In a town eager for miracles, the news that five firefighters had been pulled out alive today from a sports utility vehicle buried under debris from the collapsed World Trade Center seemed for a moment to be an answer to those prayers.
But those hopes turned out to be false, based on mistaken reports.
The uplifting story of the "miracle five" was broadcast on CNN and local television stations, carried by The Associated Press and on Internet news sites and chased by newspapers across town.
It began with an account that the five firefighters had been found in the sports utility vehicle this morning, trapped in the ruins.
Construction workers at the scene, caught up in the exuberance, gave credence to the reports when they said they had seen the rescued firefighters pass by, miraculously unscathed.
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has said that more than 300 firefighters are among the nearly 4,000 people who are unaccounted for since the collapse of the twin towers, and the reports about the five raised hopes for the families and colleagues of many of the missing firefighters. Calls flooded a hot line maintained by fire officials for information on the missing.
In the days since a pair of hijacked jets slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, there have, indeed, been several miracle rescues. But this was not to be one of them.
After several hours of confusion, officials said the reports were a mistake that grew from the rescue of three firefighters who were briefly trapped this morning when they fell into one of the voids in the debris as they dug for fallen colleagues.
The peril for those involved in the search and rescue effort remained real enough today.
Workers in the area immediately surrounding the site of the World Trade Center were forced to flee as other buildings seemed in danger of collapse.
The top 10 floors of 1 Liberty Plaza began buckling this afternoon, and construction engineers said 3 World Financial Center, which houses American Express , was being closely watched. The Liberty Plaza building, constructed in 1973, is a block from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center stood.
The rescued firefighters had spent more than 50 hours pinned inside a Chevrolet Suburban fire chief's vehicle, city officials said.
And according to television reports, rescue workers have made contact with several other people believed to be still trapped in the rubble. One of them, in the basement of the North Tower, was using a wireless organizer to send e-mails.
According to the reports, the person in the basement had been communicating with rescue workers by using the device, reportedly a Blackberry, since 4:30 this morning. He was believed to be trapped under mounds of steel, and the reports said rescue workers were cutting through the metal piece by piece to try to reach him.
Two survivors interviewed at Bellevue Hospital by Agence France-Presse supported the reports that others might still be trapped alive in the rubble.
"There are tunnels underground that connect all the five or six buildings below ground," said Hursley Lever, a mechanic who was at work in an elevator in the North Tower, the first to be hit, when the tower was attacked.
Another survivor, Marlene Cruz, who also worked at the towers, said: "If you know the building you'll get from one building to another. It's pretty well constructed, so if somebody is down there, they may be still alive."
A more tragic note involved another survivor, Ronnie Clifford, who worked at the South Tower. His brother John, of Cork, Ireland, told The Irish Times that hours after learning that Ronnie had managed to escape he was told that their sister, Ruth McCourt, and her 4-year-old daughter, Juliana, had died aboard one of the hijacked planes that rammed the twin towers. John Clifford said Mrs. McCourt had spent most of the last 30 years living in the United States, most recently with her husband, David, in Connecticut.
Meanwhile, rescue workers at the scene issued a call today for new supplies, including dust masks, safety goggles, sunscreen, foot powder, ace bandages, can openers, blankets and dog boots for the canine unit.
The public was requested to bring anything they could to the Jacob Javits Center on West 34th Street, Manhattan.
In Washington, President Bush announced this morning that he would visit the scene of the World Trade Center site on Friday. He announced his planned visit during a brief televised telephone call with Governor George E. Pataki and Mayor Giuliani this morning.
The president was criticized for delaying his return to Washington from a visit to Florida on Tuesday, the day of the terrorist attacks, by stopping off in Louisiana and Omaha on his way back to the White House. The administration said Wednesday that Mr. Bush followed the circuitous route because he had himself been a target of the terrorists.
"I weep and mourn with America," the president said in his call today. "There is a quiet anger in America," he added. But he went on to warn Americans not to aim their anger at Arab-Americans and Muslims, even though Islamic extremists are high on the list of possible suspects in the trade center and Pentagon attacks.
"My resolve is steady and strong about winning this war that has been declared on America," Mr. Bush said. "It's a new kind of war. The government will adjust and this government will call other governments to join us."
"Every world leader I've talked to in recent days has been impressed by what they have seen about our nation and the fabric of our nation."
In a CNN interview today, President Jacques Chirac of France said that in an opinion poll the French people indicated that they were "totally supportive of the United States" and that the French were ready to help. Other world leaders have made similar statements of support.
Except for a heavy military presence, the area of the devastation in Lower Manhattan had an essentially abandoned air this morning, a Times reporter on the scene, Lynette Holloway, said. Soldiers in fatigues were posted on practically every street corner and military officers and plainclothes policemen patrolled the streets, she said.
Tents to house the military were set up in Bowling Green Park.
Sanitation workers continued to clean up the area of the collapsed buildings and building custodians with brooms were sweeping up outside.
Small delicatessens were reopening, but mainly to clean up, Ms. Holloway said. At 56 Water Street, however, a larger deli was open for business, selling products like packaged chips and cleaning out rotted fruit and vegetables.
The new death toll was made at a news briefing this morning by Mr. Giuliani, who said 46 of the 94 recovered bodies had been fully identified, and that some 70 different body parts had also been pulled from the rubble.
"I'm sorry that I have to describe it that way," he said, "but that's unfortunately the situation that we're facing."
"We may not be able to recover everyone," he added, saying the number of those people known to be missing totaled 4,763.
The mayor said the missing included people from the two airliners that crashed into the twin towers, and "information we've been able to glean from businesses" who are looking for people that they believed were working at the trade center "and they haven't been able to make contact with."
A permanent center has been set up at a city armory at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street, where families whose relatives are among the missing can register and take identifying data.
The center began operating at 8 a.m. and will stay open until midnight. It will then "operate every single day," Mr. Giuliani said. "We'll do everything we can to help you."
The mayor also announced that although Manhattan below 14th Street remained closed to everything but emergency vehicles, he hoped to get a good deal of the area opened by midnight tonight, with the goal of opening corridors down to Wall Street.
At the Pentagon, meanwhile, officials said this morning that 126 people were missing from Tuesday's attack. They said this did not include the 64 passengers and crew of the jetliner that crashed into the building.
In New York, a spokesman for Bellevue Hospital announced that about 250 patients had been treated there so far and that 33 had been admitted for further treatment. Their injuries included broken bones and bruises, but he added that a number of newer patients were suffering "severe stress symptoms, the beginning of post-traumatic stress."
The total included 82 firefighters and 38 police officers, most. No survivors were admitted so far today, he added.
The spokesman said hundreds of people had come to Bellevue to donate blood but that no more donations could be accepted. "Perhaps more will be taken on Monday," he added.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Hopes Are Raised, and Dashed, About Rescue of Firefighters
The New York Times, By TERENCE NEILAN, Published: September 13, 2001