Too hot to handle

The New York Fire Department suffered a communications breakdown on Sept. 11, and hundreds of firefighters died. Why are so many journalists ignoring the story?

Published August 20, 2002 10:36PM (EDT)

In the wake of last September's terrorist attacks, journalists have filed thousands of stories covering virtually every angle of the historic event and its broad impact. Yet as the first anniversary approaches, one crucial story remains strangely underreported. It involves the Fire Department of New York, universally praised for the extraordinary sacrifices its members made that day.

Vanity Fair immortalized them in a portrait. Last fall NBC turned its emergency-rescue drama "Third Watch" into a stirring tribute to the true-life heroics of New York rescue workers, and last month the network aired a prime-time FDNY special, "Firehouse." New York firefighters will soon be honored with a new U.S. postage stamp, and Bruce Springsteen sings their praises on his new CD.

In a prologue to a new book of Sept. 11-related FDNY photographs, called "Brotherhood," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani insists "not a single firefighter died in vain that terrible day." Instead, Giuliani compares the firefighters to the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy in one of the decisive battles of World War II. "They were responsible for orchestrating the most successful rescue operation in the history of our nation," Giuliani writes of the modern-day heroes.

Yet behind that brave face of selfless heroic deeds, now almost uniform agreement has emerged within the fire-service community that the FDNY's rescue effort on Sept. 11 was seriously flawed and that perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, of firefighters died unnecessarily when the twin towers collapsed.

It's an important story, and one that both Giuliani and the current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, have fought to suppress. But with one notable exception, news operations in New York and nationwide haven't aggressively pursued it. Eager to document the FDNY's bravery and sacrifice that day, and filling their pages and the broadcasts with stories heavy on heart-wrenching sentiment, most news teams have failed to soberly examine what went wrong or whether the staggering firefighter death toll could have been avoided.

Clues have been leaking out for months. FDNY Deputy Chief Charles Blaich last January conceded at a public fire-safety seminar that commanders had "lost control" of the rescue process at the World Trade Center. And in an interview with Salon, Blaich said the critical presentation has cost him a promotion. Yet only the New York Times has aggressively pursued the story, weaving together a bleak portrait of a fire department that, while battling a disaster few could have ever imagined, was crippled by mechanical breakdowns as well as errors in judgment.

Newsday and the New York Daily News have broken only isolated stories; the Daily News has been faulted more recently by critics for showing too much deference to the Fire Department and City Hall. National news organizations have largely failed to ask pointed, disquieting questions about the World Trade Center emergency response and what the breakdowns said about the leadership of former Mayor Giuliani.

"The press is not doing enough to ask tough questions," complains Sally Regenhard, whose son Christian, a rookie New York firefighter, died in the terror attack on the World Trade Center. "I'm very dissatisfied with the press -- I expected so much more. Where's '20/20,' or '48 Hours,' or 'Frontline' on this story? Even the New York Times, which is running all this stuff, seems to be trying not to step on toes. I wish they would step on toes. Toes are crying out to be stepped on. But there's this aura around the Fire Department and everybody's untouchable."

The Times' stories have been based in part on leaks from a study released Monday by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm. The findings are stunning: FDNY chiefs were working with defective radios and often could not communicate their orders to evacuate. The same radio system had failed eight years earlier, during the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Caught up in the confusion and urgency of the moment, hundreds of on- and off-duty firefighters streamed into the towers without checking in with superiors, making it virtually impossible to keep track of their locations.

And through it all, the Fire Department was not communicating with the Police Department -- apparently, the fruit of an age-old turf battle. After the south tower had collapsed, NYPD officers in helicopters were relaying at 10:07 a.m. that the north tower looked like it too, was about to fall. Twenty-one minutes later it did, killing at least 120 firefighters, many of whom had no idea the south tower had fallen or that the north tower's demise was inevitable.

"I can remember talking with a high-ranking fire officer from the West Coast, who'd been to New York, and his comment to me was, 'The truth will probably never be known because [the rescue effort] was a such a fiasco,'" says Janet Wilmoth, editor of Fire Chief magazine.

