The former police and fire chiefs who were lionized after the World Trade Center attack came under harsh criticism Tuesday from the Sept. 11 commission, with one member saying the departments' lack of cooperation was scandalous and "not worthy of the Boy Scouts."
Commission members, in New York for an emotional two-day hearing, focused on how leaders of the two departments failed to share information effectively in the early frantic moments after two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center.
Former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen and former police chief Bernard Kerik shot back with infuriated responses to commissioner John Lehman's questions, the strongest of a series of pointed statements from the panel.
"I couldn't disagree with you more strongly," Von Essen replied. "I think it's outrageous that you make a statement like that." Outside the hearing, he called the questioning "despicable."
Families of Sept. 11 victims applauded the tough questioning and shook their heads sadly as the panel enumerated a litany of communication breakdowns between the departments. Family members sporadically mocked and booed Von Essen, Kerik and Richard Sheirer, former Office of Emergency Management commissioner, and they wept earlier in the day as they watched videotape of the buildings collapsing.
As Von Essen testified, Sally Regenhard — who lost her firefighter son — held up a piece of paper reading: "LIES."
The 10-member bipartisan panel has been holding hearings over the last year, including high-profile meetings in Washington last month about intelligence failures, to examine what led to the attacks and determine ways to avoid future attacks. The panel will issue its final report July 26.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was scheduled to testify at the second day of hearings Wednesday.
While the New York hearings — held 1 1/2 miles from ground zero — were meant to examine problems in the city's emergency response system, officials also were asked about what they knew about terrorism threats in the months before Sept. 11.
The former director of the World Trade Center told the commission that he knew nothing of Osama bin Laden's terror network until the summer before the attacks, and was never privy to FBI intelligence that Islamic terrorists might hijack U.S. planes.
Alan Reiss said he first heard about bin Laden's al-Qaida network when ex-FBI agent John O'Neill was hired in the summer of 2001 as head of security at the trade center. O'Neill, who had hunted bin Laden for years, was one of the 2,749 people killed in the attack.
"I was aware of the plot against some of the other Port Authority tunnels and the U.N.," Reiss testified. "But we were never briefed" by the FBI.
Reiss also said he was more focused on fending off possible bioterrorism attacks such as anthrax, spending more than $100,000 to protect the building from such an assault.
"We felt this (anthrax) was the next coming wave," he said. "We had developed plans on how to isolate the air conditioning system and shut it down but never did we have a thought of what happened on 9-11."
Reiss bristled under questioning from commission member Bob Kerrey, who asked him if he is angry that "things might have been different had they (FBI) trusted you enough" to deliver important intelligence.
Reiss said he was not angry at the FBI, but rather at "19 people in an airplane," referring to the hijackers.
Kerrey said he shared Reiss' anger. "These 19 people ... defeated the INS, they defeated the Customs (Department), they defeated the FBI, they defeated the CIA," the former Nebraska senator said as family members of the victims chimed in with the loudest applause of the morning.
But Kerrey said he was more concerned that "we may not be delivering the key intelligence, the facts, the information" to the first responders.
Later, the miscommunication was termed "a scandal" by Lehman, who then complained it was "not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city."
Family members cheered when commission member Slade Gorton launched an aggressive line of questioning about the city's 911 emergency system to Kerik, Von Essen and Sheirer.
When the agency heads tried to defer to their successors, Gorton refused to let them. "I'm asking ... what was going on Sept. 11," Gorton said to applause from the families.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly was asked if the city was prepared to handle a chemical attack with 10,000 injuries. "I would say no," he replied.
For some family members, it was a day for reflection rather than protest. Terry McGovern, whose mother died in the south tower, said she came away with an understanding of what happened that day.
"For me, it was reliving what my mother heard, what she saw, what her last moments were," McGovern said.
The hearing began with a commission report recounting how city officials were forced to make life-and-death decisions based on incomplete communications, leading to some of the deaths in the twin 110-story buildings.
The communication problems resulted in incidents such as the deaths of Port Authority workers told to wait for help on the 64th floor of one tower. Many of them died when the building collapsed.
Communications breakdowns also prevented announcements to evacuate from reaching civilians in one of the buildings. One survivor recounted calling 911 from the 44th floor of the south tower, only to be placed on hold twice.
That was not a surprise, since emergency operators had a "lack of awareness" about what was happening at the twin towers and were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls, said commission staffer Sam Casperson.
Associated Press Writers Sara Kugler and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.
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