Find them: The killer of Rahmatollah Vahidipour, and the witnesses to a 911 meltdown

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Today's tabloids, Nov. 19, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

PLEASE STATE YOUR EMERGENCY: Data is revealing several patterns in the 97 deaths so far attributed to Hurricane Sandy, as you saw if you read yesterday's New York Times piece mapping each one of the deaths and describing police accounts of them.

One of them: More than half of the people who died were over the age of 65.

Harder to determine: How many of those who died in New York City lost their lives after repeated and failed attempts to get help.

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In yesterday's Times, one death is described this way: "DAVID GOTTHELF, 72, was found dead in his home in Rockaway Park by a friend on Oct. 30. The police said the cause of death apparently was drowning."

Today, we have more detail on how Gotthelf died. The friend's name is Diane Hudson, a 45-year-old neighbor who tells the New York Post today that she received a call from Gotthelf, who had cerebral palsy, and tried to get help using the city's 911 system:

“The first hour or so, I got a busy signal," she told the paper. "When [I was] finally able to get through to 911, it would ring for three or four minutes. One time, they sent [me] to a dispatcher who called me back and ended up being in The Bronx.”

One time when she did get through she was connected to Emergency Medical Services.

“I told them my friend who’s disabled was stuck in his apartment, and I hadn’t spoken to him in hours. They said, ‘We can’t really help you because it’s not a medical emergency.’ They told me to call 311,” she tells the Post.

No responders made it to Gotthelf's residence before Hudson went there the next morning to find him dead.

For those of us who watched as the mayor and other officials told us ceaselessly that 911 was being overwhelmed, that situations like fallen tree branches should be referred to 311, that 911 was reserved for life-threatening emergencies, it might come as little surprise that not everyone who needed emergency assistance was able to get it in time.

But according to the Post, the 911 call system is supposed to be able to handle 50,000 simultaneous calls in big citywide emergencies. At the height of the storm, the call volume clocked in at 20,000.

We knew, already, that emergency response systems are a weak point in this administration. Back in May, a report commissioned by the city from an independent consultant demonstrated that 911 suffered from technical problems as well as turf battles and incompatible technology between the police and fire departments. The study noted that efforts to obtain information from either agency about surges in 911 calls turned up nearly nothing.

Now, listen to the statement NYPD spokesman Paul Browne gave the Post in response to their report today:

Instead of holding on as instructed by a recording during these peaks, callers hung up and redialed even through the recording cautioned against doing so because it put repeat callers back at the bottom of the queue and furthered overall delays ... Despite repeated requests to the public to use 311 for non-emergencies, many still used 911 for non-life-threatening situations.

The Post bills its report as an exclusive, though besides the testimony of Gotthelf's friend it's hard to tell what it is they have. The only evidence provided besides this story is attributed to unnamed, unnumbered plural "survivors, some of whom lost loved ones in the storm."

From here alone the Post derives the series of bullet-pointed criticisms that lead the story:

* 911 calls rang and rang unanswered or were greeted by woefully unprepared operators.

* Dispatchers from the police, fire and ambulance services feuded with one another.

* At times, operators tried to pawn off calls to the city’s 311 non-emergency hot line.

Perhaps that's why Browne thought he could get away with such a peevish and lead-footed statement?

"BAD CALL" reads the enormous black text at the bottom of the front page. "911's shocking Sandy failure."

It'd be more shocking if it were better documented. So here's an assignment: Take Sunday's paper, get the 911 call logs and the phonebook out, and let's find out how many people died in the storm as a result of 911 failures. Then, perhaps, Browne will have more to apologize for, if Gotthelf's story alone is not enough for him.

That report in May, and 911's obviously false claim they can handle more than twice the volume of calls they received during the storm, should have been enough of course. But obviously it isn't.

JET FUEL: For the first time in more than a month, sad Jets fans had reason to cheer as their troubled team, still in the running for the playoffs with a 4-6 record, finally won.

How exciting was the game against the St. Louis Rams? The Post's Brian Costello resorted to praising the Jets' "mistake-free football," with more positive negatives to follow: Mark Sanchez had "no turnovers" and there will be "no cries for Tim Tebow, who played three offensive snaps." A referee call against Rams returner Chris Givens was credited as being "huge" by Jets coach Rex Ryan.

CITIZEN'S ARREST! Back in 1897, the murder of a Turkish bathhouse masseur named William Goldensuppe so transformed the city's newspapers that writer and professor Paul Collins was able to write this lead in an article about the case:

It was 1 a.m. on a hot July night when detectives marched into the offices of the New York World. "Where's the head?" they demanded.

In the summer of 1897, that question meant just one thing in Manhattan newsrooms, and it wasn't a request to meet the managing editor. The head everyone sought was of William Guldensuppe, a masseur who had disappeared in late June from his Hell's Kitchen apartment. He'd reappeared scattered in pieces along the Lower East Side, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. What was still missing, though, was his head—which, rumor had it, a jealous lover had hidden inside a block of plaster.

Collins has it that the murder, which forms the basis of his book The Murder of the Centurysparked the original tabloid war, between The New York World and The New York Evening Journal: Hearst offered a whopping $1,000 reward to solve the crime, and even formed a "Murder Squad" of reporters who were ready to resort to flashing badges and pistols to make citizen's arrests.

In the olden days when the cops had little more than billy clubs, street-smarts and a rare willingness to take a bullet over the average citizen in the fight against crime (though by 1897 the ahead-of-its-time Loomis Laboratory had already opened its doors), a popular pastime for newspapers was to compete directly with the police, Tintin style, in solving sensational crimes.

It's probably not that they were more journalistically energetic in the past than they are now. It's that the bar for beating the police was that much lower.

I was reminded of all this looking at today's Daily News cover. "FIND THEM," reads the text. In the four corners of the page are surveillance stills showing four characters, with their police nicknames: "John Doe Duffel Bag," "Jane Doe Long Coat," "John Doe Bubble Jacket" and "Jane Doe Green Jacket." All four are shown in surveillance footage to have been near the Flatbush store where owner Rahmatollah Vahidipour was killed at or near the time of his death. And they want to find these people, because they believe the man who committed this crime is responsible for a string of other crimes targeting Middle Eastern Brooklyn shop-owners. "MANHUNT FOR BROOKLYN SERIAL KILLER" reads a red bar across the top of the page with a police sketch of a suspect. "Cops seek 4 who may have witnessed latest slay."

OBSERVATIONS: Two compelling local stories drive the two tabloid covers today. But one makes maximum use of already-reported material, driving the story into an interaction with readers: FIND THEM. I know I can't penalize "BAD CALL" just because the story inside falls short; readers won't know that until they've already lost their dollar. And it is as good a sale as it could have been. The splayed-out Mark Sanchez gives the page its sexiness, but it's never as good to patch in all the elements of a good front page from several sources. The perfect cover gets them all in one.

The News today is by no means perfect. But it's inching up the scale.

WINNER: Daily News.