Ten Big Questions We Still Have 4 Years Later
Originally published at The Village Voice by Jarrett Murphy on 12/6/05
On Monday, December 5, the 9-11 Public Discourse Project—a private group formed by 9-11 Commission members after their official mandate lapsed in 2004—held a wrap-up press briefing in Washington, signaling the last gasp of official inquiries into the attacks four years ago. The National Institute of Standards and Technology also recently completed its final report on the twin towers. Already gathering dust are a Federal Emergency Management Agency study, the joint inquiry by Congress, the McKinsey reports on New York City’s emergency response, probes by federal inspectors general, and other efforts to resolve the myriad doubts about the hijackings.
Some questions can’t be answered: People who lost loved ones will never know exactly how the end came, if it hurt, what the final thoughts and words were. But other questions are more tractable. Here are 10 of them:
1. Where was the “National Command Authority”?
There has never been a true accounting of why the nation’s leaders were out of the loop for so long that morning. George W. Bush and his aides even have told different versions of how the president was actually informed of the first plane striking: The president claimed erroneously that he saw it on TV, while chief of staff Andrew Card said it was Karl Rove who told the president. According to the official version, after Rove told Bush, the president
talked to then national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. She told him about the crash but apparently did not know about the reported hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11, which military air defenses learned about 17 minutes earlier.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was informed of the second plane hitting the WTC—yes, the second plane—during his intelligence briefing but continued the briefing and was at his desk when Flight 77 struck the Pentagon.
Together, the president and secretary of defense are the National Command Authority that is supposed to lead the country in the case of military emergency. But Bush didn’t get in touch with Rumsfeld until after 10 a.m., around the time the fourth and final plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When Bush was criticized days after 9-11 for failing to return to Washington until more than 10 hours after the first attack, the White House claimed there had been a threat (“real and credible,” in flack Ari Fleischer’s words) to Air Force One. There was none. All the 9-11 Commission says of this phantom threat is that it was the product of “a misunderstood communication.”
2. Who gave the order to try to shoot the planes down?
The commission is noticeably vague on this point. The official version says Dick Cheney told the military a little past 10 a.m. to shoot down a threatening plane, claiming that the president had given his approval for the order. But while a few people in the White House bunker noted a call between Cheney and Bush moments earlier, only Rice says she heard Cheney bring up the shoot-down order. Despite the fact that people at both ends of the call were taking notes, the commission found that “there is no documentary evidence of this call.” Meanwhile, some of the fighter jets in the air over D.C. received no orders to shoot down planes, while other military aircraft got the OK from the Secret Service to fly “weapons free,” which means they had wide authority to take out suspicious aircraft.
Since the military was given little or no notice about the planes, maybe it doesn’t matter who authorized a shoot-down. But the record is unclear. Neither Cheney nor Bush testified under oath before the 9-11 panel, in public or private.
3. What exactly were all those firefighters doing in the towers?
Reports on the disaster reflect confusion over the exact mission of the firefighters who climbed the twin towers, many of whom died. The 9-11 Commission says fire chiefs decided early on that because the fire was so big, their job would “primarily be one of rescue.” But NIST reports that some fire commanders thought their men would fight fires to save people trapped above them, and individual fire companies thought their mission was to “get up to the fire as soon as possible, put the fire out, and get ready for their next assignment.” According to oral histories collected by the FDNY, some firefighters were told to head up the stairs carrying hoses, and others to drop their hoses in the lobby. Some were ordered simply to head up the stairs without a clear idea of where they were going or why.
While it is doubtless that first responders saved lives that day, it’s not clear that there were many people left to be rescued when late-arriving firefighters began climbing the stairs, especially in the north tower. Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg have said up to 25,000 people escaped the towers; NIST has put that figure at around 15,000—still a blessing. But NIST believes that 90 percent of those civilians who survived started descending both towers before the second plane hit. (About 1,000 of them were “mobility impaired” and needed help getting out.) Just shy of 2,000 of the roughly 2,150 civilians who died in the towers were trapped above the impact zones, with no chance of rescue.
4. Did anyone think the towers would collapse?
Reports on the FDNY response to 9-11 generally agree that, as the FDNY-commissioned McKinsey study put it, “Chief officers considered a limited, localized collapse of the towers possible, but did not think that
they would collapse entirely.” For some of the fire officers, that confidence might have been based on a misconception about how the towers were built: The FDNY chief of safety says in his oral history that he thought the towers were made of block construction, with a solid concrete core, so that fire crews would have at least three hours to work. In fact, the cores of the towers were sheetrock over steel. And the citywide safety chief in charge that day didn’t know a plane had hit the north tower.
