- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

NEW YORK — A member of the September 11 commission yesterday defined as scandalous the lack of coordination between firefighters and police officers responding to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

John F. Lehman, former secretary of the Navy and a commission member, said he was fully aware of the emergency services’ tradition of pride, but said “pride runneth before the fall.”

“It’s a scandal that after laboring for eight years [since the first attack on the World Trade Center], the city comes up with a plan for incident management that puts into concrete a clearly dysfunctional system. … It’s not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city,” he said as applause interrupted his remarks.

Former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, whose department lost 343 firefighters, called the charge “outrageous.”

“You make it sound like everything was wrong about September 11. I think it’s outrageous that you make a statement like that,” Mr. Von Essen said.

The sharp exchange came in the opening hours of testimony in a two-day hearing examining the city’s disaster preparedness before the attack and what it has done since then. Strong emotion marked the proceedings at the New School University in Lower Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center site.

During a video presentation of the events of September 11, muffled sobs emanated from the audience.

A 26-page staff report embargoed until yesterday morning recounted the timeline of events, including video of the impact of the hijacked airliners, and criticized the way information was relayed to people inside the Twin Towers.

Damage to the public address system prevented evacuation instructions from reaching many civilians inside the buildings, and calls to 911 were the only outlet for many, the report says. But emergency operators were overwhelmed and “lacked awareness” about what was happening, and no coordinated instructions were given to callers.

The report said doors to the roof were locked, trapping people on the upper floors, and the intense heat from the explosion made helicopter rescue impossible. Problems with firefighters’ radios and communication gaps between the police and fire departments further complicated an evacuation.

Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, whose department lost 23 officers in the attack, said the radio equipment available is unreliable in such situations.

“Everybody’s trying to judge who should have, could have, would have. Everybody cooperated and did the best they could have done under the circumstances,” Mr. Kerik said.

Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska and current president of New School University, suggested that one of the mistakes was the lack of attention given to New York City as a prime terrorist target.

Under Mr. Kerrey’s questioning, Police Commissioner Mike Kelly said the city’s hospitals still could not handle a large-scale biological attack and that better ship manifests are needed.

Mr. Kerrey suggested more money to upgrade contingency programs.

“God help Congress and the administration if the third time the city is attacked and more people die than are necessary and more people die in response than are necessary, we’re left again saying, ‘Well we asked for resources and didn’t get them,’” said the former senator.

The commission, officially known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, has a budget of $15 million and about 80 full-time employees. Its final report is due on July 26.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg are scheduled to appear before the commission today.

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