Before Sept. 11, the Fire Department of New York had lost 752 firefighters in the line of duty during its 136-year existence. During a single morning late last summer it lost another 343 members.

The concern now among some firefighter family members, fire safety experts, and even some journalists, is that if most of the media continue with their timid ways by ignoring the story and abandoning their traditional role of public watchdog, important lessons will not be learned, and the FDNY might repeat its deadly mistakes from Sept. 11.

Regenhard, co-founder of the Skyscraper Safety Campaign, insists she doesn't expect the press to point fingers over such an emotionally charged topic. "Nobody's blaming the firefighters for doing their job," she says. "I'm criticizing the lack of a plan. The audacity to send my son and 343 innocent victims in when they knew they couldn't communicate. What was learned from 1993? I'm expecting the media to bring these questions out to the public, and they're not. They're more focused on investigating [Martha Stewart] a woman who cooks for a living and her stock sales than into how 343 firefighters died."

"The media are being overly deferential," agrees Charles Jennings, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, where he teaches fire science and protection management. "The press has shown an understandable, but inappropriate, concern about stirring up emotions in the Fire Department. But ultimately they've done a terrible disservice to the public and to firefighters because nobody's applied pressure to the Fire Department to make changes or document what went right and what went wrong" on Sept. 11.

Jimmy Breslin, the longtime New York City columnist, currently writing for Newsday, calls the media's reluctance to puncture the cloak of heroic inevitability surrounding the FDNY's Sept. 11 deaths a disgrace. "Three-hundred and forty-three firefighters die" he fumes, "and nobody fucking says anything?" In several of his columns, Breslin has blamed Giuliani for not getting the Fire Department radios that worked and for not fixing the endemic communication problem between the police and fire departments.

He also blames a new generation of journalists for coverage that fails to provoke passion. "The big thing in the press is total absence of anger. They're the best-educated people we've ever had but there's nothing inside them to get mad. They're sheep," he said in an interview. "Name one person at a newspaper or on TV who got mad about firefighters dying by city negligence. Where, among the millions of sob stories about funerals, show me one phrase raised in anger. There's a famous saying you don't hear in this country much anymore. 'The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who pursue neutrality in times of crisis.' That goes for the fucking press, too." One prominent New York journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, is equally blunt: "Everybody's a hero [and] anything that doesn't fit into that scenario is left out."

It's hard to imagine another recent news story that has so much raw emotion and mythology wrapped around it. The New York Times came up against that mind-set last October when a reporter wrote that official counts listing the number of dead at 5,000 to 6,000 were too high and that the actual toll was probably closer to 3,000. "Giuliani lit into it," recalls Times metro editor Jonathan Landman. "It didn't make sense, but it wasn't just Giuliani. The high [fatality] number for many people was a sacred number even though it wasn't true. And I think the same irrational holding-on-of-myth was true in the case of the emergency response.

"It's undoubtedly true that hundreds of emergency response people acted with enormous bravery that day. It's also true -- it's the conventional wisdom now -- that it wasn't well coordinated. Somehow it's hard for some people to accept those two things, that a careful look at emergency response is not inconsistent with the bravery of that day."

Others, however, suggest critics should take into account the enormity of the events last September when analyzing the coverage. "The situation in New York was so unique in so many ways," says Marko Bourne, executive officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. "I don't know if anybody knows what the ground rules are, including the press, to say when do you start asking hard questions."

"We probably haven't been as analytical as we might've been with another story," says Steve Paulus, senior vice president and general manager of NY1, the city's all-news cable channel. "I don't think the media as whole has distinguished itself in analyzing the event. But it's still an open, gaping wound. There hasn't been a day since last Sept. 11 when my staff hasn't been affected by the story in some way.

"No matter what we do with this story you're going to upset somebody," Paulus adds. "If you ask hard questions people are unhappy. If we don't ask hard questions people are upset."

