His brave voice resounds


Orio was Battalion Chief Orio Palmer. The now-famous French documentary shot in the north tower shows that he strode right over when Deputy Chief Peter Hayden called his name.

"All right ...," Hayden said.

Hayden seemed to begin giving Palmer instructions. The higher ranking Assistant Chief Donald Burns then spoke.

"The other tower, right?" Burns said. "The other tower."

The south tower had also been hit. Burns was heading over, and he wanted Palmer to go with him.

"Wait, no ..., " Hayden said.

Hayden can be seen setting his right hand on Palmer's left upper arm. Hayden clearly hoped to keep Palmer in the north tower.

"I'm gonna send him up," Hayden said. "I got no chiefs up there."

Hayden's left index finger pointed toward the inferno overhead. His right hand was still on Palmer's upper arm. The 45-year-old Palmer was one of the department's rising stars, renowned for his smarts and nerve and decency, as well as his physical fitness. He was also among the most knowledgable about communications.

"All right," Burns said.

Palmer followed as Burns and Hayden stepped away from the command post to huddle. Burns had run the operation in the north tower during the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. He had noted in a subsequent report that "our effectiveness is only as good as our ability to communicate."

"What happened last time, Pete, when you go over you can't hear over here," Burns now told Hayden. "From that tower you can't hear this one."

The quick conversation that followed is difficult to make out.

"I'm going over there," Burns then can be heard to say.

The sound of a plummeting body striking the pavement outside boomed through the lobby. Palmer stood steady and calm, an air pack on his back, a red flashlight bound with black elastic to his white helmet, a radio in his left hand. His face showed only a readiness to do whatever was needed.

Hayden again placed a hand on Palmer's upper arm. Only some of what Hayden then said is clearly audible.

" ... to go over there ... ," Hayden said.

Burns had decided that he wanted Palmer with him. Palmer set off along with his aide, Firefighter Stephen Belson, who could have retired with a back injury long before. They arrived at the south tower to discover one elevator was still working. They took that to the 41st floor and started up the stairs.

As would be reported in the Daily News two weeks later, a woman called 911 from the 105th floor to say the floor beneath her was collapsing. A caller from the 106th floor then reported the 105th floor was "crumbling." A police helicopter, Air-Sea 14, radioed dire reports of its own.

A warning went out over the police radio, but not all cops were both ready and able to evacuate. These included the courageous Officer Santos Valentin, who was buried yesterday. Some cops who did escape say they called verbal warnings to individual firefighters they encountered on the way out.

By all accounts, no warnings ever reached the fire commanders. That meant the commanders had no warning they could even try to relay to the firefighters above. Palmer continued climbing floor after floor with his radio.

As was reported by The New York Times last week, Palmer reached the 78th floor and calmly radioed he had encountered numerous "10-45's," or fatalities. He had teamed up with fire marshal Ronald Bucca, who could have retired years before after surviving a five-story fall at a fire.

Along with Ladder 15, they reached the 79th floor. They stretched a hose from a stanchion in a tower they had no way of knowing was already crumbling. They may well have managed to put water on the fire before the tower collapsed.

Palmer died a rising star in a department that had never been properly funded, that was always already lean when it was handed the same budget cuts as bloated city agencies, that got protective gear years after small towns had it, that had no helicopter of its own to put a pair of knowing eyes in the sky, that had radios more suited to a tenement kitchen fire.

Send a clear message

In an era when the military can run a war from a headquarters in another continent via satellites and live video feeds, an uncommonly brave fire chief who was one of the department's most knowledgeable minds in communications perished never knowing of warnings telephoned by at least two callers less than 30 stories above him. The warnings may not have saved him, but with his death and the death of so many comrades comes a warning that could save others.

When the President and Congress come for the Sept. 11 anniversary in this city that pays so much more in taxes than it gets back from the federal government, they should sit down with the fire commissioner and ask, "Now, what would Orio Palmer say you need?"