106 floors up and in trouble
Christine Olender, an assistant to the general manager at Windows on the World, had already done everything she could. The breakfast guests and restaurant employees had been collected on the 106th floor of the north tower.
The three emergency stairwells had been checked and found to be filled with smoke. She called the Port Authority police command post, down at the base of the tower.
"We are getting no direction up here," she told the Port Authority police officer who picked up the line, about 15 minutes after the north tower had been hit. "We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees as soon as possible."
The police officer did not have the most encouraging response. "We're doing our best. We've got the Fire Department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you, dear," the police officer said.
In the hundreds of pages of transcripts of Port Authority radio and telephone conversations on Sept. 11, 2001, the communications with Olender, 39, a native of Chicago who lived on the Upper West Side, stand out because of the repeated calls and extended conversations she had as she futilely tried to save herself and the others trapped at Windows on the World. She got through to the police four times, obeying each of their requests, calling back precisely as instructed.
"Hi, this is Christine, up at Windows," she said, telling the police officer this time that she was with about 100 others on the 106th floor. (In fact, about 170 guests and staff members were trapped there.) "We need to find a safe haven on 106, where the smoke condition isn't bad. Can you direct us to a certain quadrant?"
Again, there was only the reassurance that the rescue squads were on the way.
"What's your ETA?" Olender asked.
"As soon as possible, as soon as it's humanly possible," the police officer said.
The final recorded call from Olender came 22 minutes after the attack. Smoke had quickly accumulated near the top of the tower, rising through the building as if it were a chimney. "The fresh air is going down fast! I'm not exaggerating," she said.
"Ma'am, I know you're not exaggerating," the officer said. He added, "I have you, Christine, four calls, 75 to 100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor."
This was hardly a sufficient answer, at this point.
"Can we break a window?" Olender continued.
"You can do whatever you have to to get to, uh, the air," the officer told her.
'It's got to be awful, you know'
Each time the phone rang, another fearful, confused, urgent or sometimes oblivious voice asked for information that the Port Authority police officers at their various command desks mostly did not have.
But whether it was a worried spouse, a reporter or someone who believed missiles had been fired from the Woolworth Building at the trade center, the callers found officers who, by and large, kept their composure under tremendous duress and passed along the scraps of knowledge they had been able to glean within the constrained universe of their desks.
"Yeah, we heard from him," said a Sergeant Holland, answering a call at the PATH train station in Jersey City from the distressed wife of another Port Authority police officer. "None of our guys are hurt and injured right now," Holland said.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Because he was going up the stairs, he told me."
"I understand," Holland said. "I ... I understand, it's got to be awful, you know."
Sometimes, the sense of helplessness must have been overwhelming. "People stuck in the stairway," said a distressed man on the 103rd floor of the north tower, a place where no one would ultimately survive, in a radio call to the police desk at the trade center itself. "Open up the goddamn doors," the trapped employee pleaded.
Requests for interviews began coming over the phone lines from news organizations within 15 minutes after the first plane hit the north tower.
"You know what? I can't right now," a Sergeant Wozack said to a caller from NBC News. But when the network phoned again, the sergeant apologized for having no insights to share: "I'm sorry, I don't mean to cut short."
When he learned that the south tower had fallen, taking many of his colleagues' lives, Wozack struggled for anything but the most elemental response. "Oh, my God," he said to a Captain Devlin, who was on the line with him.
"All right," Devlin said, "say a prayer, brother."
New York Times News Service