And the fact there's so little government investigation into the matter means the press does not have a natural story line to track. "It's not as though agencies are falling over themselves to find out what happened," says Landman at the Times. "It's a little odd. After the Titanic and Pearl Harbor there were extraordinary inquiries, with 1,200 and 1,300 pages of public transcripts for the Titanic inquiry alone."

Currently, the Times is suing the city of New York for access to hundreds of written and audio records related to the Fire Department response on Sept. 11. Bloomberg's administration has argued in court that releasing the information could hinder the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged as a Sept. 11 conspirator.

The press in this case does have its defenders. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who has been closely involved with the World Trade Center cleanup, praises the coverage to date as "extraordinary." And Jerry Nachman, MSNBC talk-show host and former New York Post editor, also gives the New York press high marks for its probing, post-Sept. 11 work. "I don't see any soft-pedaling over the coverage, or a reluctance to cover the story," Nachman says. He suggests press complaints from FDNY family members are examples of "displaced sorrow into rage."

Newsday reporter Graham Rayman, who has been covering the WTC cleanup and examining the Sept. 11 rescue effort, disagrees with the premise that news stories haven't detailed serious FDNY failings on Sept. 11. "I think there's been quite a lot of articles written that looked at the response and raised questions about the response and why wasn't it better," Rayman says.

Last year, the New York Daily News did important stories about how commanders were unable to communicate with firefighters, and how chiefs discussed the possibility of the twin towers collapsing very early in the response mission. Newsday reported that, several years ago, a prominent World Trade Center safety expert suggested that the city's fire, police and emergency medical agencies stage a training exercise for the scenario of an airplane slamming into the twin towers. The training session was never staged. And in January, the New York Times printed excerpts from internal FDNY interviews, part of an oral history about the Sept. 11 mission, which often highlighted how little went right that morning.

But given the deaths of 343 firefighters in one disastrous day, the small number of probing news stories seems a response that doesn't match the magnitude of the event.

Members of the fire service community, as well as New York journalists, note that this year the New York Daily News in particular seems to have shrunk away from a story that should have been a natural. The blue-collar tabloid has served as the unofficial paper of the New York Fire Department, as well as the NYPD, for nearly a century.

"It's the first newspaper you see in the back room of any fire house in New York," says New York native Glenn Usdin, chief of the Lancaster, Pa., Fire Department and president of the officer training institute, Command School. "Maybe because the New York Times is not the paper of record for the FDNY, it felt more comfortable taking a more critical look at the department," says Usdin. "That's something the Daily News has not been able to do."

Blaich, the FDNY deputy chief, adds: "I've been very surprised the Daily News hasn't followed through with much at all."

Says former Daily News columnist Breslin: "They should've done the story and they didn't. The voice of the people? They don't care about the people or the Fire Department. They only care about Giuliani."

Daily News spokesman Ken Frydman dismisses the comments of Breslin and other journalists as competitors with an ax to grind. As for the Daily News' FDNY coverage since last September, "we've covered it fairly and objectively, with no reluctance. We have never shied away from tough articles," he says. "Call any firehouse in the city and ask them which paper they think has covered this story better."

Nonetheless, the paucity of serious reporting about the FDNY's response to the attacks was illustrated last January when Blaich gave a presentation at a John Jay College seminar about problems the department faced that day. It was there he told the audience that commanders had "lost control." The revelation caused a ripple among the local press -- the New York Post gave it 400 words the next day -- but was virtually ignored by the national news organizations.

"It's kind of scary my presentation was considered news -- the attack was in September and I spoke in January," Blaich says now. "I assumed everybody knew there were command and control problems that day. Any reporter worth his salt and who'd ever been to a fire scene should've known there was serious communication problems that day."

Although asked by the FDNY to give the presentation, Blaich, a 33-year department veteran, says the truth-telling hurt his career. "I've been told point-blank, 'Don't expect any advances because you gave that speech,'" he says. An FDNY spokesman declined to comment on Blaich's claim, saying he was not aware of the substance or context of the conversation in question.

