Giuliani: New York's 'Finest Hour'

Sept. 17, 2001 -- Following are excerpts of ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters' interview with New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani:

Prior Threats?

ABCNEWS' Barbara Walters: There have been rumors around the city that before Tuesday's attack there were threats. Were there threats?

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: No, no specific threats that we were aware of. By "we," I mean the police department, the joint terrorism task force, which involves the police department or the fire department.

Walters: So this was a total surprise?

Giuliani: Absolutely. There was no intelligence of any kind that we were aware of that suggested an attack like this or any kind of an attack.

Trapped Inside

Walters: On the day of the attack, you were at a private breakfast in midtown [Manhattan], when you were told about the explosion at the World Trade Center. What went through your mind at that moment?

Giuliani: The way I was told about it, I was told that it was an airplane, probably a twin-engine airplane, had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. And the first way in which it was described to me, it sounded more like an accident, some kind of a horrible accident. And the plane was described as a twin-engine plane, or a small plane, and that the upper area of the World Trade Center, one of the two towers, they didn't describe which one, was on fire. … We said we would drive down to the area immediately, and that we would meet the police commissioner and the fire commissioner right at the site.

Walters: When did you know that this was something much, much more?

Giuliani: When I got to right above St. Vincent's Hospital, I saw the World Trade Center for the first time, so I could see some of the fire at the top of it. It started to look pretty bad. And then I looked over at the exterior of St. Vincent's Hospital and I saw a group of doctors and nurses in their green uniforms, already ready for victims. And I realized they must have been alerted to a rather major catastrophe. And then when I got about two blocks past St. Vincent's, I could see even more smoke and I realized it was bigger. And then at some point, as we were approaching, we saw more flames and more smoke, which was actually the second tower being struck. But we didn't know it at the time. It just seemed like there was another explosion in the first tower … This all happened within 10 or 12 minutes. We were told in the van that the second tower had been struck by a plane and realized immediately it was a terrorist attack.

We were on a ground floor that had windows and you could look outside. All of a sudden, it became black, and then white. And things were pelting down.… I heard things hitting the building … We went down to the basement to exit. We tried one exit. It was locked. We tried another exit. That was locked. And then [a security guard] decided to come back upstairs. He said, "There's an exit upstairs. We can go out through the upstairs area." When we came upstairs, back into the area we had been in originally, things had gotten worse. There was smoke outside, it was much heavier. There was much more debris falling. And the exit on the main floor was closed. A security guard then came up to us and said, "I think we can go out through the adjoining building. I think that's open." So we all went back downstairs, tried another exit. That didn't work. And then finally, he went to an exit and he opened it. And we walked through into the lobby of 100 Park Place, which is an adjoining building that faces east. When that door opened, I think all of us breathed a sigh of relief, although when we got into the lobby, I wasn't sure we were better off, because when we looked outside, it looked like Armageddon. It was black and white, and there was no visibility at all.

Walters: Did you think you were going to die, Mr. Mayor?

Giuliani: Now I do, when I think back on it. That night and the next day, now when I think back on it, I realize that we were in a lot of danger. But at the time, there really wasn't time to think about it. And I don't think until we walked out into the Park Place building, I don't think I realized how bad it was … We were right behind 7 World Trade Center. And 7 World Trade Center absorbed the biggest hit from the fallen building, and probably saved our life.

Political Future

Walters: You know of course that there are some people who are saying that you can't leave as mayor, that they need you to stay on, and maybe they could change a law so you could stay. Is there any possibility that you would stay on in any capacity under a new mayor?

Giuliani: I think those are more like political questions. I almost can't deal with those now. It seems to me my job is to get us through the next couple of months. Try to put a really very effective transition in place once a new mayor is selected … We're not going to have any mayor until November. When we do, I'm more than happy to work with them and make sure that there's an absolutely appropriate transition and try to get the city through this worst time …

Walters: In the future, I don't want to ask you a political question, but would there be any way that you would continue to serve under somebody else?

Giuliani: I don't know. That's really up to what happens in the political transition. I would do anything. This week that we just ended is the worst week in the history of the city of New York. It could be one of the worst weeks in the history of America. We've been never attacked at this dimension before, certainly not within the continental United States. But it also turns out to be the best week in the history of the city. I mean the bravery, the dedication, the enormous love, and the support from the rest of America gives the city remarkable, remarkable strength. So I think we can already see the way in which we're going to recover and be stronger. But we're going to have to go through tremendous pain first.

City Under Siege

Walters: People are very nervous. People are talking about being afraid of flying, and people are saying it might be like Israel in a state of siege. What do you say to people of this city and all of the country, who say, "Oh sure, you can talk about normalcy, but we're scared?"

Giuliani: We have every right to be scared. There's no reason why we shouldn't be frightened, scared, concerned, worried, and I think it's going to continue for some time, because I think we're going to have to take some very strong action here. And that's going to also make us frightened and scared and worried. But the reality is that we can live through it. We have to defend ourselves. We have to end this. And we have to be willing to figure out how to live our lives, be cautious, be careful, more security measures… We're not going to let these people stop us from living our lives. There's nothing wrong with being afraid. But you don't give into it. Courage is realizing that you're afraid and still acting.

Walters: What do you think should happen to the site of the World Trade Center?

