The union representing New York City firefighters is running a misleading video blaming former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the deaths of more than 100 firefighters at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
We agree that Giuliani bears some responsibility for the widely documented failings of the fire department’s radio communications on 9/11. It is true that the effective functioning of the fire department is a major responsibility of any mayor, and Giuliani had been in office since 1994. However, the video goes too far when it implies that bad radio communication was the only reason that 121 firefighters failed to clear the North Tower of the Trade Center after the first tower collapsed. To the contrary, the 9/11 Commission stated in its final report that the technical failure of fire department radios “was not the primary cause of the many firefighter fatalities in the North Tower.”
Other aspects of the video are misleading, including:
- an allegation that Giuliani “blamed the victims” for not following evacuation orders, when his comments were in response to a question about heroism on 9/11;
- a statement that Giuliani pulled firefighters off recovery efforts, when he had reduced, not eliminated, the number of workers;
- a claim that Giuliani had protesting firefighters arrested, when arrests were minimal and most charges were dropped, as requested by the mayor.
The International Association of Fire Fighters released the video on July 11. Titled “Rudy Giuliani: Urban Legend,” it blames the former New York mayor for the deaths of more than 100 firefighters on 9/11, accuses him of giving misleading testimony to “blame the victims” for their own deaths and charges him with showing disrespect for the dead by ordering that their remains be “removed like garbage” and dumped in a huge landfill.
Firefighters and Swift Boats
The video logged more than 173,000 viewings on YouTube during the first several days and was the subject of wide news coverage. It has been compared to ads run by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, challenging Giuliani’s reputation as a hero of 9/11 much as the earlier ads attacked Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s reputation as a hero of the Vietnam War.
The core allegation is that Giuliani failed to upgrade fire department radios following an earlier attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and that his failure led directly to the deaths of the firefighters who died in the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower on 9/11.
The first part of that is true enough, but not the second.
The video’s narrator states, “Rudy and his hand-picked fire commissioner took seven long years to replace the defective radios with new defective radios.” That harsh judgment is accurate. Giuliani was sworn in Jan. 1, 1994. There’s no dispute about the fact that fire department radios failed to function the previous year, when a 1,500-pound truck bomb went off in the garage under the World Trade Center. And as was widely reported at the time, it took until March 2001 for the city to issue new, digital radios to its firefighters, only to yank them out of service two weeks later after a fireman’s “mayday” calls went unheard during a fire. On 9/11, firefighters were still using the same old, analog radios that had performed inadequately during the first attack in 1993.
Narrator: At 9:32 am on September 11th, Chief Callan ordered all FDNY members in the North Tower to the lobby. He repeated the command, but not a single company answered. At 9:59 the South Tower collapsed. FDNY’s Chief Pfeifer then repeated the order for all units to evacuate the North Tower. Firefighters had 56 minutes after the first call and 29 minutes after the second order to get out. While all police officers left the building, 121 firefighters never made it out.
FDNY Deputy Chief Jim Riches: That day my son was working, and they didn’t hear the call, 121 guys didn’t hear the call in the North Tower to get out, and they, and the police officers heard it, ’cause their radios worked, and ours didn’t.
A Misleading Attack
However, the union plays loose with the facts when it proceeds to blame faulty radios for the deaths of all the firefighters who died in the North Tower.
This narrative is misleading in several respects. For one thing, it says an evacuation order was given 56 minutes before the North Tower collapsed but fails to mention that the first evacuation order was a false alarm. It is true that one senior fire chief issued an order to evacuate the North Tower at 9:32 a.m. and that nobody responded. But this order came on the heels of a rumor that a third plane was headed for the towers, both of which were still standing at the time. “Once the rumor of the third plane was debunked, other chiefs continued operations,” the 9/11 Commission report states.
At that point the department’s leaders had no fear that either tower was about to come down.
