NEW YORK — They are searing questions that New Yorkers have been asking since Sept. 11: How prepared was the city, and how did it respond?
Now, with the benefit of three years of perspective and countless hours of interviews and videotape, the 9/11 commission is answering some of those questions - and the results are sobering. Although it won't reach final conclusions for some time, it has already found flaws from the mundane, such as insufficient fire drills, to the technical, such as improperly working communications equipment, to internal emergency politics - the city's police and fire departments often consider themselves rivals.
Its ongoing analysis found that those in the towers who were seeking help often received conflicting advice from 911 operators who were far removed from the scene. And it found there were no plans to deal with survivors above a fire in a high-rise.
The analysis is crucial, since New York remains the No. 1 target of terrorists, as one commission member points out.
New York remains "the forward edge of the battle," says commissioner John Lehman.
"We know that New York is at the top still of the priority list because we're dealing with an enemy whose principal goal is to create massive civilian casualties in the highest-profile environment that they can," Mr. Lehman says. "We can make the changes to be ready when they come the next time."
In some respects, the New York hearings are quite different from those held in Washington. For example, it started with a narrative that relived the 100 minutes of that September day "to explain the day in its complexity without replicating its chaos."
But since so many in the audience were families of the victims, they were warned, "The details we will be presenting may be painful for you to see and hear."
One of those was the tale of survivor Stanley Praimnath, an officer at Mizvho Corp. Bank, as he recalled how he was looking at the Statue of Liberty.
"And I'm looking at an airplane coming, eye level, eye contact, towards me - a giant gray airplane. I am still seeing the letter U on its tail, and the plane is bearing down on me. I dropped the phone and screamed and dove under my desk."
But most of the personal accounts illustrated the difficult choices faced by some of the 25,000 people in the two buildings. Brian Clark, the president Euro Brokers Relief Fund, recalls how he was talking to a man who was starting to evacuate the South Tower and returned to his office after it was announced that it was safe to remain.
The 9/11 reports concludes people were given this information to keep them from being hurt by plunging debris, as well as victims falling from the North Tower.
"We do not know the reason for this advice, in part because the on-duty deputy fire-safety director in charge of the South Tower perished in the tower's collapse," says the staff report.
But many people got information from others, and in some cases, this became deadly. Mr. Clark, on the 84th floor of the North Tower, recounts how he started walking down the stairs when he came across a very heavyset woman who emphatically told his group, "Stop, stop! We have just come off a floor in flames, and we've got to get above the flames and smoke." Clark's colleagues turned around and followed her while he tried to help pull somebody out of debris. "And that day, they all perished, unfortunately," he says. "But they were dealing with the information they had."
This lack of communication, in fact, was a major part of the report. "Civilians were not informed that rooftop evacuations were not part of the Port Authority's evacuation plan," wrote the staff. "They were not informed that access to the roof required a key."
Some New Yorkers who died may have thought that they could evacuate the building via a helicopter. In 1993, after the building had been bombed, a helicopter had been used to evacuate some wounded people. However, during the hearing, the city pointed out most helipads on buildings are for medical emergencies, not major fires. The report quotes a pilot who says the heat and smoke made a helicopter rescue almost impossible, even if people had made it to the roof.
The commission is also concerned that the World Trade Center's internal communications system apparently failed to work. "We know we have a long history of communications problems in high-rises nationally," says Glen Corbett, assistant professor of fire sciences at John Jay College in New York. "There have been some improvements in systems, and the city is still dealing with it today."
This week, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York and Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut introduced legislation - the 9/11 Can You Hear Me Now bill - to require the Department of Homeland Security to fund a new system within a year of the legislation's passage. Representative Shays plans to hold a hearing in July.
Even as the commission is concluding its investigation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is continuing a $30 million investigation into what caused the buildings to topple. NIST is examining 236 pieces of steel salvaged from all parts of the building. The investigation is so detailed that it is investigating the impact of specific airplane parts, such as wheels and struts on the building itself. There is a computer simulation on the effect of smoke and fire.
"We should have solid recommendations to make," says Michael Newman, a spokesman, "on how to give people more time to get out of buildings and emergency people to get in."