Lack of planning undermined 9/11 rescue

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Efforts to save people in the two World Trade Centre towers on 11 September 2001 were undermined by faulty communications, a shortage of information and a lack of preparedness, a commission investigating the terror attacks said yesterday.

A preliminary report prepared by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission) said there were tensions between police and firefighters and that emergency operators were not able to provide fully accurate information to callers. "Today will be a very difficult day, to relive the loss and the terrible devastation," the commission's chairman, Thomas Kean, said as he opened the hearing in New York attended by 500 people, many of whom lost relatives in the attacks.

"Our purpose in presenting this information is to obtain the perspective from those who responded to the attacks. We want to know how and why they made the decisions they made, often in the absence of good information, and sometimes under the most adverse conditions," he said.

In its report, read out before testimony was heard, the commission said the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which ran the complex, "acknowledges that it had no protocol for rescuing people trapped above a fire in the towers". It described the chaos and devastation in the 100 minutes from the moment American Airlines flight 11 hit the upper section of the north tower, through the strike on the south tower by United Airlines 175, and then the collapse of first the south and then the north tower.

Victims' family members in the audience wept as footage was shown of both hijacked planes hitting the 110-storey towers, along with video testimony from survivors. Terry McGovern, whose mother died in the south tower, told reporters: "For me, it was reliving what my mother heard, what she saw, what her last moments were." The report concluded that better emergency planning could have helped save some of the almost 3,000 people who died that day.

Many people, for example, tried to escape on to the roof, which was blocked by locked doors. Despite this, police surveying the scene by helicopter concluded that a rooftop rescue may be possible. Emergency operators contacted by trapped people did not discourage them from trying to head towards the roof. "We found no protocol for communicating updated evacuation guidance to the 911 operators who were receiving calls for help," the report said.

One survivor recalled how an early series of public address announcements in Tower 2 - the south tower - told people to remain in their offices. Brian Clark, president of Euro Brokers Relief Fund, recalled hearing: "Building 2 is secure. There is no need to evacuate Building 2. If you are in the midst of evacuation, you may use the re-entry doors and the elevators to return to your office." The 26-page report offered no firm explanation for this. However, in 1993, many people were injured in the crowded evacuation of the building after a bomb attack.

Other shortfalls included a lack of co-ordination between police and fire departments, a crush of radio traffic that blotted out information, and an inability to share information effectively between on-scene officials and emergency operators.