Archive for Thursday, August 22, 2002

Tragedy still defies understanding

August 22, 2002


The funerals continue these many months later, as remains are identified with the best that scientific knowledge has to offer through DNA matches of bone and tissue from strands of hair or spittle on a toothbrush. But still the questions remain: Why? Why did so many people die Sept. 11?

Why did some die while others were spared? Why?

What, other than being Americans living in this land, could we have done differently?

Stabs at answering will go on well beyond our lifetimes or those even of our grandchildren. But the city offered a limited answer to some of the questions Monday in the form of a report that pains us in the realization the official realization that many of the 343 Fire Department members and 23 Police Department officers and, most forgotten most of the time in the media, the 37 officers of the Port Authority Police Department, did not have to die that day.

Too many of them ran into the breach rather than operating from staging areas away from the World Trade Center site.

Too many of the Fire Department's leaders were together in the most vulnerable area.

Still, from overly enthusiastic but undirected deployment to bum radios to rivalry between uniformed services, New York's Bravest and Finest managed to pull off what Mayor Michael Bloomberg described as "the most successful urban emergency evacuation in modern history."

Some 25,000 people made it out of the twin towers; 2,800, including the rescuers, did not.

What our Bravest and Finest and their civilian support responded to was a fire at the World Trade Center; from that day forward, they will be prepared to respond to possible future terrorist attacks.

When the alarm sounds in the future meaning today, really they will be prepared for chemical, biological and radiological attacks. And they will, we hope, leave their rivalry behind, limiting it to the football and softball fields.

"Interagency competition may be unavoidable and even healthy to some extent," the mayor said Monday, "but it can never impair our ability to respond to emergencies. The stakes are just too high."

The leaders of the Fire Department and the Police Department have taken to heart the lessons of Sept. 11.

"We've revised our mobilization procedures, controlling the number of personnel who respond at any one time to an event," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. The fire commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, offered similar assurance.

But in the end, there is this: We will never know all the answers to the whys, despite hearing so many of those tapes of 911 calls or final messages left on answering machines or seeing videotape of the final minutes before the towers came crumbling down.

We mortals must hope that the whims of the gods eventually allow us to understand. All the reports of all the investigative agencies can never accomplish that.

E.R. Shipp's e-mail address is

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