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Sept. 11 calls give texture to voices of heroes, victims

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - Until yesterday, when the Port Authority released its raw historical records from Sept. 11, 2001, the two men were remembered from glimpses as the north tower of the World Trade Center was heaving toward collapse.

One was short, the other tall. They carried a crowbar, a flashlight and walkie-talkies. Beyond that, say some who survived that day, the smoke had blurred their faces and hair and clothes into gray.

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With their tools, the two men, Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, an architect and a construction inspector, attacked the lethal web of obstacles that trapped people who had survived the impact of the plane but could not get to an exit.

At least 50 people stuck on the 88th and 89th floors of the north tower were able to walk out of the building because De Martini, Ortiz and others tore away rubble, broke down doors and answered calls for help.

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Everyone above the 91st floor died.

In the most essential ways, these men, employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pushed back the boundary line between life and death in favor of the living.

Both De Martini and Ortiz, who continued to help other trapped people, died in the building.

Nothing will alter the basic fabric of Sept. 11, when nearly 3,000 people were killed in Lower Manhattan, but yesterday afternoon, rich, bittersweet and harrowing new details surfaced.

The Port Authority released more than 1,800 pages of transcribed radio transmissions, much of them from dozens of people in and around the trade center, including several short ones from De Martini.

The New York Times formally requested copies of the records March 29, 2002, one year and five months ago, and eventually sued the Port Authority for their release.

"I think it's time for them to be released," said Nicole De Martini, the widow of De Martini.

Emerging now, on the apron of the second anniversary of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the transcripts cover 260 minutes, beginning a moment before the first plane struck at 8:46 a.m. and continuing nearly two hours after the final collapse at 10:28 a.m.

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While transmissions of the city's fire and police departments were made public last year, these are the first from the Port Authority, which built and owned the trade center.

They include calls from Port Authority police officers and conversations on two-way radios among civilian employees who worked in building trades in the complex.

The audio of the transmissions, which were recorded in Port Authority facilities at the trade center and in New Jersey, was not made public. The printed transcripts indicate that many portions of the tapes were inaudible and many others were fragmentary.

The transmissions arose from people in an elongated space, spread across more than 230 vertical acres, from the cavernous subbasement of the trade center to nearly the very tops of the towers.

Fewer than half of the people speaking are identified.

At their most wrenching, the transmissions reflect the critical difficulties faced by those who survived the plane crashes - at least 1,100 people, an investigation by the Times found last year - yet were unable to escape the buildings.

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Sometimes fire blocked their paths; often staircases at the core of the building protected only by Sheetrock had become impassable; and at times they were given mistaken advice to stay in their offices.

Few, if any, of those speaking over the radio appear to realize that the buildings are moments from collapse. The messages include some desperate calls for help, but many of the transcripts deal strictly with the logistics of evacuations - of saving people in the building, of survival.

While they echo the most somber and stirring notes of the day, the transmissions also provide fresh views into little-known aspects of the human struggle against a catastrophe that fell beyond the imagination.

Among these were the plain words and remarkable deeds of De Martini, Ortiz and several of their colleagues. Another set of transmissions are from George Tabeek, a Port Authority official who ran up 22 flights of stairs with firefighters to free a group of authority security workers locked in a secret command bunker.

Still other messages come from a man identified only as Rocko, who was on the 105th floor of one tower and reported that he was in great distress.

When a radio dispatcher replied that someone would be found to help him, the transcript shows that his response was a warning: "Don't let no people up here. Big smoke!"

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While it is difficult to say with certainty who Rocko was, among the people known to have been on the 105th floor of the south tower with a walkie-talkie was Roko Camaj, a window-washer who had achieved modest fame as the subject of a children's book about his work.

Among the other conversations on the transcripts:

A group of 11 Port Authority employees on the 64th floor of the north tower were told early on that they should not leave the building. That instruction was not changed until minutes before the tower fell; all 11 died.

At Newark International Airport, dispatchers struggled to learn whether one of the planes that crashed into the towers had taken off from Newark. (It had not, but United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark crashed that morning in Pennsylvania.) They also discussed the possibility that four other flights might have been hijacked.

Below the trade center, PATH train operators and dispatchers in the PATH station urgently discussed turning around and returning to New Jersey with the passengers they had just carried in.

They fretted over one stubborn man who would not get on board.

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As for De Martini and Ortiz, the transmissions disclose only fragments of their efforts but, taken with the accounts of the people they saved, add to a powerful narrative of heroism and loss.

Drawing on the transcripts, interviews with 18 of the rescued people and affidavits compiled by Roberta Gordon, a lawyer with the Bryan Cave firm who represents De Martini's widow, it is now possible to explain how they managed to save the lives of others.

The transcript hints at why they were unable to save their own, but it does not provide clear evidence.


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