NEW YORK – It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and Rudolph Giuliani was eating breakfast with two old friends when he was told that a twin-engine plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. “I looked up, and I saw a beautiful clear day, so we decided it was not an accident,” he said. “It must be an attack.”
This was just the beginning of a very long and painful day for New York’s mayor. In a rare glimpse into a moment of crisis for a public official – and a nation – Mr. Giuliani recounted the first 100 minutes after the initial attack in testimony Wednesday before the 9/11 commission.
He recalled the feeling of the war zone, his eagerness to save people, and then his realization that he had to find a way to respond. Gone were the usual political rules. When Gov. George Pataki offered him National Guard troops – something he had always resisted – he accepted. Right away. “We were in such need,” he said.
His testimony followed a day when the commissioners clashed with his former police, fire, and emergency chiefs by suggesting that there were problems in everything from the 911 emergency-call system to the radios used by the fire department. The often accusatory tone of the meeting prompted New York’s tabloids to defend the police and firefighters and possibly resulted in a more subdued session Wednesday.
In fact, one of the commissioners, former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, went out of his way to explain, “We’re not looking for villains.” Instead, he said, they were trying to find out what happened and what lessons could be learned.
Giuliani offered his own insights by explaining how he confronted the crisis. Almost immediately, he tried to reach the White House and governor. He got hold of his police commissioner, but quickly found that he, like most New Yorkers, could not use his cellphone. As he was driven toward the scene, he passed St. Vincent’s Hospital. “We saw many doctors and nurses, and stretchers being prepared out front,” he said. “And it registered with us that this was more like a war zone, not a conventional emergency.”
Once Giuliani reached the towers, he was stunned to see people jumping out of windows from high floors. This prompted him to ask, “Can we get helicopters up to the roof?” But one of the police officials replied that it was probably not possible. “But my guys can save everyone below the fire,” he recalled the police official saying. Giuliani knew this meant high casualties, and when he encountered fire chaplain Mychal Judge, he asked him, “Pray for us.” Father Judge, an old Giuliani friend, later died at the site.
Giuliani soon made connections with the White House, which told him the city could expect air support. By now, he and his entourage had commandeered a building near the scene. Suddenly, “We heard a click, and the desk started to shake. I heard the chief say, ‘The tower is down.’ I did not conceive of an entire tower coming down.” After a cloud of debris swept past, Giuliani decided to leave the building. Soon afterward, “We heard a tremendous noise, and we realized the second building was coming down.”
The mayor worked to figure out where to set up operations. Eventually he settled on Pier 92, because the following day, a drill was scheduled involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies preparing for a potential biological and chemical attack. The governor quickly joined him there. “We agreed to put our governments together in one room, and run the emergency together,” he recalled.
Before his testimony was over, Giuliani encountered a familiar scene – angry New Yorkers. Some people screamed, “Talk about the radios,” referring to fire department radios that didn’t work well. Giuliani, undeterred as usual, replied, “It’s understandable.”
The former mayor had few new suggestions for the commissioners. He agreed the 911 system needed to be improved, as well as other communications systems. But he added, “Those radios do not exist today.”
In fact, the staff concluded that the FDNY “has responded with particular energy to the lessons of 9/11 and has acted to address many of the concerns we have identified.” The city no longer allows off-duty firefighters to join in during emergencies. Almost all the members of the specialized rescue teams streamed into the World Trade Center. They were all lost, and as the commission noted, the city would not have had any ability to address a hazardous material episode.
But Giuliani was quick to point out that it is just part of their nature to want to save people. He recalled the story about a firefighter who ignored the order to evacuate one of the towers to help someone in a wheelchair. Both individuals died. “They even have a different interpretation of an evacuation order,” he said.