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Transcripts offer fresh glimpses into 9/11

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Until Thursday, when the Port Authority released its raw historical records from Sept. 11, 2001, the two men were remembered from glimpses as the north tower of the World Trade Center was heaving toward collapse. One was short, the other tall. They carried a crowbar, a flashlight and walkie-talkies. Beyond that, say some who survived that day, the smoke had blurred their faces and hair and clothes into gray.

With their tools, the two men, Frank DeMartini and Pablo Ortiz, an architect and a construction inspector, attacked the lethal web of obstacles that trapped people who had survived the impact of the plane but could not get to an exit.

At least 50 people stuck on the 88th and 89th floors of the north tower were able to walk out of the building because DeMartini, Ortiz and others tore away rubble, broke down doors and answered calls for help. Everyone above the 91st floor died.

In the most essential ways, these men, employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pushed back the boundary line between life and death in favor of the living. Both DeMartini and Ortiz, who continued to help other trapped people, died in the building.

Nothing will alter the basic fabric of Sept. 11, when nearly 3,000 people were killed in Lower Manhattan, but on Thursday afternoon, rich, bittersweet and harrowing new details surfaced. The Port Authority released more than 1,800 pages of transcribed radio transmissions, much of them from dozens of people in and around the trade center, including several short ones from DeMartini. The New York Times formally requested copies of the records on March 29, 2002, and eventually sued the Port Authority for their release.

"I think it's time for them to be released," said Nicole DeMartini, the widow of DeMartini.

Emerging now, approaching the second anniversary of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the transcripts cover 260 minutes, beginning a moment before the first plane struck at 8:46 a.m. and continuing after the final collapse at 10:28 a.m. While transmissions of the city's Fire and Police Departments were made public last year, these are the first from the Port Authority, which built and owned the trade center. They include calls from Port Authority police officers and conversations on two-way radios among civilian employees who worked in building trades in the complex.

The audio of the transmissions, which were recorded in Port Authority facilities at the trade center and in New Jersey, was not made public. The printed transcripts indicate that many portions of the tapes were inaudible or fragmentary.

The transmissions arose from people in an elongated space, spread across more than 230 vertical acres, from the cavernous sub-basement of the trade center to nearly the very tops of the towers. Fewer than half of the people speaking are identified.

At their most wrenching, the transmissions reflect the critical difficulties faced by those who survived the plane crashes _ at least 1,100 people, an investigation by the New York Times found last year _ yet were unable to escape the buildings. Sometimes fire blocked their paths; often staircases at the core of the building protected only by dry wall had become impassable; and at times they were given mistaken advice to stay in their offices.

Few, if any, of those speaking over the radio appear to realize that the buildings are moments from collapse. The messages include some desperate calls for help, but many of the transcripts deal strictly with the logistics of evacuations _ of saving people in the building, and of survival.

While they echo the most somber and stirring notes of the day, the transmissions also provide fresh views into little-known aspects of the human struggle against a catastrophe that fell beyond the imagination. Among these were the plain words and remarkable deeds of DeMartini, Ortiz and several of their colleagues. Another set of transmissions are from George Tabeek, a Port Authority official who ran up 22 flights of stairs with firefighters to free a group of authority security workers locked in a secret command bunker.

Among the conversations on the transcripts:

+ A group of 11 Port Authority employees on the 64th floor of the north tower were told early on that they should not leave the building. That instruction was not changed until minutes before the tower fell, and all 11 died.

+ At Newark International Airport, dispatchers struggled to learn whether one of the planes that crashed into the towers had taken off from Newark. (It had not, but United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark crashed that morning in Pennsylvania.) They also discussed the possibility that four other flights might have been hijacked.

+ Below the trade center, PATH train operators and dispatchers in the PATH station urgently discussed turning around and returning to New Jersey with the passengers they had just carried in. They fretted over one stubborn man who would not get on board.

As for DeMartini and Ortiz, the transmissions disclose only fragments of their efforts, but taken with the accounts of the people they saved, add to a powerful narrative of heroism and loss. Drawing on the transcripts, interviews with 18 of the rescued people and affidavits compiled by Roberta Gordon, a lawyer with the Bryan Cave firm who represents DeMartini's widow, it is now possible to explain how they managed to save the lives of others. The transcript hints at why they were unable to save their own, but does not provide clear evidence.

That morning, Ortiz arrived at work well before 7. His wife, Edna Ortiz, recalls that he kissed her goodbye before 5 a.m., when he caught a bus from their home in Tottenville to the Staten Island Ferry to Lower Manhattan.

DeMartini and his wife traveled together, having dropped their son and daughter off at a new school that morning, Ms. DeMartini recalled. She worked at 2 World Trade Center, the south tower, as a structural inspector for an engineering firm. He worked on the 88th floor of 1 World Trade Center, as construction manager for the Port Authority. That morning, he persuaded his wife to join him for a cup of coffee and a visit with his colleagues.

When the first plane struck, at 8:46 a.m., few on the 88th or 89th floor realized that a plane had hit, but the building swayed so far that they knew something serious had taken place. Anita Serpe, a principal administrator who worked for DeMartini, said she ran back to her office and changed into socks and sneakers. Smoke and fire broke out at one end of the building. A woman who worked on the floor was badly burned near the elevator bank. Gerry Gaeta, a member of DeMartini's staff, said, "To say the least, it was chaos."

