SAUSALITO — Like many on the West Coast, amateur radio operator Robert Sanford was roused from his bed around 6 a.m. on Sept. 11.
“My friend, Mike, called me. He said, ‘You gotta get up. The World Trade Center’s been hit by a plane,’”’ Sanford said.
The New York City native and 10-year radio enthusiast immediately went to his den, or “command center,” as he calls it, and turned on his computer and television.
Another East Coast friend used the Internet to feed Sanford radio transmissions between police and fire officials and their dispatchers.
“I started listening and I thought, ’Maybe I should record this stuff,”’ he said Wednesday.
As he watched the tragic events unfold on his television screen, it quickly felt more personal.
“I was hearing people who were at the scene, rather than reporters in a nonchalant voice remaining calm,” he said. “People at the scene were pretty much screaming for help. That brought a whole different feeling to it.”
More than two hours later, Sanford, 44, who sells appliances at Best Buy, left for work.
The transmissions he recorded offer a behind-the-scenes look at how rescue personnel quickly organized to deal with an unprecedented disaster.
Just after the first tower collapsed, a New York City fire dispatcher responded to a voice calling for help.
“I’m beneath the north pedestrian bridge,” the voice said. “I don’t have much air. There was a building collapse. I was on the street. I don’t have much air. Please send somebody.”
“Listen to me,” the dispatcher responded. “You need to calm down and relax. We do have somebody on the way over to you. Get off the air. Remain calm.”
Often, in those first hours after the collapses, the dispatcher called for a unit and received only silence in return.
After the second tower collapsed, a police dispatcher tracked perhaps a dozen reports of officers trapped. In an emotional exchange, he tried to pinpoint the location of a seriously injured officer, who could barely speak.
“Try to talk into your radio,” he said on the air. “What was your last location? What was your last location? Talk to us.”
“Help me,” was all the trapped officer could utter, her voice laced with pain.
Sanford was stunned by what he heard.
“These guys are the best of the best. They can handle anything that’s thrown at them, but this was too much even for them,” Sanford said. “The bedlam on the radio — everyone was kind of losing it.”