New York City releases 9/11 documents

Here’s an example of how the Freedom of Information is used in America. On Friday Aug 11, 2005, the city of New York released thousands of fire department files about the attacks on the World Trade Center. The disclosure was forced by the New York Times newspaper, which made a request in 2002 under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The city initially refused the request but the newspaper appealed, supported by relatives of firefighters who died. Earlier this year New York’s highest court – the Court of Appeals – ordered the city to release most of the records.

Over the last three and half years, The NYT has obtained some of these records through unofficial channels, and they can be found on the Web at www.nytimes.com/sept11. The data released Friday includes more than 12,000 pages of oral histories in the voices of 503 firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians. The New York Times has published all the The Sept. 11 Records online. If you do not have a NYT sign-on, you can get a login from www.bugmenot.com.

This isn’t simply a case of the media going after a story; several relatives joined the NYT lawsuit because they, too, wanted a fuller account of what happened the day the towers collapsed. It is heartening to see the strength of the New York FOIA and the way the judiciary upheld the law despite obstruction from government. I very much doubt we will ever see such robust enforcement from the UK Information Commissioner.

The 9/11 disclosure is bound to produce strong reactions particular for relatives and survivors, but I like the quality of debate in America when privacy and openness coincide. This is just not found in the UK where too often Brits happily jump on the privacy bandwagon without realising the consequences. For example, under the guise of privacy, police can detain people without ever having to identify them. Effectively, people can, and do, disappear in this country. ‘Privacy’ is used to hide a whole range of systematic failures from school bullying to dirty restuarants.

The relatives were mixed about whether or not they would read through the disclosures, but no one seemed to want to curtail others’ right to access the information.

“This is a long grieving process, and I think each individual has to make a decision about how to deal with this information,” said Mary Fetchet, whose son, Bradley James Fetchet, died in the south tower. “I don’t think I’ll expose myself to this. I have to be very careful. I think that to know what happened inside that building is not healthy for me, personally.”

Others are compelled to read the histories. “We owe it to our loved ones to know what happened, because they went through such an incredible ordeal,” said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles F. Burlingame III, was a pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. “We need to witness for them. I am going to read through every single one of them.”

New York Times articles
City Releases Hundreds of Oral Histories of 9/11 Attacks (Aug 12, 2005)
Vast Archive Yields New View of 9/11( Aug 13, 2005)
Audiotapes Mean Difficult Decision for Relatives of 9/11 Victims (Aug 13, 2005)
The Interviews: ‘You Go Into Autopilot and You Try to Do What You Have to Do,’ a Medic Says (Aug 13, 2005)

BBC
BBC News report

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