Evidently, fears about collapse evolved as the disaster wore on. Peter Ganci, the highest ranking chief and one of the 343 fire personnel who died, reportedly told the commander in the north-tower lobby at 9:45 a.m. that he might want to consider an evacuation—almost 45 minutes before that building collapsed. Assistant Chief Joseph Callan, the citywide tour commander that day, told investigators: “Approximately 40 minutes after I arrived in the lobby I made a decision that the building was no longer safe and that was based on the conditions in the lobby—large pieces of plaster falling, all the 20-foot-high glass panels on the exterior of the lobby were breaking, there was obvious movement of the building, and that was the reason on the handy talky I gave the order for all fire department units to leave the north tower. Approximately ten minutes after that we had collapse of the south tower.” Fire chiefs also received—just moments before the south tower fell—a report that someone from the city’s Office of Emergency Management thought the towers weren’t structurally sound. The source of that report is unknown.
5. Why was Giuliani’s command bunker at ground zero?
A constant refrain in rehashes of 9-11 is that the cooperation between police and fire services that day was poor. The OEM was unable to bridge the gap because it was busy evacuating its own emergency center in 7 WTC. “The loss of the OEM operations center,” NIST found, “created difficulties related to the coordination of emergency responder operations and resources.” Because the World Trade Center had been a terrorist target in 1993, Giuliani was criticized in 1998 for his decision to locate the emergency center there. Yet when Giuliani and Jerry Hauer (who was OEM director when the 7 WTC site was picked) appeared before the 9-11 Commission, no one asked them about the bunker. Nor did commissioners ask Giuliani specifically why firefighters were using the same radios on 9-11 that had worked so poorly in the ’93 bombing. Part of the reason was the city had broken contracting rules when it purchased new radios earlier in 2001, and those radios had to be withdrawn because of technical problems.
6. Why did 7 WTC fall?
Seven World Trade Center—where, besides OEM, the CIA, Salomon Smith Barney, and other entities had offices—was the last building to collapse on 9-11. It was also probably the first steel skyscraper anywhere to collapse solely because of fire. We still don’t know why. While NIST has completed its twin towers reports, it has delayed its 7 WTC report twice; it’s currently not expected until next spring.
Several 7 WTC tenants, including OEM and the Secret Service, had tanks filled with diesel fuel to power emergency generators. If that fuel leaked and burned, it may have heated the building’s steel supports to the point of failure, but according to FEMA’s report on the collapse this “best hypothesis has only a low probability of occurrence.”
7. How did the twin towers fall?
Many FDNY personnel who saw the south tower collapse reported explosions at the lower levels as the top began collapsing. These reports, as well as “squibs” of smoke seen on video of the collapses, have led to theories that the towers were brought down in controlled explosions. NIST dismisses these notions, claiming that the puffs of smoke were the result of air being forced down by the top of the tower collapsing.
NIST said the towers fell because the planes shook fireproofing loose from the steel superstructure, and the fire heated the floor-supporting trusses so much that they pulled in on support columns that were already holding more than their regular load. But NIST’s computer simulation stops at the point the collapse begins, and does not document exactly how the rest of the buildings crumbled in 10 seconds. The reason for this omission could be the sheer complexity of the computations—even NIST’s simplified model took weeks to run on a computer.
Conspiracy theorists aren’t the only ones who dispute NIST’s version: Some fire scientists also take issue with the institute’s methods and conclusions. And the point isn’t just historical. The lessons learned from the WTC collapse will inform decisions about the safety of other modern office towers.
8. How dangerous was—and is—the air at ground zero?
A few days after the towers fell, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that tests of air and water near the WTC site “indicate that these vital resources are safe.” The only problem was, as the EPA’s inspector general reported later, the agency “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement.” What’s more, the inspector general said, “the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced, through the collaboration process, the information that EPA communicated to the public.”
The 9-11 Commission did not address this topic in the body of its final report. In a single footnote, the panel said it didn’t have the expertise to talk about the air testing, but let the White House off the hook for influencing EPA press releases. Then–EPA head Christine Whitman told the commission that she had met with a top Bush economic adviser “regarding the need to get financial markets open quickly,” but denied any pressure to fudge the air quality readings. A group of 12 people has sued the EPA over health problems they blame on poor air quality near the site after the attacks. Meanwhile, the EPA just last week approved a plan to test and clean apartments south of Canal Street.
9. What exactly did Zacarias Moussaoui plan to do?
Was he the 20th hijacker? Or was he supposed to pilot a fifth plane on September 11? Or was he a backup for Ziad Jarrah, the Flight 93 hijack pilot, whose disagreements with Mohammed Atta almost got him dropped from the plot? Or was he a pilot for a “second wave” of attacks, as captured Al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is quoted saying in the 9-11 Commission report?
Last April, Moussaoui pled guilty to conspiracy charges, but claimed that he had nothing to do with 9-11 and instead was planning a separate attack to try to free Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.
The Department of Justice hasn’t said publicly exactly what Moussaoui did—stating in court filings merely that Moussaoui “participated” in the 9-11 plot—but it does want to execute him for his alleged role
10. What’s on those blanked-out pages?
“The Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001,” which was released in late 2002, included 28 pages that were blanked out, apparently concerning the possible role of Saudi government officials. Those aren’t the only blank spots in the public record. As the Voice reported in October, there are multiple redactions in the FDNY oral histories that in some cases seem to concern the radios or suspicious activity near the WTC site before and during the attacks.
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