Control: The September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center unleashed the largest emergency responses in American history. The instances of sacrifice by police officers and firefighters have been well documented and were an inspiration to many people around the world. Rudolph Giuliani, personifying steadfastness, was a focal point of public communication and solace throughout. He will long be remembered for showing courage in the face of unimaginable horror.
Yet it has become clear from technical studies of that traumatic day that the city's rescue operation could have been far better organized. To consider what went wrong that day is sometimes difficult. The former mayor, who moved on to become a security consultant, preferred to focus on the dramatic story of his experiences and those of his aides on 9/11, on the villains and the heroes of the day. While some of the problems that coalesced in the face of the attack on New York had existed long before Giuliani became mayor and had surfaced-in real time-in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, other problems were of his own making.
Long before 9/11, radios were a constant issue at emergency scenes. Too many people talking on too few channels led to system overload. In the case of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the inability of the fire department to communicate effectively was a major problem, so much so that it was pinpointed as such in an after-action report prepared by the department. Yet it was these same radios that firefighters brought to the World Trade Center on the crystal-clear morning of September 11, 2001, four months before the conclusion of Giuliani's tenure in office.
On 9/11 the firefighters converging from all over the city at the
World Trade Center attempted to use the complex's radio system, first testing it in the lobby of the North Tower. The test indicated that the system was not functional, even though it actually was. A volume control switch mistakenly had not been activated, so the system was of no use at all to firefighters ascending the North Tower, according to The 9/11 Commission Report, which investigated the city's response.
The firefighters were confronting a disaster of immense proportions, much larger than what occurred in 1993. If there was ever a need for a robust communications system, it was now. Yet the communication system at their disposal failed them miserably, likely costing many firefighters in the North Tower their lives. These firefighters climbed the stairs of one of the world's tallest buildings without a reliable means of communicating with commanders below. As they conducted their hazardous work as best as humanly possible, they were disadvantaged: there was no way of their getting word from their commanders about the location of the fire or that the tower was in danger of collapsing.
Tragically, while firefighters struggled to use their inadequate radios, new FDNY radios sat in boxes in a city warehouse. The new equipment, in fact, had been issued to firefighters on March 14, 2001, but it was pulled from service a few days later, after a trapped firefighter's "mayday" message went unheard at a house fire in Queens. In the ensuing months leading to 9/11, an investigation by then city comptroller Alan Hevesi uncovered an exclusive "no bid/sole source" contract between the city and the manufacturer of the new radios under the watch of Tom Von Essen, Giuliani's fire commissioner.
The city and the manufacturer maintained that the transaction was legal, and there the matter was left, although in a relatively little-known book titled Radio Silence FDNY-The Betrayal of New York's Bravest, authors FDNY Captain John Joyce and Bill Bowen alleged additional improprieties on the part of city and the company. Giuliani, in his book Leadership, claims that it was necessary to have separate command posts so that the police could get telephone lines to protect the rest of the city from attack, while fire officers needed to observe the twin towers themselves. The flaw in this conclusion is that it assumes the response to the World Trade Center was composed solely of the FDNY, when, in reality, the NYPD was also a very important player at the trade center.
Indeed, the NYPD Aviation Unit helicopter had the best view of the immediate damage sustained by the towers. The pilot communicated key information to police officers on the ground-but not to the FDNY. Critical bird's-eye observations could not be shared due to the separate command posts and separate radio frequencies. Interoperability was not in play on 9/11?
A hero in the national dialogue, it's not surprising, nonetheless, that Giuliani has felt the scorn of so many 9/11 families. He was the one individual who had possessed the political clout to protect emergency responders as much as possible in the event of another terrorist attack in the wake of the 1993 bombing. He was the one who could have brought public safety efforts in New York City into the twenty-first century by getting the command structure and interagency rivalries straightened out and by ensuring that the best technology was available.
Ultimately, it was the city's leadership-led by Giuliani-that needed to have prepared the city and its emergency services for that fateful day. In the final analysis, the emergency responders met the challenge head on. It was their leaders who let them down.
Excerpt from "Control" by Glenn Corbett in America's Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani's New York edited by Robert Polner and reproduced with permission of Soft Skull Press.