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Court prevents release of most September 11 emergency calls

Privacy concerns outweigh public interest, judges rule

By Deborah Feyerick
and Phil Hirschkorn

New York
Justice and Rights

(CNN) -- The emergency phone calls made by people trapped inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, need not be released to the public, a New York court ruled Thursday.

The New York State Court of Appeals declined to grant the wish of September 11 families who joined in a lawsuit seeking release of all tapes and transcripts of calls made from inside the Twin Towers to 9-1-1 operators.

"We are not persuaded that such disclosure is required by the public interest," the judges said in their ruling.

Instead, it agreed only to the release of calls from any relatives of the eight families who joined a lawsuit, originally filed by The New York Times as part of a request under the freedom of information law.

The families sought release of the 9-1-1 calls possessed by the Fire Department of New York, along with department dispatcher calls and interviews with firefighters who participated in the September 11 rescue effort.

The court did order the release of 511 interviews with September 11 firefighters.

It ordered that the oral histories be disclosed except for "specifically identified portions that can be shown likely to cause serious pain or embarrassment to an interviewee."

The fire department also will be required to release some internal communications between dispatchers and other employees -- those with "factual statements or instructions affecting the public" but none disclosing "opinions and recommendations."

The FDNY had resisted the disclosures, citing privacy concerns.

The appeals court disagreed with families whose attorneys argued in a hearing last month in Albany that public interest outweighed privacy protection of those who died in the attacks.

Although 9-1-1 calls might contain previously undisclosed factual information about what was happening inside the towers, the judges wrote, "it is normal to be appalled if intimate moments in the life of one's deceased child, wife, husband, or other close relative become publicly known, and an object of idle curiosity or a source of titillation."

Referring to the calls, they said, "Those words are likely to include expression of the terror and agony the callers felt and of their deepest feelings about what their lives and their families meant to them. The grieving family of such a caller -- or the caller, if he or she survived -- might reasonably be deeply offended at the idea that these words could be heard on television or read in The New York Times."

No families came forward to oppose the release.

Norm Siegel, an attorney for the eight families who sought full disclosure, said they will seek affidavits from other families authorizing the release of additional 9-1-1 calls.

"We won a lot, but there are things we didn't get," Siegel said.

The FDNY also sought to block the release of six unidentified tapes and transcripts selected by federal prosecutors as evidence in the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person facing trial in the United States for the September 11 attacks.

The court rejected the concern, saying the release of these calls would not affect the ability to seat an impartial jury.

The 9/11 commission, which had access to the FDNY tapes, found significant flaws in the city's 9-1-1 system and recommended improvements.

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