BY JOHN A. (JAY) JONAS
As Ladder 6 approached the World Trade Center, we could see large gaping holes in the sides of the North Tower. Heavy smoke was pushing out of every crevice, and we could see fire pushing out of the upper floors. I estimated that there were 20 floors involved. Since each floor covered about an acre in area, there were 20 acres of fire—90 stories above the ground.
We crossed Broadway near City Hall and proceeded west on Vesey Street. We had to weave our apparatus around the hundreds of people who were running toward us as they fled the area. We finally arrived at West Street, near the front entrance of the North Tower. We parked just south of the pedestrian bridge that crossed West Street, connecting the World Trade Center with the Word Financial Center.
We started gathering the equipment that we would normally carry for a high-rise building fire. Debris was now striking the ground and the apparatus. We sought shelter underneath the pedestrian bridge and kept looking up to make sure that nothing was coming down as we gathered our equipment. Once we had all our required tools, we gathered together and looked for an opening where no debris was falling and ran toward the entrance to the North Tower.
Entering the building, we saw the first signs of how horrific this day would be. At the entrance, there were two severely burned people. EMS personnel were coming toward us with their equipment, so I knew that these people would be cared for. I then proceeded toward the lobby command post to check in.
Battalion Chief Joe Pfeifer of Battalion 1 was at the command post talking on two phones at once. He had phone access to elevators and floor warden phones from this location. Deputy Chief Peter Hayden, Division 1, was in command and giving orders to arriving fire officers.
I was about to receive orders when we heard a loud explosion and saw large pieces of metal falling to the ground. A second plane had just hit the second tower.
This radically changed the demeanor in the lobby. We all looked at each other in disbelief, wished each other good luck, and received our orders. We were to go upstairs for search and rescue.
All firefighters in the lobby now knew that we were under attack. At this point, nothing seemed out of the question. Would there be a third or a fourth plane? In the true spirit of the fire service, everyone in the lobby received their orders and went to work.
I told the members of Ladder 6 that we would have to walk upstairs for search and rescue because the severely burned people we had seen at the building entrance had been in elevator cars. The vapors from the jet fuel went down the elevator shaft and ignited. We headed for the B stairway. I wondered where our air cover was from the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force—something I have never wondered about at a fire before.
As we started our ascent to the upper floors, civilians were evacuating the building on our left, and we were climbing to the right. The stairway was only wide enough for two people to stand side by side, so there was a steady stream of people coming down the stairs and a procession of firefighters going up. The civilians broke into the vending machines, taking out bottles of water and giving them to the firefighters. The civilians coming down the stairs were very calm and orderly. They were giving us words of encouragement as we made our climb up the stairs. Men gave up their suit jackets to cover burned people. These people were more concerned about our well-being than theirs. They were not trained emergency personnel, and they were leaving a horrible situation. Yet, they were concerned about the firefighters going up the stairs.
Our plan in climbing the stairs was to take 10 floors at a time, then take a quick break. This way, we would have some energy left when we made it to the 80th floor. We stopped twice to help firefighters who were having chest pains. We made sure they were receiving medical attention, and then we continued our climb. As we continued up the stairs, we would get an occasional whiff of kerosene smoke. At high-rise building fires, it is important for members of a unit to stay together. When we arrived at the 27th floor, I counted heads and was missing two firefighters. I told the three firefighters who were with me to wait for me on the 27th floor while I went to look for the other two. They weren’t far behind. We all gathered on the 27th floor for a breather.
Just then, we heard a sound that nobody had ever heard before. It almost sounded like another jet plane. The building started to shake as if it were in an earthquake. The North Tower swayed back and forth, and the lights went out for about 30 seconds. Looking out the north windows, all I could see was the white dust cloud pressed against the glass.
The South Tower had just collapsed. This was a difficult piece of information to process. I had never heard of a high-rise building collapsing before. It gave me a sick feeling—my instinct was to get out of the building. I perceived that our situation now was very grave. I told my firefighters that it was time to go. “If that building can collapse, then our building can collapse.” We made sure that we brought all of our equipment with us. You never know what you are going to run into on the way down the stairs. It was best that we had all our equipment.
