9/11 Tape Has Late Change On Evacuation

The New York Times | May 17, 2004
By Jim Dwyer

As part of its hearings this week in New York, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks will report on one of the most contentious issues of that morning: the contradictory evacuation instructions given in the World Trade Center, particularly public-address announcements made by an official in the south tower urging tenants to stay in the building even though fire was raging in the other tower.

A voice message tape enhanced over the weekend by an audio expert at the request of The New York Times captures the last of the announcements made in the south tower, revealing that less than a minute before the building was struck, authorities changed their earlier instructions and ordered an evacuation.

The earlier announcements had life and death consequences, according to dozens of people who escaped from the south tower. They said scores of office workers who had started to leave the building turned back when they heard those instructions. Many others never left their offices. About 600 people were trapped and died in the upper floors of the south tower when it was struck, about 16 minutes after the north tower. The commission has not located any tapes of those earlier announcements, according to a New York official who has been briefed on the panel's findings.

The instructions to stay inside the buildings were given not only over the public-address system, but also to individual tenants from both the north and the south towers who telephoned the Port Authority police.

A clear understanding of the evacuation instructions could have wide implications for building design and safety practices. Many fire safety experts have said that the announcements and instructions at the trade center, rather than reflecting mistakes made under extreme pressure, were consistent with widely accepted doctrines of high-rise fire safety. At the time, these called for people to stay in their offices unless they were on or near a burning floor. Experts agree that such policies now carry little weight, given the collapse of the two towers.

Most tall buildings in the United States, including those at the trade center, were not designed for complete evacuation during a crisis because of the belief that built-in systems can contain and suppress fires, and because staircases reduce the amount of rentable floor space.

Even after the 1993 bombing at the trade center, the emergency planning there never anticipated a complete evacuation, according to officials. A federally funded study of the evacuation is being conducted by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, which recently mailed a survey to 20,000 people who worked in the towers.

On the morning of Sept. 11, the earliest moments of the response were directed by civilian officials, known as deputy fire safety directors, who were stationed in the lobby of each tower. In a radio conversation about two minutes after the first plane struck, the director in the south tower was recorded saying of an evacuation, ''I'm not going to do anything until we get orders from the Fire Department or somebody.'' The remainder of that tape is blank.

At several points during the next 14 minutes, many survivors said, announcements were made in the south tower declaring that the building was secure. Some tenants said they were specifically told to return to their desks; others remember being told they could go to a cafeteria. A tape recording shows that at 8:59, 13 minutes after the north tower was hit, a Port Authority Police captain, Anthony R. Whitaker, called for a complete evacuation of the trade center, though it is not clear how or whether this was communicated to the lobby desks.

At 9:02 a.m., Sean Rooney, who worked for Aon Risk Management Services on the 98th floor of the south tower, called his wife, Beverly Eckert, at her office and left a voice message. Mr. Rooney died in the attack. Ms. Eckert provided a copy of her husband's message to The Times.

As Mr. Rooney speaks, a public-address announcement can be faintly heard in the background. A tape of his call was digitally enhanced by Paul Ginsberg, the president of Professional Audio Labs, who has served as a consultant on sound recordings for the F.B.I., the C.I.A., Congress and the National Archives. In his laboratory, Mr. Ginsberg was able to obtain a clear rendering of the background announcement.

That announcement, by a male voice, says: ''May I have your attention, please. Repeating this message: the situation occurred in Building 1.''

During this part of the message, Mr. Rooney also is speaking. He says: ''Looks like we'll be in this tower for a while. It's, it's secure here.''

As the next part of the public announcement begins, Mr. Rooney suddenly stops talking, as if distracted from the phone call by the words he is now hearing.

The announcer says, ''If the conditions warrant on your floor, you may wish to start an orderly evacuation.''

With that, Mr. Rooney abruptly signs off, saying, ''I'll talk to you later. 'Bye.''