Published January 14, 2015
The first of two days of Sept. 11 hearings investigating breakdowns in communication, unrelayed terrorism intelligence and confusion over rescuers' roles wrapped up late Tuesday afternoon.
The hearings, which focused on the World Trade Center attacks in New York, are set to reconvene Wednesday morning, with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (search) and current Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge slated to testify.
The afternoon session of the Tuesday hearings featured testimony from current New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scopetta and Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno.
"I think we're more prepared today to respond to major acts of terrorism than we were on 9/11," Scopetta said.
The fire chief said the department has been actively hiring and promoting firefighters and had adopted a new radio communication system that was more technologically advanced than the one used on Sept. 11. He echoed earlier testimony by former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik (search ) that a perfect radio does not yet exist.
Kelly said he thought communication between the city's force and the FBI had improved, but he said the FBI should devote more agents to anti-terrorism detail, and said he would like the most extensive information possible on any national cases that could relate to New York.
Commission member Bob Kerrey said New York deserved "unique attention" for its status as the financial and media capital of the world. "God help" New York if it gets attacked for a third time, he said, and many hearing attendees responded with applause.
Kelly responded that the city needs more funding to help protect such an obvious target for terrorism. "We have national and international assets here," he said. "And we're spending our dime to protect them."
Earlier in the day, former World Trade Center director Alan Reiss told the Sept. 11 commission he was unaware of the threat posed by Usama bin Laden (search) until the summer before the attacks and was not briefed by the FBI on key intelligence about Islamic terrorism.
"I don't feel anger at the FBI — I feel anger at 19 people in the airplanes," Reiss said Tuesday during an exchange with Kerrey.
To the applause of observing family members, the former Nebraska senator replied that there remained a "presumption that we may not be delivering the key information" to officials outside the FBI and that the 19 hijackers "defeated the INS, they defeated the Customs (Bureau), they defeated the FBI, they defeated the CIA."
Click here to read the Sept. 11 panel report.
A new 26-page report prepared by the commission and read at the opening of the hearing recounted how Sept. 11 rescuers were forced to make split-second decisions based on incomplete communications, contributing to the death toll.
Emotions ran high as the panel revisited the jarring sights and sounds of the attacks and their aftermath. Within 20 minutes, family members of the World Trade Center victims were in tears and offering each other support.
"We've got a job to do," said Democratic commissioner and former Rep. Tim Roemer. "That is — what are the lessons learned, what's been fixed, and what still needs to be fixed."
The commission also scrutinized the long-standing rivalry between the NYPD (search) and the Fire Department, saying that in many instances, the two agencies did not communicate effectively or quickly.
Lee Hamilton, vice-chairman of commission, called the seemingly conflicting responsibilities between the departments "a prescription for confusion."
In his opening statement to the panel, Kerik said he believed all of the planning and drills his department had been through up to that point "had us as prepared as we possibly could have been to handle the events of that day. I believe we did our best based on what we knew at that time."
Reiss testified that communication is key in disaster response.
"Without information, you don't know what you're doing. You really need to have communication at the command post," said Reiss. On Sept. 11, he said, "the people watching on TV knew more than we did."
Reiss said he believed the sprinkler system in the towers was destroyed by the planes' impact and building codes need to be updated.
"The codes need to change and take into account that we are living in a different world today," he said, adding emergency responders are not going to just be dealing with "a normal high-rise fire started by a coffee machine. We're dealing with terrorism."
One critical issue — early public address announcements in Tower 2 telling workers to remain at their offices — was recounted verbatim by a survivor.
The panel's findings on planning and emergency response set the stage for the dramatic testimony at the New School University (search), about 1 1/2 miles from ground zero.
"The details we will be presenting may be painful for you to see and hear," the commission staff warned attendees as the hearings began. The commission showed footage of the first hijacked plane slamming into the first tower and played videotaped testimony from survivors.
"For me, it was reliving what my mother heard, what she saw, what her last moments were," said Terry McGovern, whose mom died in the south tower.
Committee member Sam Casperson, in a minute-by-minute recounting of the second plane's crash into the World Trade Center, detailed how Port Authority workers were advised to wait for assistance on the 64th floor — and many of them died when the tower collapsed.
Communications breakdowns also prevented announcements to evacuate from reaching civilians in the building, Casperson said. One survivor of the attacks recounted calling 911 from the 44th floor of the south tower, only to be placed on hold twice.
Emergency 911 operators had a "lack of awareness" about what was happening at the twin towers, and were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls, Casperson said.
The report offers no concrete explanation for that direction. But it does suggest two possible reasons: a concern for workers being injured by falling debris from the other tower, and the knowledge that in the 1993 bombing, many of the injuries were sustained in the crowded evacuation of the building.
In the years since the attacks, a rising chorus of New Yorkers has demanded a tough-minded probe of the city's emergency response — a public airing of shortcomings that would assign responsibility for a series of systemic flaws.
While the report does find fault in a few instances, it largely sympathizes with officials and rescue personnel forced to improvise in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe.
While some 2,749 people died, Giuliani has described the efforts — in which 25,000 people were saved — as the "greatest rescue mission in the history of the United States." Giuliani is to testify Wednesday.
Last month, commissioners heard from President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Bill Clinton and ex-Vice President Al Gore as well as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Fox News' Amy C. Sims and The Associated Press contributed to this report.