by STEPHANIE GASKELL, JENNIFER FERMINO and ANDY SOLTIS
Courtesy of The New York Post
May 19, 2004 -- The 9/11 commission hearing yesterday in Manhattan turned into a series of angry finger-pointing exchanges---and one panel member ripped the city's response to the World Trade Center attack as "not worthy of the Boy Scouts."
The over-the-top charge from commissioner John Lehman drew a furious response from former Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, who branded it "outrageous" and "despicable."
Von Essen and ex-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik fiercely defended the city's response to the terror attack---and the heroism of the cops and firefighters who gave their lives that day to save others.
"They did a phenomenal job and I don't think that should be overshadowed by the criticisms," Kerik said outside the hearing.
The bitter charges began flying when Lehman told Von Essen that miscommunication between the city's emergency-response agencies is "a scandal."
"It's not worthy of the Boy Scouts, let alone this great city," Lehman fumed, prompting relatives of 9/11 victims to break into applause.
Von Essen fired back at Lehman, saying, "I couldn't disagree with you more strongly. I think it's outrageous that you make a statement like that."
Outside the hearing, at the New School University, a mile and a half from Ground Zero, Von Essen went even further and called Lehman's interrogation "despicable."
Kerik, who also testified before the panel yesterday, denounced the commission's second-guessing.
"Everybody's trying to judge who should have, could have, would have," Kerik said. "Everybody cooperated and did the best they could have done under the circumstances."
The unusually harsh attack by Lehman, as well as biting comments from other commission members, touched a raw nerve with firefighters, many of whom lost friends and colleagues on Sept. 11, 2001.
"These people are Monday-morning quarterbacking," Lt. Dennis Stanford of Engine Co. 44 on the Upper East Side told The Post at the firehouse.
On Lehman's "Boy Scout" crack, Stanford said, "Obviously the person who said that is not a firefighter, a police officer or a Boy Scout."
The fire union also came to the defense of Von Essen.
"I think he was offended they were questioning our ability to work together when we effected the greatest rescue in history," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy.
Commissioner Slade Gorton directed his fire at the city's 911 system when he grilled both Von Essen and Kerik.
Neither former official could say if people in their department were monitoring the 911 emergency calls or keeping in touch with the other department.
"I'm even more troubled than when I began these questions," Gorton huffed.
Kerik suggested Gorton ask his successor, current Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.
"I'm asking the two of you what happened on Sept. 11," Gorton shot back, to more applause from the families.
Kelly, like most of the officials who took office after Sept. 11, received milder treatment from the commissioners and assured them the emergency-response problems had been corrected.
Commissioners also drew a bead on the long-running rivalry between cops and firefighters, which investigators said led to failures in the chain of command and communication problems during the city's worst emergency.
Lehman blasted it as a "dysfunctional system . . . It's not rocket science. It's just overruling the pride of certain agencies."
Kerik responded, "There is no lack of line of authority in the Police Department."
In another testy exchange during the hearing, commissioner Bob Kerrey asked former WTC director Alan Reiss if he was angry about not being told enough before Sept. 11 by the FBI about the al Qaeda terrorist network.
"Things might have been different had they trusted you enough" with information about the terror group, Kerrey suggested.
Reiss shot back that he was angry at "19 people in an airplane"--the hijackers---not the FBI.
But Kerrey, who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic vice-presidential candidate, won the biggest round of applause from victims' relatives at the hearing when he said, "19 people . . . defeated the INS, they defeated the Customs [Department], they defeated the FBI, they defeated the CIA."
The hearing began with the release of a 26-page report by the commission staff, which described numerous failures in planning, equipment and decision-making on Sept. 11.
Much of the criticism was directed at the handling of 911 calls and the failure of operators and FDNY dispatchers to pass along information to civilians and firefighters.
Commission staffer Sam Casperson said operators had a "lack of awareness" of what was happening in the Twin Towers.
But former Port Authority Police Chief Joseph Morris testified, "If they knew what was going on, they probably would have panicked more."
Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeiffer, one of the first firefighters to arrive at the WTC, told the commission staff his men were plagued by a lack of information.
"It was impossible to know how much damage was done on the upper floors, whether the stairwells were intact or not," he said.
"As a matter of fact, what you saw on TV, we did not have that information."
Commissioner Jamie Gorelick pointed out that only this past Friday, Mayor Bloomberg announced a new chain of command for handling emergencies---more than 2 1/2 years after the problems of 9/11 were exposed.
"My red light is on," Gorelick said. "I remain troubled by how long it took and by the timing."
Kelly and current Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told the commission the city is much better prepared today for a terrorist attack than on Sept. 11, 2001.
"New York City remains squarely fixed in al Qaeda's sights," Kelly said. "[But] the flood of federal support one would expect as a result of living in the crosshairs has not materialized."
Bloomberg, who is scheduled to testify today, agreed. He blasted Congress last night for not giving New York its fair share of Homeland Security funding.
"We are getting royally screwed," he told a Brooklyn civic group. "I've never seen a terrorist with a map of a cornfield in his pocket."
Also testifying today will be former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is expected to be asked about emergency planning before the terror attacks.
The mayor's Office of Emergency Management, which was created to handle such crises, had its command center on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, which collapsed hours after the Twin Towers.