9/11 Commission: To our knowledge, none of the chiefs present believed that a total collapse of either tower was possible. One senior chief did articulate his concern that upper floors could begin to collapse in a few hours, and that firefighters thus should not ascend above floors in the 60s. That opinion was not conveyed to chiefs in the North Tower lobby, and there is no evidence that it was conveyed to chiefs in the South Tower lobby either.
In fact, far from pressing any evacuation order, department chiefs continued to dispatch additional units to the World Trade Center until minutes before the South Tower collapsed, at 9:59. After that, the North Tower stood for another 29 minutes, and a clearly communicated order to evacuate firefighters might well have saved at least some of those who died there. However, the orders that actually were given didn’t convey the urgency required by department procedures:
9/11 Commission: Evacuation orders did not follow the protocol for giving instructions when a building’s collapse may be imminent
Rather than transmitting “mayday, mayday” and “evacuate” for the full 29 minutes, the initial order was a terse “Command to all units in Tower 1, evacuate the building,” followed sporadically by other evacuation orders.
Radio Failure ‘Not the Primary Cause’
Nobody can say how many firefighters in the North Tower received the evacuation order and how many didn’t. But, contrary to the impression left by the video, a number of firefighters did hear the orders on their radios. According to the 9/11 Commission, “at least 24 of the at most 32 companies who were dispatched to and actually in the North Tower received the evacuation instruction – either via radio or directly from other first responders.” The commission report states that two battalion chiefs on the 23rd and 35th floors not only heard an evacuation instruction on the command channel but repeated it to everyone they came across. The chief on the 35th floor shouted repeatedly over a bullhorn, “All FDNY, get the f*** out!”
It’s true that the 9/11 Commission estimate leaves the possibility that as many as six companies did not receive the order to evacuate. “Some firefighters described receiving a radio message to evacuate; others used strong language to characterize the communications gear as useless,” said a September 2005 story in the New York Times describing post-9/11 oral histories of firefighters that had just been released. The oral histories included those of 58 firefighters who escaped from the North Tower.
Indeed, some radios did not pick up transmissions because they just didn’t work very well in a high-rise building. But other factors were at work as well, such as the previously mentioned absence of a constantly repeated “mayday, mayday, mayday” order that is specified for situations when a building is about to collapse. Also, hundreds of firefighters were trying to crowd onto a single channel
Furthermore, some firefighters in the North Tower were off-duty when the attacks took place, and they rushed into the building without any radios at all. Finally, the commission found it likely that some firefighters were using a different tactical channel in all the confusion.
The 9/11 Commission ultimately concluded that “the technical failure of FDNY radios, while a contributing factor, was not the primary cause of the many firefighter fatalities in the North Tower.” Families of the firefighters who died on 9-11 have strongly disagreed with that finding. However, the commission based its conclusion on more than 100 interviews it conducted directly, plus transcripts of 500 additional interviews that the fire department had conducted.
The video accused Giuliani of trying to “blame the victims” for their own deaths, implying that he gave false testimony to the commission on May 19, 2004. We find that attack to be off target.
‘Rudy Giuliani: Urban Legend’
Narrator: Rather than take responsibility, Giuliani tried to blame the victims, telling the 9/11 Commission that fire fighters heard their evacuation orders but disobeyed them.
Giuliani (Testifying at the 9/11 Commission): Their willingness, the way I describe it, to stand their ground.
Al Regenhard, detective sergeant NYPD (ret.): I find that despicable. My son was a Marine. If he had heard the order to evacuate, which he did not because the radios weren’t working—if he had heard the order to evacuate, he would have evacuated.
What Giuliani said about firefighters ignoring orders to evacuate was true, at least in a number of documented instances as told to the 9/11 Commission. The snippet of testimony given in the video was actually in response to a question about how many lives had been saved by the heroism of firefighters and police, and not about radios.
Former Sen. Slade Gorton, 9/11 Commissioner: Would it be accurate to say that your people saved, at this cost of 403 of their own lives, 99.5 percent or more of the people they could conceivably have saved?
