August 4, 2002

WITH AWE :

Lost Voices of Firefighters, Some on the 78th Floor (JIM DWYER and FORD FESSENDEN, August 4, 2002, NY Times)
A lost tape of lost voices, ignored until recently by investigators studying the emergency response on Sept. 11, shows that firefighters climbed far higher into the south tower than practically anyone had realized. At least two men reached the crash zone on the 78th floor, where they went to the aid of grievously injured people trapped in a sprawl of destruction.

Until the building's final minutes, one of the two firefighters, Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer, was organizing the evacuation of people hurt by the plane's impact. He was accompanied by Fire Marshal Ronald P. Bucca. Both men died. [...]

For months, senior officials believed that firefighters had gone no higher than about the 50th floor in each tower, well below most damage. The transmissions from Chief Palmer and others reveal a startling achievement: firefighters in the south tower actually reached a floor struck by the second hijacked airplane. Once they got there, they had a coherent plan for putting out the fires they could see and helping victims who survived.

About 14 or 15 minutes before the south tower collapsed, a group of people who had survived the plane's impact began their descent from the 78th floor. As they departed, Chief Palmer sent word to Chief Edward Geraghty that a group of 10 people, with a number of injuries, were heading to an elevator on the 41st floor. That elevator was the only one working after the plane hit. On its last trip down, however, the car became stuck in the shaft. Inside the elevator was a firefighter from Ladder 15, who reported that he was trying to break open the walls. It is not clear whether the group of 10 had reached that elevator before it left the 41st floor but those who listened to the tape said it was most unlikely
that they had enough time to escape, by the elevator or by stairs. [...]

The department has identified the voices of at least 16 firefighters on the tape, and on Friday, their families were invited to listen to it in a ballroom at the Southgate Tower Suite Hotel near Pennsylvania Station. First, they were required to sign a statement prepared by city lawyers saying they would not disclose the last words of their husbands, brothers and sons.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told the families that he had not known the tape existed until very recently. Later, he declined to discuss its contents, but said it had a powerful effect on him. "Every time I've seen videotapes, listened to audio recordings or read the accounts of firefighters and their actions on Sept. 11, I've felt the same thing: an extraordinary sense of awe at their incredible professionalism and bravery." [...]

Chief Palmer's widow, Debbie Palmer, said she attended the session with trepidation, but as Commissioner Scoppetta did, she used the word "awe" to describe her feelings afterward. She had known little about her husband's movements on Sept. 11. Mrs. Palmer stressed that she would not break her promise to keep the tape confidential but said it had given her some peace about her husband's last moments.

"I didn't hear fear, I didn't hear panic," she said. "When the tape is made public to the world, people will hear that they all went about their jobs without fear, and selflessly."


Every time you think you're done crying you read, hear or see another story like this and you are saddened, infuriated, and, most of all, awe struck. The enduring image of that day must not be the planes striking and the buildings collapsing, but those insanely heroic cops and firemen racing towards the buildings. That such men exist and that they were willing to die to save others makes despair unacceptable. Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2002 7:18 AM
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