DeMartini began assembling people in a large office at the southwest corner of the building, the farthest from where the plane had hit. He began to give instructions, recalled Joanne Ciccolello, a negotiator in the real estate department. "Frank had a calming effect," she said. "He organized his staff, to find a way out, to get flashlights."

Those who survive recall that 25 to 40 people were on the 88th floor when the plane hit. While there was some debate in those early minutes about waiting for help, circumstances quickly made that unrealistic. The ceiling had collapsed in the main public corridor, recalls Mak Hanna, a resident engineer who worked on the floor. There was fire in the northeast corridor. The walls around the elevators had vanished. Around that time, the first radio transmission from the floor was sent out from an unidentified man.

"We're on the 88th floor," he said. "We're kind of trapped up here and the smoke is, uh, is _ " The rest of the message was cut off, but a moment or two later came another. "We also have a person that needs medical attention immediately."

"What's the location?" the dispatcher responded.

"88th floor, badly burned."

Hanna, Gaeta, Ortiz and DeMartini hunted for a way out. "After about 15 minutes, Frank returned to the corner office," Serpe said in a statement she provided to the DeMartini family. "He was covered with gray soot _ even his hair looked gray with smoke _ and his eyes were completely red. Frank then told us he found a clear stairwell, but we would have to climb over to it."

Ortiz and Hanna were dispatched to move some of the debris. Gaeta and Doreen Smith accompanied the burned woman, Elaine Duch. Among those leaving was Ms. DeMartini. She said she urged her husband to come along, and he assured her he would be coming down behind her. "How could he come down the stairs and step over his secretary _ or anyone?" Ms. DeMartini asked. "He wouldn't have done that. He did what he had to do."

The floor was all but clear. At the end of the line of people were DeMartini, Ortiz and Hanna. "Somewhere, out in the stairwell, we heard banging from upstairs," Hanna recalled.

On the 89th floor, the biggest tenant was MetLife, which occupied most of the eastern side of the building. Thirteen people were at work when the plane hit. "The building bent so far, I thought we were going into the ocean," said Rob Sibarium, now a managing director for MetLife.

With fires breaking out, the people from MetLife moved from their office to a law firm down the hall, Drinker Biddle & Reath. The receptionist, Dianne DeFontes, said she was knocked out of her seat when the plane hit.

"I don't know why, but it seemed like everybody on the floor came into my office," she said. A friend, Tirsa Moya, who worked for an insurance brokerage, Cosmos Services America, came in with an older man who worked alone in a shipping company.

The public corridor was filling with smoke and flames. "The floor was actually melting," Sibarium said.

Walter Pilipiak, the president of Cosmos, looked for an exit, but any stairway door he could safely reach was jammed shut. "And bone can't break steel on steel," he said. He retreated into his office.

Nathan Goldwasser, a MetLife employee, recalled the frustration, and then a moment of deliverance.

"We were pounding on those doors," Goldwasser said, "and almost like a miracle, we heard a voice on the other side yelling, "Get away from the door!' The next thing, there's a crowbar coming through the wall."

Goldwasser felt sure that it was DeMartini who broke through the wall. Hanna, who was in the stairway, said it was actually Ortiz who did it, as he and DeMartini looked on. DeMartini held the door open, and the MetLife employees poured into the stairwell from the law firm office.

Then Ortiz noticed a door on the other side of the hall. It was the Cosmos office, where Pilipiak and his staff were trying to figure out their next move.

"This distinguished-looking man with an earring sticks his head in," Pilipiak said. "It was Pablo. He said, "Come on, let's go.' "

The 23 people on the 89th floor were launched into the stairways, and toward life. The people on the 88th floor _ whether 25 or 40 _ were already making their way down.

Pilipiak says he believes that Ortiz headed up the stairs, toward the 90th floor. None of the transcripts released on Thursday show any messages from Ortiz, but they are clearly incomplete.

DeMartini was next heard from about a half-hour after the plane hit, perhaps 10 minutes after the people on the 89th floor were freed. He does not identify himself by name, but by his job title, construction manager.

"Construction manager to base, be advised that the express elevators are in danger of collapse. Do you read?"

Only his end of the conversation is recorded. Minutes later, he returns with another message: "Relay, that, Chris, to the firemen that the elevators _ "

There is an interruption in the transmission. "Express elevators are going to collapse."

He did not give his location, but Gerry Drohan, a colleague who was outside the building, said he also had a radio conversation with DeMartini about the conditions on the 78th floor. DeMartini wanted structural engineers brought up to the floor to look at steel, Drohan said, but police officers would not let them back into the building.

Drohan said that DeMartini had asked him to pass his two-way radio to a police official in an attempt to persuade him, but that he was unsuccessful.

None of these conversations appear on the transcripts.

Another reason DeMartini might have gone to the 78th floor was to help free Anthony Savas, who worked with him and was stuck in an elevator. He had sent out repeated radio requests for help. Alan Reiss, the former director of the World Trade Department for the Port Authority, who worked with both men, said Savas apparently did get out of the elevator, because his body was found in the remnants of a stairwell.

Not everyone who left the 88th floor got out alive. Two other Port Authority employees, Carlos Da Costa and Peter Negron, are heard on the radio, talking about a stuck elevator on the 87th floor.

"My husband was a very human man," Edna Ortiz said. "I'm very proud of what he did. But I wish he had come home." His children from his first marriage plan a memorial service for him on Sept. 11 in upstate New York, and Tirsa Moya and others of those saved from Cosmos plan to be there.