Giuliani: . . . [T]hey saved more lives than I think anyone had any right to expect, that any human beings would be able to do. Done differently with different people, and people that may be unwilling to be as bold as they were, you would have had a much more serious loss of life. And their willingness, the way I describe it, to stand their ground and not retreat, and even their interpretation of an evacuation order – and I know some of them.
Giuliani went on to say that many firefighters interpreted evacuation orders as, “I’ll get all my men out, but I’m going to stay here and help these [injured civilians] out.”
It’s true that Giuliani didn’t take any personal responsibility for fire radios malfunctioning, but it’s also true that the commissioners failed to press him on the subject. In fact, the commission’s chair Thomas Kean and vice chair Lee Hamilton later said in their book “Without Precedent” that they considered the questioning of Giuliani to be “a low point” in the commission’s public hearings. “We did not ask tough questions, nor did we get all of the information we needed to put on the public record,” they wrote. They said commission members backed off after drawing criticism in newspaper editorials, which said that the commission had been insensitive to the bravery of police and fire officials during earlier testimony.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, did ask a series of questions about why police and fire radios didn’t operate on the same frequencies, but not until he praised the courage of the police and firefighters and commended Giuliani for “his leadership that day.” The mayor offered this explanation:
Giuliani, May 19, 2004: We had purchased for them [the fire department] new radios, they had attempted to use them and found them too complicated to use and had withdrawn them and were training people in how to use the new radios. That has proven to be so complex and so difficult that until a few weeks ago they haven’t been able to do it. So there are significant difference [sic] in the way in which the two of them communicate.
And the best answer is to create an inter-operable system so that the police radio can be switched over and be used the same way, again simplifying it somewhat.
Treating Dead Firefighters ‘Like Garbage’?
The IAFF video also includes some misleading statements regarding Giuliani’s oversight of the search for victims’ remains. The narrator says that Giuliani “pulled firefighters off the pile, claiming he was worried about their safety” and that the bodies of 242 firefighters and hundreds of civilians “would either stay buried at ground zero or be removed like garbage.” The IAFF calls Giuliani’s actions “an appalling lack of respect.”
‘Rudy Giuliani: Urban Legend’
Narrator: When Rudy started his scoop and dump operation, just 101 FDNY members had been recovered. Two hundred and forty-two FDNY members and hundreds of civilians would either stay buried at ground zero or be removed like garbage and deposited at the Fresh Kills Landfill.
Steve Cassidy, president, Uniformed Fire Officers Association Local 94: Scoop up the debris, dump it in a landfill; the heck with the fact that it was firefighters or others who would never have a funeral for their family.
Narrator: Families and off-duty fire fighters protested Rudy’s appalling lack of respect. In response, Giuliani had them arrested. When faced with the public outrage, Mayor Giuliani relented and let FDNY members go back to work on the pile.
However, all firefighters were not banned from the work site, as the IAFF leads viewers to believe. In early November 2001, according to the New York Times and other news reports, the number of firefighters working at the site daily was cut back from 64 to 25. It’s misleading to say that bodies would have stayed buried, as there were still workers searching the rubble.
Giuliani did cite health and safety concerns – a concern backed up by statements by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a series of ongoing lawsuits (in which the city of New York is a defendant) that aim to recover damages for illnesses caused by working at ground zero. Later that November, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw said, “The World Trade Center site is potentially the most dangerous workplace in the United States.”
The video also states that when firefighters protested the move, “Giuliani had them arrested.” This is false. When New York City firefighters staged a protest on Nov. 3, 2001, only 18 people were arrested, according to news reports, and not by mayoral decree. In fact, about a week later, Giuliani announced that the city would drop the harassment and criminal trespass charges against 17 of the protesters. One man was charged with assault for allegedly hitting a police officer. That charge was not dropped.
