Stay where you are: fateful advice to twin towers victims reopens Manhattan's wounds

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Transcripts of desperate conversations between people trapped in the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001, and the emergency services reveal that people in the second tower were told to stay where they were even as the first tower began to smoke and burn after it was struck by a hijacked airliner.

While the full impact of that advice will likely never be known, it is likely some people who could have fled, lost their lives when the second plane struck because they had stayed where they were.

Transcripts of the increasingly frantic calls to the emergency services make clear the panic of the after the first plane hit at 8.46am. One man called police from the 92nd floor of the second tower and asked: "We need to know if we need to get out of here, because we know there's an explosion." The officer he spoke to asked if there was smoke on the floor, and the caller replied that there was not. "Should we stay or should we not?" the caller then asked. "I would wait 'til further notice," came the reply from the officer. "OK, all right," the caller then said. "Don't evacuate." He then hung up.

The transcripts ­ released last night after a judge agreed to a request from the New York Times that they should be made available ­ are certain to reignite the controversy about the failure to evacuate the second of the towers. No one in the top floors of the tower survived after a second plane hit around the 80th floor shortly after 9am and some survivors who fled before the plane struck said they had been told to stay in the building.

The anguish and desperation contained within the 2,000 pages is also certain to horrify many of the relatives of the near-3,000 people who died that morning when 19 al-Qa'ida operatives hijacked four airliners and carried out a devastating terror attack.

In another call to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, one man got through to officers from the roof of one building, while the assistant manager of the Windows on the World restaurant called to report that people were stranded on the 106th floor. "We need direction as to where to direct our guests and our employees, as soon as possible," she said. An officer told the woman: "We're doing our best ... we're trying to get up to you, dear. All right, call back in two or three minutes, and I'll try to find out what direction you should try to get down."

The transcripts of conversations involving 33 Port Authority employees also contain references to the scores of people who jumped or else were forced from the top of the towers as the flames spread. "Yo, I've got dozens of bodies, people just jumping from the top of the building onto ... in front of One World Trade," said one male caller. "People. Bodies are just coming from out of the sky ... up top of the building." The answer of the female operator highlights the incredulity of the situation. "Bodies?" she replied.

Some of the doomed callers identified themselves by name when they spoke to the authorities. Others were recognised by co-workers. One call refers to the Port Authority's executive director Neil Levin, who was killed.

"We got the director, Levin's wife, and also the governor, looking for Levin," said one official. A Port Authority police officer answered: "Uh, my understanding was Levin was not up in his office."

The New York Port Authority, whose offices were located in a lower floor of one of the towers, had initially refused to release the tapes, arguing they would be too upsetting for the families of those who died. A deal was finally reached where the authority would provide transcripts rather than tapes. The agency then tried to back out of the deal until the newspaper secured a judgment from a court.

The Port Authority last night stood by the conduct of its staff. Spokesman Greg Trevor said: "In general, they show people performing their duties very heroically and very professionally on a day of horror."

The release of transcripts resulted in mixed emotions among family members, some of whom were angered by their release while others believed they will be productive in trying to determine what happened. Some declined to even views the transcripts before their release. "It's not that I don't have an interest," said Theresa Riccardelli, whose husband, Francis, was killed. "I can't."

The release of the transcripts comes two weeks before the second anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington in which close to 3,000 people were killed. Some families are threatening to boycott ceremonies planned for 11 September because they object to the reconstruction plans, under which buildings would overlap the footprints of the destroyed towers.

On Monday ­ when the authority said it would comply with the court order ­ it appealed to the media to use restraint in their use of the transcripts and to resist the temptation to publish some of the passages, that have been described as especially gruelling.

Catherine Pavelec, the port authority's manager of administration and protocol and a survivor of the attacks, said the tapes gave "a very real sense of how many people needed help and how short a period of time we had to help them".

The largest section of the tapes are calls for help to the port authority police, most of them by port authority officials. Many had entered the buildings to help after the planes had slammed into the buildings. And many of them were never seen alive again.


Male caller: "Yo, I've got dozens of bodies, people just jumping from the top of the building... Bodies are just coming from out of the sky..."

Officer: "Bodies?"

Male caller, 90th floor : "Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is building one."

Port Authority Police, Officer Ray Murray: "Yeah, what floor are you on, sir?"

Caller: "We're on the 90th floor... I've got five people here. We can't get out."

Officer Murray: "We are sending officers up there now. It's on multiple floors."

Caller: "Thank you. OK."

Female caller: "We are on the 88th floor. We're trapped ... The whole building is going ... to ... coming down on me. The building is starting ... coming down... (inaudible) ..."