Although I had decided to self-evacuate, I was concerned because I hadn’t received an evacuation order from the command post over the radio. As it turns out, the chiefs had called for the evacuation before the South Tower had collapsed. I was just in a bad spot in the building for good radio reception.
I was also concerned that, without an evacuation order, I was acting out of the parameters of this operation. The climb up was a hard one, and I didn’t want to make it a second time if an evacuation hadn’t been called for. However, once I had made it down to around the 20th floor, I heard an evacuation order over the radio.
Somewhere around the 20th floor, I ran into Battalion Chief Richard Picciotto from the 11th Battalion; he was using a bullhorn to tell firefighters to evacuate the North Tower. When the WTC was bombed in 1993, he was one of the first chiefs on the scene. He thought that he could have used the bullhorn then for crowd control, so he brought it with him this time. I am sure he probably saved several fire companies by using this bullhorn to tell them to evacuate.
Somewhere between the 15th and the 20th floors, the firefighters of Ladder 6 encountered a woman standing in a doorway, Josephine Harris. She was crying and seemed to have trouble walking. Harris worked as a bookkeeper for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the 73rd floor. She had made it down from the 73rd floor on her own, but now her feet and her legs were giving out. We took her with us and continued our evacuation.
The rescue of Josephine Harris greatly slowed our evacuation. Instead of moving down the stairs at a normal pace, we had to take one step at a time, placing both feet on the same step at the same time. Foremost in everyone’s mind then was that the South Tower, which had been hit after the North Tower, had already collapsed. We surmised that it would be just a matter of time before the North Tower would collapse as well.
A couple of times we all stepped to the side so that the logjam of evacuating firefighters could pass us. We were moving too slowly, I thought. I can almost hear the clock ticking in the back of my head. However, we were now committed to Harris—we could not leave her.
During our descent down the B stairway, we witnessed tremendous acts of heroism and dedication to duty. We heard Captain Patrick Brown of Ladder 3 on the radio saying that he was on the 40th floor and he was treating burned people. Captain Terry Hatton of Rescue 1 was giving reports of collapse indicators around the 40th floor over the radio. I saw Firefighter Faustino Apostal, the aide to Chief William McGovern of the Second Battalion, standing in the doorway to the stairway around the 15th floor. I told him: “Faust, come on, come with us, it is time to go!” He replied, “That’s all right Captain, I’m waiting for the Chief.” He didn’t want to leave his partner, the chief.
Lieutenant Mike Warchola and his Ladder 5 crew were assisting a civilian who was having chest pains on the stairway landing on the 12th floor. I told him, “Mike, let’s go, it’s time to go!” He said, “It’s OK, Jay, you have your civilian; we have ours. We will be right behind you.”
We made it down to the fourth floor when Harris’s legs finally gave out. I told the Ladder 6 firefighters there that I would look for a chair on which to seat her so we could run with her. Unfortunately, the fourth floor was a mechanical equipment room floor that had no offices. I ran to the south side of the building, and I still could not find a chair. I realized that this wasn’t going to work out, and I started running back toward the B stairway. I was thinking that we would just have to drag Harris down the stairs.
When I was about four feet away from the B stairway door, the unthinkable happened. The North Tower started to collapse. The floor started heaving, and I was unable to open the stairway door at first but succeeded on the second try. I dove for the stairway and covered my head. There was a tremendous amount of vibration as the floors above pancaked down on top of each other, producing a quick succession of loud booms. The vibration was strong enough to throw us around the stairway like bouncing ping-pong balls. We also heard the eerie sound of massive steel beams and columns that were being twisted around our heads like twist ties on a loaf of bread. A lot of light debris was flying around and hitting us. My first thought was a feeling of resignation—we didn’t make it. At that moment, I felt as if I had let my men down. We were all on the floor, waiting—waiting for the big piece of concrete or the big steel beam to come. We were all thinking that this was it; “it is over for me.” The collapse lasted only about 15 seconds. A 110-story building came down in about 15 seconds. For us, the big beam or the big piece of concrete never came.
When the collapse stopped, I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that I just survived that.” We were all in the middle of that enormous smoke and dust cloud. It was difficult to breathe, and there was zero visibility. I conducted a roll call, and we were all accounted for.