In the week following the protest, Giuliani increased the number of firefighters working at the site to 50. The following week, after a meeting with widows and parents of firefighters, Giuliani again increased the number of workers to 75, according to the New York Times and other news reports.
Saying that Giuliani treated dead firefighters “like garbage” is a harsh characterization about which opinions differ. It is true that the Fresh Kills Landfill, where the rubble from the twin towers was deposited, had been a garbage dump. And it’s true that many families of victims, not just firefighters, still grieve for those who were lost with no remains identified. But the video ignores the extraordinary efforts to locate remains of the dead that continued for months after the September 11 attack. According to the New York Times, “bodies” were found up through late March 2002, long after the protest mentioned in the video. The Times reported that a number of remains were found when workers reached the lobby and basement of the South Tower in March 2002. Recovery efforts continued through June 2002 at the World Trade Center site. Workers also searched debris as it was taken to the Fresh Kills Landfill through July 2002. Efforts by the medical examiner’s office to identify remains continue to this day.
In the end, there were, in many cases, no remains to be recovered. Dr. Charles S. Hirsch, the city’s chief medical examiner, told the New York Times in July 2002 that “there are a number of people who are gone without a trace.” Many victims were identified only by scraps of DNA. Hirsch added that “a number of samples are degraded, and it’s unclear whether we can coax enough material from them to make meaningful comparisons.”
‘Rudy Giuliani: Urban Legend’
Harold Schaitberger, IAFF general president: Brothers and sisters, the following video is part of our ongoing political education process to ensure that you, our members, have every bit of information you need to make an informed decision on who you’ll support for president of the United States. As your union, we’re not going to tell you how to vote. But we hope to be a resource to help you make an informed decision on who to support. There are a number of candidates on both sides of the political aisle running for the highest office in our nation. Our job is to inform you on their positions on the issues important to our profession, and you as firefighters.
In the 2008 presidential race, one candidate is running on what he perceives as his 9/11 credentials. Rudy Giuliani has used the horrible events of September 11, 2001, to create a carefully crafted persona. But the fact is, what Rudy portrays is not a full picture of the decisions made that led in our view to the unnecessary deaths of our FDNY members, and the attempt to stop the dignified recovery of those lost.
The urban legend of America’s Mayor needs to be balanced by the truth. The opinions in this video are not about Rudy’s record on union issues, as some on his behalf have portrayed. The stories you are about to hear are not being delivered by an arm or extension of any political party. These are the unvarnished stories of firefighters, fire officers, active and retired, and the families of our FDNY members who served and sacrificed that horrible day. They paint a picture of Rudy that is remarkably different than the one he has painted for himself. Firefighters, their families and this IAFF have an important story to tell you, and it’s time to tell it.
A Partisan Smear?
The union’s general president, Harold Schaitberger, introduced the video as “part of our ongoing political education process” aimed at union members and said it was “not being delivered by an arm or extension of any political party.”
Giuliani has a point here. In fact, records show the IAFF leans heavily Democratic.
- The union endorsed Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry for president in 2000 and 2004, respectively.
- The IAFF’s political action committee spending has favored Democrats by nearly 4 to 1 during each of the past two election cycles.
In 2004, for example, the IAFF PAC reported spending more than $1.2 million to support Kerry, but nothing for Bush. The pro-Kerry spending included $672,145 in independent expenditures aimed at the general public, and another $558,010 in “communications costs” aimed at union members and families.
In 2006, counting both donations made directly to candidates and independent expenditures aimed at voters, the IAFF PAC laid out $1,847,228 either supporting Democrats or opposing Republicans for the House or Senate. That represented 78.6 percent of the total spent.
Watch IAFF Video Clip 1
Watch IAFF Video Clip 2
Watch IAFF Video Clip 3
Watch IAFF Video Clip 4
– by Brooks Jackson and Lori Robertson, with Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, Jessica Henig, Emi Kolawole and Joe Miller
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