911 on 9-11: “You Alright Up There?”


The City of New York today released tapes and transcripts of 911 calls from the World Trade Center. A court made the city do it, but it also required that the voices of the callers be deleted. This protects the callers’ privacy and their families’. But it doesn’t sanitize the desperation of what were, for some people, the last conversations they had.

In some of the tapes, you can hear the callers’ breathing, the fire alarms sounding over and over around them, even coughing. The rising voices of the dispatchers, their pleas for calm, their responses coming in rapid successions all hint at the individual crises that were developing inside the Towers while most of us watched on TV.

In one call from the 97th floor of Tower 2, a fire department dispatcher asks, “All you alright up there? Is everybody alright?” Their NYPD counterpart says, “Sir, please try to keep calm. We’ll send somebody up there immediately.” An EMS operator tries to reassure. “We’ll get there bro, alright?” he says. Moments pass and the EMS guy gets off. “I’ve got other calls to take, alright?

Some dispatchers told people not to break windows because the air would feed the fire. But at least one FDNY operator not only told people to break windows but explained how best to do it. Most seem to have told people to stay in place. “My supervisor says wait for the fire department,” says on operator. Another: “I’m still here the fire department is trying to get to you. OK, try to calm down so you can conserve your oxygen, OK.” A FDNY operator: “They’re getting to you sir. They’re getting to you.” Another: “Sir, just stay where you are.”

“There are no firefighters here,” said one FDNY operator. “We’re civilians. No I cannot do that. We’re getting millions and millions of calls. If you feel that your life is in danger do what you must do. I can’t give any more advice than that.”

“Don’t go up,” said an NYPD operator. “I really do not want to tell you to do that. I don’t want to tell you to move. I’m not trained to tell you that.” She connects to the fire department. “He wants to know what to do,” she tells the FDNY guy. “Hold on,” he answers, “stay in the office. Don’t go into the hallway. They’re coming upstairs.”

In another call, the caller hangs up. NYPD says, “All I got from her was 100 floor WTC.” FDNY asks, “She was able to speak?” Just barely, NYPD says.

There are hints of the anonymous 911 operators’ humanity. Fire Department guys get snippy when NYPD operators insist on exchanging ID numbers with each call. “Just give me the information PD, don’t worry about my number,” one snaps. There was the woman who called 911 that day and was told by an FDNY operator, “Ma’am we are very busy. If it’s not something very important we have a fire at the World Trade Center.”

And there’s the police operator whose call went like this, “They working on it. They working on it. God is there. Let’s pray. God is there. God is there. God is there … Lie on the floor. Wet a towel and put it over your head. Lie on the floor. On the floor! I know it’s hard to breathe. I know it is. I understand sir. I understand. Try not to panic. I know it’s hot. They say the stairwell collapsed and everything. OK they hung up. Oh, ain’t this terrible? Oh my God.”