Giuliani: I don't have the answer to that. And I don't think anybody immediately has the answer to that. Gov. [George] Pataki and I are going to put together a group of distinguished citizens and knowledgeable people and people who have real involvement and sense of this, and have them discuss over the course of the next month or so what should be done with the site of the World Trade Center as we absorb this a little bit more. What should be done from the point of view of appropriately remembering one of the worst and I hope one of the finest hours in American history, the terrible tragedy and the terrible loss and then the way in which the resolve of the American people to fight terrorism really unified. … How do you rebuild the area so that it provides the same kind of economic impetus to New York and America? This is not all but a significant portion of the financial capital of the world, not just of America. This is where a great deal of the resources that drive the world economy are derived. So the way we rebuild it, I think is important, really important, and a lot of people should get a chance to give their advice about … We should get a little further from the event to figure out what the best use of that .

Getting Personal

Walters: Mr. Mayor, a difficult question, but before all of this happened, your private life was a mess. [There was] A lot of name-calling, a great deal of hurt and personal confrontations. Has what has happened now had any effect on your personal problems?

Giuliani: I don't know. I don't think I've had a chance to think about it. I haven't had a chance to think about that part of my personal life, except to be sure that my children were safe. But I haven't really had a chance to think in any depth about my personal life … I try to keep my personal life separate from my political and professional life. It's hard to do in the modern age that we live in. But I try to keep it separate. And I don't know what the impact on that will be.

Telling Kids

Walters: You have children, and there are millions of New Yorkers who have children. From your own experience, what advice do you give them? What should they say to the children?

Giuliani: They should be honest with them. Honest in a sensitive and a careful way. Honest about what happened, why it happened. I think you should be honest with children. I think they need to know the enormity of this, how difficult it is, how much pain, how much suffering is going to be caused by it. And then I think they need to learn the history of America, and why it's necessary to go through this. The generation that I'm a part of kept hearing about how the price of democracy is a very high one. And that you don't just take democracy for granted, and you may have to defend it, and you may have to fight for it. But we really were never put to the test the way we are now. And I think our children have to learn that. I've learned it from the generation before me, the generation that fought the Second World War, that the price of democracy is a high one and that people have to be ready to defend it in all the different ways in which you defend it. We have to teach our children that. That's the way in which you extend freedom and democracy … Don't hide things from them. Explain what has happened to them. But explain the importance of their way of life. Explain the importance of democracy and the rule of law, and regard for human beings and the kinds of things that are under attack right now.

False Hope?

Walters: Do you realistically think that there still is hope that the missing will be found?

Giuliani: I think every hour, every day that goes by, the realistic part of that hope diminishes. But I'm told by the experts who do recoveries that there's still a chance that we can save some lives. There's still a chance that we can save some lives … And I tried to figure out, along with the governor and others, how to best express this, because you don't want to falsely give people hope. At the same time, you don't want to extinguish it. And you don't want to stop the men and women who are doing this from doing the recovery. And I think the fairest and most honest way to say it is that that hope is small. But it still exists. And if it does exist, it does not exist for large numbers of people. So we're going to try to save human life until we're told that that's impossible. But I don't want to raise anyone's hopes or expectations beyond the reality that we're told. That there's still a chance that we can save some lives and we're going to try to do that. And as I said to people, even if I were to try to stop the firefighters and the police officers and the construction workers …If I were try to stop them from searching, they wouldn't listen to me. They'd go ahead and search anyway. So we should let them do that. And we should just try to be as honest as possible with people about the chances here, which are not very great but there's some chance that still exits that some people can be recovered.

Walters: Perhaps more than anyone else in this country, you have seen the suffering and the grief and the courage. Even though you faced some of these things before, are you a changed man?

Giuliani: When I went through prostate cancer, I was, therefore, a changed man. I changed for a while, then I went back to the way I was. I don't know if you really change. I think you grow. I don't think I'd be able to handle this at all if it weren't for the things that happened to me in my past. You keep growing, you keep changing, you keep, hopefully, expanding. And I haven't had the time in less than a week that's gone by to actually figure out about changing. I'm just doing what I think I have to do to try to get the city through this and participate in helping to get the country through it.

Our Finest Hour

Walters: Is this your finest hour? Your finest time?

Giuliani: I don't know. It's my most difficult time … I have no doubt that it's the finest hour for the city of New York … I have no question about that. I think that it's its worst hour and its finest hour. And I have no doubt that the city's going to build on that strength that it's acquired from this and be even a much greater city in the future than it's been in the past.

Walters: There are countries and people who've said America brought this on themselves. We were too materialistic. We were too greedy. You've heard this. What do you say?

Giuliani: America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. There's nothing like America. Sometimes we get down on ourselves too much. We criticize ourselves too much. I don't think we realize how good we are. I think the people who want to come here realize how good we are. This is the only country millions of people want to come to in the whole world. That's got to tell us something about ourselves. Tell us something about what a wonderful country this is, what a great form of government we have, what good people we are. And maybe I feel that more than most because I'm the mayor of New York City also. This is place that immigrants keep coming to all the time, like my grandparents came here. And they want to come here from all over the world. There's no place that is as desirable to be as the United States of America. That may create some of the jealousy, it may create some of the misunderstanding, it may create some of the anger. But that's not our fault. This is a great, great country and we should stop being so darn critical of ourselves. We have too many elements in our society to try to rip down America. I worry about that for young people. To be able to defend democracy, you have to understand the value of democracy. You have to understand it is a very unique gift we've been given to be Americans. And this is an absolutely beautiful country. I mean it's a great country, and I think people are going see that now, and it's also a country that is capable of defending itself. We have a history in which we never sought annexing other lands or taking away other people's freedoms. We've only fought when we've had to defend ourselves. And then when we had to fight, we've been overpowering. And I'm sure that this generation is going be able to accomplish exactly the same thing.