We had no concept of how total the collapse was. We were in the B stairway, and it was now distorted and had a lot of debris in it. But we were alive. So my first impulse was to stand up, continue down the stairway, and work our way out to the street. We made a full body harness out of one-inch tubular webbing and put it on Harris. We could not pass below the second floor because the way was blocked with debris.
Over the radio, I heard a “Mayday” message from Warchola, saying he was in the B stairway on the 12th floor, pinned, and hurt badly. I started climbing the stairs again. The stairway was distorted, and I had to move debris just to go a short distance. I made it up to the fifth floor, where the debris was too big and heavy to move. I was extremely frustrated. We were starting to hear other “Maydays” from other firefighters, too. We were not too far away from them, but debris prevented us from reaching them.
Visibility was very poor, and we could see only a short distance. There was a hole in the stairway wall, but I could only see about four feet and nothing but twisted steel. We tried to assess the severity of this situation. Were we entombed under 110 stories of debris? We went into survival mode, turning off flashlights, conserving the air in our SCBA. Picciotto yelled from downstairs for everyone to turn off their radios. Then I thought, “He’s on the command channel.” All chiefs were ordered to go on the command channel. I kept my radio on and had it on the tactical channel. This way, we could better our chances of making contact with the outside.
After about 40 minutes, I made contact with the outside world—I reached Deputy Chief Tom Haring. He recorded my information and said, “We’re going to send a rescue crew.” Then I made contact with Deputy Chief Nick Visconti, Battalion Chief John Salka, Firefighter Cliff Stabner from Rescue 3, and Battalion Chief Bill Blaich. Throughout the rest of our entrapment, talking to these firefighters gave us encouragement that we would be all right.
We could hear fires crackling, and smoke would occasionally come into the stairway. We didn’t realize it at the time but 6 WTC and 5 WTC, the buildings immediately adjacent to our location, were on fire. I heard Captain Ralph Tiso of Rescue 3 calling for a hoseline over the radio because he was cut off by fire.
We still had limited visibility in our stairway hours after the collapse. Every once in a while, we heard explosions, one fairly close to our location, which upset Josephine Harris and, to be honest, us too. She said that she was scared. In the calmest voice that I could muster I told her, “We are all a little scared. Just hang in there.” She showed tremendous courage, and the members of Ladder 6 took turns comforting her during the entrapment.
All during our entrapment, we were trying to evaluate our situation. How bad was it? We really didn’t know how bad it was outside the staircase. We knew we had a major collapse, but I rationalized that it couldn’t be a total collapse because we were still here. I thought that maybe the top half of the building collapsed. Our limited visibility also hampered our information gathering. We kept trying to come up with ideas to get out of our situation. We considered rappelling down an elevator shaft with our rope. We thought better of it when we considered that we might not be able to get in on a lower floor. We saved that idea for when we became desperate. I knew that we couldn’t go up or down the stairway. We could see through a hole outside the stairway; but because of our limited visibility, all we could see was mountains of twisted steel. We also had to consider the real possibility of a secondary collapse. We didn’t want to survive this first event and then become fatally injured by a small piece of debris coming down on us. So I continued giving my “Mayday” messages and giving precise instructions to the firefighters who were looking for us as to how we arrived at our location. They were looking for some kind of landmark to give them a clue as to how to get to us, but there were no landmarks left after the collapse.
About three hours after the collapse, a beam of sunlight broke through the smoke and dust and shone into the stairway. I was highest in the stairway, so I saw it first. I said, “Guys, I see sunshine. There used to be 106 floors above us, and now I see sunshine. There is nothing over our heads.”
Picciotto came up the stairs and said, “That’s our way out.” I replied, “It probably is. Let’s just wait a little longer to make sure. If you fall, I may not have a way to retrieve you.” This stairway had become our life raft. I didn’t want anyone to jump out of the life raft until I was sure we could make it to shore. All through our entrapment, we closely evaluated every move we wanted to make. It is amazing how focused we were. So we waited for a little longer to make our move. About 15 minutes later, the smoke and dust continued to clear out, and we got a little more visibility outside of the stairway. Off in the distance, we spotted a firefighter from Ladder 43 searching the rubble. We decided that this was confirmation that it was safe to go out of the stairway.
