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Dunne's words hit raw nerve

August 5, 2002

Last week's column citing the upcoming McKinsey report's criticism of the top police command's response to Sept. 11 prompted an e-mail message from Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son Christian died when the World Trade Center collapsed.

It is a raw and angry note, raising issues of concern not only for those who lost loved ones but for all New Yorkers. And as the debate begins over the actions of the city's agencies and leadership that day, it cries out for a response.

"Your article in Newsday," she began, "quotes [former] First Deputy Commissioner Joe Dunne, NYPD as saying, 'I heard [former Police Commissioner Bernard] Kerik had gone to the fire command on West Street with the mayor, but when I got there, I was told they had relocated to 75 Barclay St. It was fortuitous for us because the fire command took a direct hit.'

"I would like to know," Regenhard wrote, "why the PD and the mayor relocated. Did they know something the FD didn't? Why didn't the PD and FD have a joint operations post? Why didn't the PD allow the FD to observe the fire from their helicopters? Why didn't they engage in 'Incident Command' protocols whereby the PD and the FD work together during a crisis?

"He [Dunne ] also says: 'We did everything a police department would do in the normal course of the day. We showed from the start that the cops were in control ... '

"I say no, you didn't do everything a police department would or should. You did not communicate with the Fire Department. You did not inform them that you believed 21 long minutes before it occurred, that the second tower was in grave danger of collapse. You showed that the cops were in control of saving their own skins, and did not give a damn about the Fire Department.

"That is indicative of a system that is so dysfunctional and self-oriented that it contributed to my son's and at least 121 other firefighters' deaths. That is criminal. Where is the accountability on the part of Bernard Kerik, [former Fire Commissioner] Tom Von Essen and [former Mayor] Rudy Giuliani?"

Space does not permit a full response to Regenhard's concerns. But we can answer these three questions.

Why did the mayor and police officials leave the West Street fire command post?

According to a top-ranking police official at the trade center, they relocated to 75 Barclay St. because their cell phones were dead and they needed a safe telephone line to call the White House. "The ability to communicate was what the mayor was seeking," the official said.

Do the police and fire departments not communicate?

Former top police and fire officials acknowledge the answer is yes. The lack of communication is real, palpable, historical and cultural. Former Police Commissioner Howard Safir (1996-2000), himself a former fire commissioner, is cited as having refused any form of cooperation. But officials point out that at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing there was also no communication between the agencies. Ray Kelly was police commissioner then.

Giuliani himself recognized the problem. In 1996, he established the Office of Emergency Management to coordinate joint responses to crises.

The office's first commissioner, Jerome Hauer, who served until 2000, held joint drills every eight to 10 weeks. Hauer's successor, Richie Scheirer, has held no drills in 18 months.

Did the police not inform fire officials that the collapse of the second tower was imminent?

A former top-ranking police official at the scene said, "I know for a fact firefighters were told to get out." But both police and fire officials describe a difference in agency cultures they say may account for the failure of many firefighters to have left the second tower and instead to have died as heroes.

A former top city official said: "When a police sergeant gives an order to his men to move, they move. But I have been at fires over the years and when a fire chief tells his men to leave a building, they will say, 'Hold on chief, we are almost there.'

"I know firemen. They won't give up a building, knowing there are brothers and civilians inside. It is against the grain of what these people are about," the official said.

In a second e-mail message to Newsday, Regenhard wrote: "I heard of the stellar reputation of Mr. Dunne and I do not mean to attack him personally but the system is broken and must be fixed. It makes us feel even worse since my husband retired as a Det. Sgt after 29 years of NYPD service on the same day that my son, Firefighter Christian Michael Otto Regenhard, was appointed to the FDNY. He graduated from the fire academy just six weeks before 9/11."

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© 2002 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.