Sept. 11 calls give texture to voices of heroes, victims

N.Y. port officials release transcripts from 911, radio

By Sean Gardiner
Staff Writer
Originally published August 29, 2003

NEW YORK -- The mass chaos, confusion, horror and heroism of the World Trade Center attack and the individual terror of victims trapped alone in the minutes before thousands died are revealed in chilling detail in transcripts of Port Authority radio and phone communications released Thursday.

Understandably, there was much confusion from the moment the first plane crashed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. Callers from the South Tower were told to stay at their desks, for example, rather than evacuate.

But Port Authority Police Chief Joseph Morris said the number of selfless heroic acts that occurred that morning are underrepresented in the communications, because, "When you're carrying someone down a flight of stairs to safety, you don't stop to call it in."

Mostly, the calls present the sad story of lonely deaths and last words from a place where 2,792 lost their lives.

"Operations, this is Tony Savas," a call from a 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector starts. "I'm trapped in the elevator and debris ... water's coming in, and smoke, on the 78th floor, One World Trade Center, Car Number 81-A. Can you have somebody open it up, please?"

Savas' call is interrupted by a call about a man in a wheelchair who is stuck in the 27th floor staircase. Then it resumes.

"Listen, this is Tony Savas, if you can, I'm on the 78th floor, I'm trapped in the elevator. Water and debris is coming down. And I'm in Car 81-A. Please send somebody to open the doors."

Those were Savas' last recorded words. Savas' family could not be reached for comment.

A woman believed to be Christine Olender, the assistant general manager of Windows on the World Restaurant, called. "We're having a smoke condition," she said. "We have most people on the 106th floor, the 107th is way too smoky. We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees, as soon as possible."

A Port Authority police officer responded, "OK. We're doing our best, we've got the fire department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you, dear. All right, call back in about two or three minutes, and I'll find out what direction you should try to get down."

But the call continued with the officer asking if all the stairways were blocked.

"The stairways are full of smoke ... and my electric ... phone are out ... The condition up on 106 is getting worse," she tells the officer.

The officer advises Olender to sit tight and call back in "two minutes."

When Olender called back she was more frantic.

"We, we have the fresh air going down fast! I'm not exaggerating!"

Port Authority police officer Ray Murray assures her he knows she is not exaggerating and that the fire department is on the way.

"What are we going to do for air?" Olender asks. "Can we break a window?"

"You can do whatever you have to to get to, uh, the air," Murray responds.

"All right," said Olender, the last time she was heard from.

The Port Authority released about 2,000 pages of documents related to the attacks, including transcripts of about 260 hours of recorded radio and telephone conversations between Port Authority police and civilians, and conversations between the agency's police and civilian employees and the public.

The release of the documents was ordered by a New Jersey judge last Friday in response to a lawsuit filed by The New York Times. The documents include Port Authority police officers' own written accounts of that day.

The recordings -- taken from nearly 100 Port Authority police and civilian radio channels and telephone lines -- were recovered by Port Authority police in the rubble of 5 World Trade Center about three weeks after the attacks.

The transcripts include conversations with the agency's police desk at the World Trade Center, Central Police Desk in Jersey City, the PATH command in Jersey City and at Newark Liberty International Airport. LaGuardia Airport's transcripts have not been released yet, and Kennedy Airport tapes have not been located yet, agency officials said.

Amid the confusion, most people had no idea what had caused the disaster.

A caller relaying a message to an official at Superintendent of Police Fred Morrone's office incorrectly stated: "The first one they think was a guy shooting the missiles off the Woolworth building. And the second one they think is an airplane that was circling to watch it, and hit the World Trade."

"Oh, man," a woman in Morrone's office responded. "And both towers were hit?"

"Both towers," the caller said.

Communications channels for the Port Authority in both New York and New Jersey were overloaded as responding officers tried to get their bearings straight.

After Tower One was hit, an officer directed people from the first tower to the second toward a makeshift triage center.

As more officers arrived, the command center location seemed to move constantly, with officers confused about exactly where it was.

Port Authority personnel in New Jersey tried to organize backup and supply efforts, but found they were unable to access bridges into Manhattan, which had already been closed.

Even the FBI had trouble finding their way in with bomb check units, and frazzled Port Authority operators became increasingly frustrated with their requests, no matter how urgent. "Please stay off the air, we have numerous units trapped," one male operator demanded of an FBI agent. "The bridge is closed until further notice. Bomb threat."

Port Authority officer Tommy Cashin at PATH called Authority police in Newark to say, "We have a report over the radio from New York City that there is a third plane on the way."

A sergeant who answered said, "Yeah, we heard that too."

In one call to the police desk, a Port Authority officer advises an identified woman to tell anybody she knows living along the coast from Jersey City to New York City to get away from there. "Get out, go west, do something."

The tapes are full of frantic calls from wives, husbands, children and family members checking on the welfare of those who worked in the Twin Towers.

Officer John Kannuzo, tells his son, "a terrible thing happened, Anthony, some very sick people." When the son asked him how many people were dead, the man answered "thousands."

"Daddy, what will happen?"

"Will you do me a favor, Anthony? Daddy's not home, so you are the big man in the house. So you help mommy and keep her happy, okay?"

Kannuzo made it out alive.

In all the confusion, some mistakes were made, such as when Kyra Houston, a New York City cop, called in looking for her brother, Uhuru "Gonja" Houston that morning.

"Yeah, he's okay,'' a Port Authority officer told her.

"Tell him to call my mother because she's crying and ... hysterical,'' the sister requested.

Houston did not survive the collapse.

The Port Authority fought to bar the release of the tapes in part because they feared the tapes would cause families of the workers who died that day anguish.

The transcript does contain some graphic accounts.

One man called to report, "There's body parts all over the place. So much -- bodies blew out of the building. …There's got to be hundreds of people killed in there. There's body parts like five blocks away."

Another male officer reported: "I've got dozens of bodies, people just jumping from the top of the building onto ... in front of One World Trade... bodies are just coming from out of the sky." But there's also a subtler sort of horror, the type where you find out later that the people calling for help didn't survive.

Peter Negron, a 34-year-old project manager in the environmental field, radioed his friend Carlos DaCosta, a 41-year-old general manager of building services, asking his location.

"I'm up by 87 (floor), with a couple people,'' DaCosta said. "Trapped in the elevator."

After asking his floor again, Negron told DaCosta, "I'm on my way up."

"Roger," DaCosta said using the radio lingo, then added. "Thank you."

Neither man survived.

Patrick Hoey, executive manager at the Port Authority's department of tunnels, bridges and terminals, was told to "stand tight" on the 64th floor of Tower One when he called the agency's central police desk in Jersey City.

"I'm on the 64th floor ... I've got about 20 people with me ... what do you suggest?" asked Hoey.

After asking him if there was a fire nearby, a police sergeant said, "Stay near the stairwells and, and wait for the police to come up."

"They will come up, huh?" asked Hoey. "Okay. They will check each floor? If you would, just report that we're up here."

"I got you," the officer said.

Hoey calls another officer minutes later, saying, "We are contemplating going down the stairway. Does that make sense?"

This time he's told, "Yes. Try to get out."

Hoey didn't make it.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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