THE BLOG
09/09/2011 01:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

9/11: What We Learned and What We Didn't

I was a senior producer at CBSNews.com on 9/11. For want of any better options, the CBS operators sent us calls from people who wanted to know the fate of their loved ones at the World Trade Center.

"My son Hector works in the World Trade Center. Can you tell me if he's okay?" a woman asked me shakily. Of course, I had no idea. I searched my mind desperately for some bit of information that might give her comfort, but whatever I wound up telling her was sympathetic and useless.

For people in the news business, there's nothing more awful than not being able to tell people what they need to know. An enormous rush of traffic quickly crashed our Web site. We worked desperately to restore the site and keep abreast of the big picture, but so often we were lacking the one fact our users most wanted to know: Is my son okay?

Ten years later, it's easier to acknowledge where we fell short. We're wiser -- in some ways. The police know a whole lot more about preventing terrorism. I believe that's one of the reasons we haven't suffered another large-scale attack.

But nobody, including the experts, knows why we haven't been the target of the kind of one or two-man assaults that are almost impossible to totally prevent if the folks involved aren't concerned with coming out alive. Did the police dig so deep that they've rooted out even the most solitary terror-prone resident of the tri-state area? Are American would-be terrorists less suicidal than the overseas brand? Nobody really has an answer.

The city has learned some hard lessons. When we retell the story of 9/11, we generally gloss over the fact that some of the first responders who died might have lived if the police and fire departments had been better able to cooperate and communicate. But these days, they do seem to work together better. There's much less of the kindergarten-level competition that contributed to disasters like the death of 121 firefighters who perished in the collapse of the North Tower.

Police helicopters hovering above the tower radioed a warning that the building looked like it was going to collapse. Police officers in the tower got the word, and evacuated. But many firefighters, who were equipped with antiquated radios, knew nothing of the warning or that the South Tower had already collapsed. Nor did they hear an evacuation order issued by fire chiefs on the scene.

Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani later testified that the firefighters in the tower had heard the evacuation order, and nobly decided to continue their rescue effort. But there's no evidence to support this self-justifying myth.

Most of these firefighters perished because they lacked the information they needed to save themselves. Ten years later, communications remain imperfect and the tribal rivalry between the police and fire department persist. Nevertheless, improved cooperation and advances in technology make it much less likely we'll have again have to suffer the needless death of brave men.

As the public watches the ceremonies at the resurgent but still far from rebuilt area around Ground Zero, they're bound to reflect on how long it's taking, and how much it's costing, to physically bring lower Manhattan back. I hope that doesn't cause them to lose hope in the possibility of building great projects in our city. But perhaps we've learned not to give a bureaucracy-burdened, bifurcated creature like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey any more big real estate challenges.

It goes without saying that the nation's thoughts will be on the police officers and firefighters we lost that terrible day. My own sharpest memories will be with some of the other victims, who also gave everything in their efforts to help, but whose sacrifices tend to be remembered less often.

There were iron workers who lined up instantly to help clear out the toxic debris at Ground Zero, and who lost their health and sometimes their lives from breathing the air without the proper protective equipment. There were volunteers from all across the country, men like Harold Schapelhouman, the leader of a team of veteran rescuers from California who plowed through the toxic ruins for weeks. Seventy percent of the men in Schapelhouman's team developed health problems as a result of their work at Ground Zero.

Rudy Giuliani will be back to help commemorate the moment that defined him forever as "America's Mayor." The lesson he has to offer is a complicated one. Giuliani was far more responsible than he's ever been willing to acknowledge for the fatally bad police-fire coordination, the lack of disaster preparedness inside the targeted buildings, and the failure to protect Ground Zero relief workers from breathing poisonous air. His endless milking of the tragedy during his unsuccessful shot at the presidency was irritating to the point of offensiveness.

But on the anniversary of 9/11, we'll give him his due for rising to the occasion. Giuliani was a tower of strength on the day we needed him most. I've always thought -- I'd certainly like to think -- that most American public official put in that position would have been equally strong at such a critical moment. I hope I never have the chance to find out.