The New York Times
By IAN URBINA and KEVIN FLYNN
Published: May 22, 2004
Lloyd Thompson was deputy fire safety director in the north tower.
For several months, the national commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has been searching in vain for a man it believes could help answer some of the most critical questions of what happened inside the World Trade Center that day. His name is Lloyd Thompson, and for much of that morning two and a half years ago he was posted at the epicenter of chaos.
As the deputy fire safety director in the complex's north tower, Mr. Thompson stood in the lobby, fielding panicked calls from those trapped on the upper floors. He struggled to make evacuation announcements over a public address system that was damaged by the plane crash. And, most significant, he had a role in overseeing a powerful piece of radio equipment that the commission believes is central to one of the core mysteries of what went wrong that day: Why did fire chiefs have such a hard time communicating with firefighters upstairs in the building?
Yesterday, weeks after the commission began sending him letters, interviewing former colleagues and checking with employers, Mr. Thompson emerged to tell his story. Contrary to what some investigators have speculated, Mr. Thompson said that he did not believe he ever touched the radio equipment known as a repeater, a device that amplifies the hand-held radios firefighters use.
The panel found that the repeater was working that day but fire chiefs mistakenly thought it was broken and stopped using it. The problem, the panel said in a report earlier this week, is that someone forgot to push a button, a mistake that created confusion about whether the repeater was working.
But the button was indeed pushed, although not by him, Mr. Thompson said yesterday as he gave an account that is at odds with the commission's leading theory on what went wrong.
"There was total chaos, and the situation at the console was not simple," he said in a telephone interview, referring to the security desk in the lobby at which he was stationed. "I think the commission will need to take a closer look at this."
Mr. Thompson's testimony is critical because communications difficulties have emerged as one of the leading problems that hindered emergency rescuers after the terrorist attack. The commission has concluded that the repeater could have provided an effective communication link among fire officials. Indeed, a fire chief in the south tower somehow later discovered that the repeater channel was working and used it to communicate as he climbed to the 78th floor.
These transmissions were captured in a tape recovered from the rubble and proved that, for at least a part of the morning, the repeater was working. But fire officials have consistently said the repeater did not work reliably enough to have been used.
At least a third of the 343 firefighters who died on Sept. 11 were in the north tower, where evacuation orders, issued before and after the collapse of the south tower, were not heard by many firefighters. On Wednesday, the families of some of those who died heckled former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as he testified before the commission because they said they did not believe he was honestly discussing the communication and other coordination problems.
Mr. Thompson said that he, too, continued to suffer the memories of that day. "The most painful thing is that they died, but I'm still alive," he said in an hour-long interview.
Mr. Thompson, who lives in Yonkers, said he wanted to rebut depictions of him as a mystery man who had made himself unavailable to the investigation. He said he never received the commission's letters or knew they were looking for him. "I was definitely not hiding. I've actually been seeking them out, not the other way around," he said. "I've been getting up every day and going to work just like a normal citizen."
Al Felzenberg, the commission's spokesman, said Mr. Thompson had left a phone message at the panel's New York office yesterday but no one from the commission had spoken to him yet. "The commission staff has tried to locate him, and I know they are looking forward to speaking with him," Mr. Felzenberg said.
Mr. Thompson, who still works as a fire safety director in a building, said the calls from the upper floors and the images from the lobby had been impossible to forget. After a year of psychological counseling, he said he still struggled with nightmares, and colleagues at work knew not to ask about what happened.
Visits to the families of the victims help in healing, he said. But he said he still could not watch video taken in the lobby that morning. "It's too painful," he said, his voice breaking.
Mr. Thompson, a fire safety director for 17 years, said he grew up in New York, dreaming of becoming a firefighter, but a spinal condition prevented him from passing the physical test. Instead, he worked as a fire safety director for private companies that help manage emergencies in buildings. He had been working in the trade center for eight years at the time of the terrorist attack and was employed by O.C.S. Security, which held the security contract.
From a command desk in the lobby, he was responsible for watching the building's various security and fire safety computer systems. A normal emergency might mean that one alarm button on the console would light, Mr. Thompson said. On Sept. 11, 2001, however, the panel was red with panic calls. "The problem was that no one had any idea what had happened," he said.
Mr. Thompson also sat near the console that operated the repeater, which was installed after the 1993 trade center bombing, when firefighters also had difficulty communicating with each other. Their radios have historically had problems sending signals in high-rise buildings because of the many layers of concrete and steel that must be pierced. The repeater was designed to boost the signal.
The repeater was in 5 World Trade Center, an adjoining building, but it could be operated from consoles in the lobbies of the north and south towers. The consoles, which looked like phones, had several buttons, one of which was pressed to turn on the system and a second that activated the handset to talk through.
The commission concluded that the second button was not pressed down, creating the perception that the repeater itself was not working when fire chiefs tested it. Consequently, the chiefs decided to switch to alternative radio channels that did not have the benefit of the booster.
Video from that morning shows Deputy Assistant Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer, one of the first fire officials on the scene, asking Mr. Thompson to turn the repeater on. But Mr. Thompson said yesterday that when he looked over to check the repeater, which was about five feet from his post, it was already on. A red light that only came on when both buttons were pressed was lighted, he said, and several supervisors confirmed that the unit was operating.
But when Chief Pfeifer tested the system minutes later, he could not communicate with another chief standing nearby in the lobby. "I don't think we have the repeater," the video shows Chief Pfeifer saying to the other chief. "I pick you up on my radio, but not on the hard wire," he said, referring to the repeater's handset.
Chief Pfeifer has said he believed that he could not rely on the repeater at that point and switched to another radio channel. A spokesman for the Fire Department, Francis X. Gribbon, said yesterday: "There is overwhelming evidence that the repeater could not possibly have worked correctly and completely throughout the morning. Chief Pfeifer did not have the luxury of time to figure out what was wrong with it."
Without the boosted channel, a fire chief who tried to call units down to the north tower lobby at 9:32 a.m., about half an hour before the south tower collapsed, found that no one acknowledged his message. A second evacuation order given by Chief Pfeifer, after the south tower had collapsed, was heard by some firefighters.
Chief Pfeifer has said it was a good thing that he was not using the repeater channel when he made that announcement because the repeater antenna was damaged as the south tower collapsed, and thus no firefighters would have heard his order. Mr. Thompson agreed. "They would have been in trouble once the repeater system went down with the collapse of the first building," he said. "They would have had no other method for communicating."
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the trade center and installed the repeater at the Fire Department's request, has said it worked that morning. Mr. Thompson said he was not sure who was responsible for turning the repeater on.
On Monday, Mr. Thompson will release a statement of his account to the commission, said Ronald L. Kuby, his lawyer. Mr. Thompson said he hoped to move forward with plans to be married once the attention subsided. For now, he said, the anguish of Sept. 11 has returned, not just for him but for his family and fiancée.
"It's my duty to help in whatever way I can to get answers about the events that day," he said, "and I'm eager to do that. But in the end, I just want to get back to the healing process, which has taken a long time to start."