Behind-the-Scenes: Ground Zero
A Collection of Personal Accounts

Written By Gail Swanson

With Honorary Firefighter Mike Bellone and
Retired Firefighter Robert Barrett

More than 200 full-color photographs

A heartbreaking, inspirational collection of first-hand stories from the recovery effort at Ground Zero, along with a startling claim that the black boxes from Flights 11 and 175 were found.

When Flights 11 and 175 hit the World Trade Center on September 11, the tragedy for Lower Manhattan had only just begun. In this heart-rending collection of first-hand accounts, the aftermath of the attacks is conveyed in chilling detail, from the terrifying moments just after the collapses to the powerful feelings of common cause arising from the cooperation of strangers.

Tiny distances meant the difference between life and death. Rescue workers, disoriented by the force of the collapse and choking on asbestos and air-borne debris, crawled blindly in the midday darkness to what they hoped was safety. Told in the first person, these are some of their stories—of recovery, of loss, of the hope that fueled them, and of the powerful sense of togetherness and fellowship that began that morning and grew over the next several months.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the 343 firefighters who died that day, and to all of those who perished at Ground Zero. As the authors note, that toll includes 37 Port Authority Police Officers, 23 NYPD Officers, six Emergency Medical staff, three court officers, one Secret Service agent and one FBI agent.


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Firefighter Said
Black Boxes Were Found at Ground Zero

By Bryan Sacks and Nicholas Levis
Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

Pulitzer Prize winner William Bunch  uses an account from the book to the left, "Behind-the-Scenes: Ground Zero," as one source for the claim that three black boxes from the aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center were discovered by authorities during the recovery efforts late in 2001. This contradicts the official story. (Philadelphia Daily News, Thursday, 10/28/04 - a longer version was published on his "Campaign Extra" weblog.)

Update, Oct. 29: This breakthrough story has been picked up at OpEd News, Scoop Media, Yahoo PR Newswire and many other outlets. 

Amid the enormous detail of loss, sorrow and recovery conveyed in "Behind-the-Scenes: Ground Zero," a New York City firefighter reveals that at least three of the four black boxes from Flights 11 and 175 were found by "Federal Agents" at the former World Trade Center site, during the clean-up efforts from September 2001 to March 2002.

At the time of the disaster, Nicholas DeMasi was a firefighter at Engine Company 261 in Queens. (The firehouse was shut down in 2003, after a century of operation.) 

In the weeks that followed 9/11, he joined an all-terrain vehicle crew (ATV Unit) at Ground Zero. In "Behind-the-Scenes," he describes his experience as follows: "If you needed anything, go ask the ATV Guy, they're the gopher guys."

On page 108 comes the revelation:
"At one point I was assigned to take Federal Agents around the site to search for the black boxes from the planes. We were getting ready to go out. My ATV was parked at the top of the stairs at the Brooks Brothers entrance area. We loaded up about a million dollars worth of equipment and strapped it into the ATV. When we got into the ATV to take off, the agent accidentally pushed me forward. The ATV was already in reverse, and my foot went down on the gas pedal. We went down the stairs in reverse. Fortunately, everything was okay. There were a total of four black boxes. We found three."
DeMasi's statement was committed to print in August 2003 and concerns an event that likely happened before January 2002. It has gone unnoticed by the media until now, and is flatly contradicted by the Kean Commission's supposedly exhaustive findings.

The only statement on the status of the Ground Zero black boxes in the 9/11 Commission Report is buried in footnote 76 to Chapter 1, but it is definitive: "The CVRs and FDRs from American 11 and United 175 were not found..." As if to leave no doubt about what is meant - that not even a trace of the total of four cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders from the two aircraft remained - the same sentence adds: "...and the CVR from American Flight 77 was badly burned and not recoverable."

DeMasi did not return phone messages to a number of investigators who reached out to him, and has not spoken out beyond his comments in "Behind-the-Scenes." He is obviously not seeking attention - why else drop his bombshell in this off-hand way, in a passage that almost no one has noticed? - and we have no interest in putting him on the spot. Given his commitment to the recovery effort at Ground Zero and the detail he provides, his account has an immediate, prima facie credibility.

The collapses of the Twin Towers on 9/11 were devastating, but black boxes almost always withstand explosions, high-speed crashes into mountainsides, even missile strikes; they have been retrieved in working condition from the bottom of the ocean floor and from sites where planes were almost completely destroyed (as in the case of Flight 93 at Shanksville).

Consider this CBS News story from February 2002:

The effort to better understand the events of the day isn’t being made easier by the fact that the voice and data recorders aboard the two hijacked jetliners that hit the twin towers haven't been recovered. The four devices - and all the clues they would hold - have failed to turn up in the 1.25 million tons of steel, concrete and other material taken from ground zero.

"It's extremely rare that we don't get the recorders back. I can't recall another domestic case in which we did not recover the recorders," said Ted Lopatkiewicz, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The sense of surprise conveyed by an NTSB spokesperson makes clear that the government's claim, that the devices where not recovered, is the one which needs further explanation, and which deserves scrutiny.

If DeMasi's story is true, then there will be others at Ground Zero who heard about or may have even witnessed the recovery of the black boxes, such as the "Federal Agents" he mentions.

As DeMasi describes it, the search for the black boxes was not undertaken in secret; presumably word of the discovery spread quickly among the rescue workers on the site, and the news was only later suppressed. A trail demonstrating the truth of his statements would almost certainly exist. There may even be pictures or video of the successful recovery of the boxes, and documents confirming it. Recall that FEMA and OSHA continuously monitored the entire site with fixed and mobile video cameras, and that firefighters at Ground Zero were often in real-time radio contact with their headquarters to provide continuing updates of the recovery effort. Were these conversations recorded or transcribed?

It is also possible, of course, that someone may have taken footage of the recovery with their own minicam.

The 9/11 Commission had a staff of more than 60 persons, a budget of $15 million, and 20 months in which to explore every possible avenue of research into the events and aftermath of September 11. "Behind-the-Scenes" is one of a handful of books containing first-hand accounts by Ground Zero rescue workers. Yet the Commission seems to have entirely missed DeMasi's revelation.

Since September 11 the government has extended its power to suppress information it believes may jeopardize national security. The Administration has claimed great latitude in the use of this power, as in the case of its bizarre "retroactive classification" of facts that FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds had already revealed (and after her most serious charges had received independent confirmation). Now as well, we can find no plausible argument that merely revealing the discovery of black boxes at Ground Zero could present a security threat worthy of classification and providing false accounts to the public.

For the moment, then, we are left with questions:

Will enough journalists and public officials be willing to pursue this story, wherever it leads, until the full truth is revealed?

If the black boxes were recovered, was this information made available to the 9/11 Commission? Was the data on the black boxes retrieved?

If the story is true and the government has been lying, then the 9/11 Commission Report repeated that lie, whether intentionally or out of ignorance. What else is being hidden from us? And why should we lend credence to other statements in the 9/11 Commission report?