The McKinsey study was commissioned shortly after Blaich's presentation, and the Times used them as a jumping-off point for its epic July 7 story on Page 1. It portrayed in stark detail how the lack of communication, both between FDNY commanders and their men, as well as the FDNY and NYPD, certainly cost firefighters their lives that day. Among the most damning conclusions was that even after the first tower collapsed, scores of firefighters in the remaining tower were seen resting in stairwells minutes before it fell, apparently unaware of how dire the situation was.

"If that's not a story, what the hell is?" asks Neil Munro, editor of the Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich.

On July 11, Munro wrote an editorial for the Oakland Press, one of the few of its kind to appear anywhere in America, calling attention to the FDNY's tragic failings: "Despite the fact that the department's leaders had concluded from the outset that the World Trade Center fires were 'unfightable,' crews were sent in with fighting it in mind. Scores of off-duty firefighters put on gear and rushed to the scene without telling anyone in authority they were there. On-duty personnel in some cases refused to stay away."

The column was quickly picked up by and soon firefighters nationwide, upset with terms Munro used like "mob," "cowboys," and "foolhardy," deluged the Press with angry e-mail. Munro subsequently apologized in print for the "harsh and unfair" wording. But, he insisted: "The danger in the aftermath of such a disaster is that tears will get in the way of the need to ask tough questions and make tough decisions for the future."

That's not a message being heard by the national press. Eleven months after the terrorist catastrophe struck, television news in particular continues to show little or no interest in any FDNY story that does not begin and end with bravery.

Professor Jennings notes CBS's prime-time special earlier this year built around raw footage of the twin towers attack shot by two French brothers who at the time were making a documentary about FDNY firefighters. Time and again it showed FDNY chiefs in the WTC lobby trying in vain to radio firefighters climbing the stairs. "CBS turned the program into an entertainment piece," says Jennings. "That's fine, but why didn't they tie it into "60 Minutes" and have a panel discussion afterwards to analyze what happened and ask, 'Did we learn anything?'"

Even after the details of the FDNY controversy had been explicitly laid out in the New York Times in July, cable television hosts still seem oblivious. That was highlighted earlier this month when former New York Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen made the rounds on TV talk shows promoting his new book, "Strong of Heart: Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York."

CNN's Paula Zahn mentioned the "second-guessing going on about why so many New York City firefighters lost their lives that day." But she quickly attributed the controversy over defective radios as "union sniping," and then urged Von Essen: "Let's come back to the individual stories of bravery."

Appearing later on "Connie Chung Tonight," the host vaguely mentioned "some plaguing questions" about the FDNY rescue effort, without explaining to viewers what the questions were. Even the most dedicated CNN viewer would have been hard-pressed to figure out what the "plaguing questions" were, since the all-news channel has steadfastly avoided that FDNY topic. During two appearances on Fox News, interviewers never pressed Von Essen about the death toll. And on the "CBS Morning Show," Von Essen was gently questioned about whether, when he looked back on the day when 343 firefighters died, he "wished, obviously, that it had gone differently."

One curious counterpoint is especially telling: Months before Sept. 11, network news programs lavished attention on the FDNY when three of its men died during the devastating Father's Day fire at a Queens warehouse. NBC's "Dateline" aired an extensive piece chronicling the deadly fire. Three nights later, ABC's "Nightline" dedicated an entire program to the topic. To date, neither network news program has examined the details surrounding the 343 firefighter deaths on Sept. 11.

Some observers suggest that when the one-year anniversary has passed, more journalists will take up the FDNY story. "I think then we'll see more detailed examination," predicts Paulus at NY1.

For Sally Regenhard, too much time has already been lost with too few questions about what happened on that bright September morning. Even now, she doesn't know which tower her firefighter son was in when he died. "Time is the enemy of any investigation. People get sick and tired and want to forget about it," she says. "You have all these people waving the flags saying isn't it great, they [firefighters] are heroes, and talking about angels flying around. But they're not dealing with the real issues. The response was a hopeless debacle. The Fire Department's system is broken and terribly dysfunctional, and we've avoided that elephant in the room."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cnn Michael Bloomberg Rudy Giuliani Terrorism The New York Times