Friday, September 08, 2006

9/11: Giuliani's Dumb and Deadly Decisions

If there was one hero of 9/11, it certainly wasn't President Bush, flying to and fro around the country in Air Force One, or Dick Cheney, hiding deep in some secret bunker. No, if there was any real hero for most people, it was certainly Rudy Giuliani -- rallying his people through the worst, saying just the right thing at just the right time -- and then there was that most vivid and lasting image of the Mayor running through the streets of lower Manhattan as his city collapsed around him.

But it was exactly his presence in lower Manhattan and his need to flee the falling World Trade Center buildings that symbolize the reality of his failure to prepare for that day.

Think about it. If you were the Mayor of New York, where would you place your central emergency command center? In secure, technologically advanced city facility just across the Brooklyn Bridge, or walking distance from City Hall, on the 23rd floor of the symbolic center of the nation's greatest city -- in a building that had already been attacked by terrorists -- 7 World Trade Center?

But it was to be the World Trade Cener because Rudy wanted to be able to walk to the command center. And, according to an article in this month's American Prospect (paid subscription), no amount of reasoning by his advisors could change his mind. (And the fact that there were some wealthy corporate types -- and Giuliani contributors -- who stood to make a few bucks off the deal probably didn't hurt either.)

And would an in-tact command center have made a difference on 9/11? Would it have saved any of the 341 firefighters and two paramedics who died that day?

Definitely, according to The 9-11 Commission’s senior counsel, John Farmer:
If the center had been located elsewhere and thus able to remain operational that day, he says, “I really think it would have made a difference. Maybe the failure to communicate among the agencies doesn’t happen that day because that thing is functioning. That’s the point of it. I’ve never been convinced that they could have done that much better with civilians, but I think the number of responder deaths could have been greatly reduced.”
Farmer continues:
To start with, the towers were “configured in such a way that the fire chiefs told us they had no idea about the conditions on the upper floors,” while the command center “would’ve had video to relay directly to the lobby.” With every departmental radio frequency available and OEM [NY Office of Emergency Management], police, and fire brass with the mayor, Farmer says that “they would have had access to ongoing reports” from police helicopters, including a pilot’s warning that the South Tower looked like it would partially collapse nine minutes before it did. The 9-11 Commission, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a McKinsey & Company report all found that this “potentially important information,” as McKinsey put it, “never reached the Incident Commander … or the senior FDNY chiefs in the lobbies.”
But of course, maybe Giuliani knew something that his aides didn't Remember that before the "heroism" of 9/11 Guiliani was best known as the Mayor who had folded his campaign for the Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton due to a rather messy and very public divorce:
It was at once the dumbest decision he ever made, and the one that made him a legend. If the center had been elsewhere, all the dramatic visuals that turned Giuliani into a nomad warrior would instead have been tense but tame footage from its barren press conference room, where reporters had been corralled prior to 9-11 for snowstorms and the Millennium celebration. The closest any cameras would’ve gotten to Giuliani-in-action would have been shots of him with 100 officials, working over monitors, maps, mikes, and phones.
The good news is that if he runs for President, he may yet have to answer for this mistake and many more:
Some of the 9-11 family leaders who have raised the most troubling issues about the city’s preparations have vowed to stalk him in the primary states. Their focus is on firefighters whose lifeline link to unheard evacuation orders was the same radio that failed in the same towers during the first terrorist bombing in February 1993. They can’t understand why the city never performed an interagency drill in the towers, had no plan or command-and-control protocol for a floor-consuming high-rise fire, and was indifferent, even after the 1993 warning, to rooftop, elevator, and handicapped rescues.

The gross failures of building- and fire-code enforcement, the stark ineptitude of the mayor’s vaunted Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the tolerated insularity of Fire Department command, the stay-put death knell of the 911 operators and fire dispatchers -- they all continue to haunt the families. They hold Giuliani himself responsible for the decision that morning to split the police and fire command posts, when the first rule of emergency response is unified command. Their separation contributed to communication gaps that every official inquiry has said caused casualties.
Rudy got his walk that day, his photo and his legend. Others didn't make out so well.