city and the nation. His ordeal was not about management or even leadership—it was the sight of the mayor sharing that terrible experience with so many other fleeing New Yorkers. The symbol of the city was on the ground with his constituents, dirty and determined, conscious of the fact that there were many others who had been less fortunate. He did not have to save any lives to be important that day. Imagine how different our memories of Hurricane Katrina would be if Mayor Ray Nagin had been out in the water with the dispossessed, splashing his way toward the Convention Center.

We rely on our leaders to behave well in such a moment, to set an example of calm and compassion. But we do not expect them to manage the intricacies of the rescue operation. For that, we hope there are men and women throughout the government who have been preparing and training just so that if a crisis comes, they can operate on instinct, yet automatically make the proper decisions. If the mayor of New York had made sure that the city’s emergency headquarters was securely located and had put in place communications and command systems that worked, he would have been of greater service on 9-11—even if he had spent the whole day cowering under his desk.

Giuliani has never acknowledged a single failing in his own performance. Yet he did nothing before September 11 to alleviate the effects of a terror attack. He embodied his city’s lack of preparation on West Street that morning. And he did not do anything later that matched the moments of grace and resolve he gave us the day we needed him most. What we have left is this: At a moment when the public needed a hero, Rudy Giuliani stepped forward. When he assured New York that things would come out all right, he was blessedly believable. It was a fine thing. But it was not nearly as much as we, at the time, imagined.

The original version of this article omitted the name of co-author Dan Collins.