We breached a wall in the staircase and enlarged the hole so that we could go outside. Picciotto went first; I went last. I was responsible for the largest number of people in the stairway and wanted to make sure that they all got out. I didn’t want to have to come back to look for a missing member. We tied off Picciotto on our lifesaving rope. We tied a munter hitch on his harness so if he fell we could get him. We also tied a tensionless hitch to the stairway newel post used as an anchor point and a butterfly hitch for an in-line anchor point. Picciotto made it out about 100 feet and met the Ladder 43 firefighter. He tied off his end of the rope, and we tied off the other end in the stairway.
We started sending people out of the stairway, and they made their way toward West Street. When it was Harris’s turn, she could not move. She wasn’t walking well before the collapse; now, more than three hours later, she couldn’t walk. We waited for members of Ladder 43, who were now approaching us, to take her out in a stokes basket.
Lieutenant Glenn Rowan of Ladder 43 made it to what was left of the B stairway of the North Tower. I told him, “Here is Josephine; you will need a stokes to take her out. There are three guys from Engine 39 below us. They sound all right, but they are cut off from us. We were talking to Chief Prunty for a while, but we haven’t heard from him for about a half hour. And Lieutenant Warchola and the guys from Ladder 5 are on the 12th floor.” Rowan looked at me like I had two heads. It wasn’t until after I left the stairway that I realized the 12th floor no longer existed. We turned Josephine Harris over to the members of Ladder 43 and exited.
As we made our way across this debris field, I couldn’t believe the devastation. 5, 6, and 7 WTC were heavily involved in fire. The Secret Service ammunition depot in 6 WTC was cooking off, and there were explosions near us. I encouraged our group to keep moving. We were all pretty beat up from the collapse and the entrapment. The steel that we were climbing on was very slippery. It was coated with a layer of dust from the collapse, which acted as a lubricant on the steel. Our moves over the steel had to be slow and deliberate.
We came upon a three-story-deep trench, the result of the collapse of the buildings’ basements and subbasements. One by one, I watched as each of our group went up and over the hill of that trench.
After we climbed out of the trench, I wanted to report in to the command post. A few friends told me to forget the command post and go to an ambulance. I told them, “You don’t understand. Many firefighters are searching for us. They have to know we are out.”
At the command post, about 100 off-duty firefighters were awaiting orders, and it was noisy. Deputy Chief Peter Hayden was in charge. He was standing on top of a fire department pumper that was damaged by the fallen building.
All the members of Ladder 6 and Josephine Harris made it out after being trapped for more than three hours. As it turns out, though, there weren’t many victories that day. We were among the very few.
Rescuers “Save Each Other”
The mood darkened considerably when the group reached the fifth floor, which was pitch-black and flooded from the building’s sprinklers. “It was like being in The Poseidon Adventure,” says Michael Benfante, 36, a communications company manager who spotted Tina Hansen, 41, seated helplessly behind a set of glass doors. He and coworker John Cerqueira, 22, carried her down. “It was slippery, and I was moving stuff out of the way so we could push Tina. I wasn’t going out unless she was with me.”
“Tina was our guardian angel,” Cerqueira said. “She saved us too.” All survived.—”Precious Mettle,” People, Oct. 1, 2001
JOHN A. (JAY) JONAS is a 22-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), a battalion chief assigned to Battalion 2 in Manhattan, and a former captain with Ladder 6. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from Empire State College, SUNY, and an associate’s degree in fire science from Orange County Community College, SUNY.
The next thing I know, I’m getting buried in debris. The windows are shattering. Again, I think it’s my tower. I’m not exactly clear how it’s coming down, but it’s coming down. You can’t miss the noise. You can feel the air pressure building up. I mean, literally, it blows the windows in U. We are covered in white. I cannot breathe U. I had taken my mask off U. I pulled the hood over my face to filter out some of that [powder]. I noticed guys next to me were alive. I was in shock U. “I cannot believe we’re alive. There’s no way we could have survived this. But I’m alive.”— Chief Stephen King of Safety Battalion,The New York Times, July 5, 2002
For others, getting out alive or being trapped had nothing to do with fire drills or grandiose plans. Survival came down to luck and location.—“The Evacuation That Kept a Horrible Toll From Climbing Higher,” Dean E. Murphy and Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, Sept. 21, 2001