May 23, 2004
Firefighters on New York's streets on September 11, 2001.
Lloyd Thompson's testimony may change the way we understand the World Trade Centre's last day. By Ian Urbina and Kevin Flynn.
For several months, the commission investigating the September 11 attacks has been searching in vain for a man it believes could answer some of the critical questions of what happened inside the World Trade Centre that day. His name is Lloyd Thompson, and for much of that morning in 2001 he was at the epicentre of the chaos.
As deputy fire safety director in the complex's north tower, Mr Thompson stood in the lobby, fielding calls from those trapped on the upper floors. He struggled to make announcements over a public address system damaged by the planes' impacts. And, most significantly, he had a role in overseeing a piece of radio equipment that the commission believes is central to one of the day's mysteries: why did fire chiefs have such a hard time communicating with firefighters upstairs?
On Friday, weeks after the commission began sending him letters and checking with employers, Mr Thompson emerged to tell his story. Contrary to some speculation, he said he did not believe he ever touched the radio equipment known as a repeater, designed to amplify the hand-held radios firefighters use.
The panel has found that the repeater was working that day but fire chiefs mistakenly thought it was broken. The problem, the panel said in a report earlier this week, is that someone forgot to push a button and, with that oversight, created confusion about the device's status.
But the button was indeed pushed, although not by him, Mr Thompson said on Friday 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 an interview, referring to the desk in the lobby at which he was stationed. "I think the commission will need to take a closer look at this."
The commission has concluded that the repeater could have been an effective tool to link commanders in the lobby with fire companies on the upper floors. Indeed, a fire chief in the south tower later discovered it was working and used it to communicate as he climbed to the 78th floor. These transmissions were captured on a tape. But fire officials have consistently said the repeater did not work reliably enough to be used.
At least a third of the 343 firefighters who died on September 11 were in the north tower, where evacuation orders, issued before and after the collapse of the south tower, were not heard by many.
Mr Thompson said he continued to be strongly affected by 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.
He said he wanted to rebut recent 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.
Mr Thompson had been working in the World Trade Centre for eight years and was employed by OCS Security. From a desk in the lobby, he was responsible for the building's security and fire safety computer systems. A normal emergency might mean one alarm button on the console would light up, he said. On September 11, 2001, the panel was red with panic calls.
The repeater, installed after the 1993 bombing of the building, was in 5 World Trade Centre, an adjoining building, but could be operated from consoles in the north and south towers. The consoles, which looked like phones, had several buttons, one of which was pressed to turn the system on and a second to activate the handset.
The commission concluded that the second button was not depressed, creating the perception that the repeater was not working. Consequently, fire chiefs decided to switch to radio channels that did not have the benefit of the booster.
Video from that morning shows deputy assistant fire chief Joseph Pfeifer asking Mr Thompson to turn the repeater on. But Mr Thompson said on Friday that when he looked over to check the console, a couple of metres from his post, it was already on. A red light that came on only when both buttons were pressed was lit, he said, and several supervisors confirmed the unit was operating.
Yet when Mr Pfeifer tested the system minutes later, he could not communicate with another chief standing nearby. He has said he believed that he could not rely on the repeater and switched to another channel. A spokesman for the Fire Department, Francis Gribbon, said on Friday: "There is overwhelming evidence that the repeater could not possibly have worked correctly and completely...Chief Pfeifer did not have the luxury of time to figure out what was wrong with it."
- The New York Times