By John J. Salka Jr.
West Street was not a street anymore: It was a debris field that resembled a metal scrap yard in some areas and a mat of steel beams in others. Every once in a while, you would see an FDNY apparatus protruding from the debris. Civilians and firefighters were trapped in vehicles and under rubble out in the street.
There were extreme fire conditions. The heat was unbearable. We saw distorted steel; outside bearing walls were separating and falling. Some of the gigantic debris piles around the outside of the buildings were smoking; secondary fires were common. What didn’t collapse burned. Fires were visible on the upper floors of several of the buildings surrounding the WTC site. The adjacent 4, 5, and 6 WTC buildings had floors of fire. The 7 WTC building collapsed later that day. Area water mains were broken. Little could be done to address these fires at this time.
I started hearing radio transmissions of people, firefighters, and officers trapped. That’s when I picked up on a transmission from my friend Jay Jonas of Ladder 6, saying he was in the North Tower, B stairway, on the fourth floor.
I asked him if he and the others in his party were okay. He said yes and added that there was lots of dust and smoke but no major injuries. I asked if there was any fire nearby that was threatening them. He replied that there was fire somewhere near them, but he didn’t think it was an immediate threat.
Of course, he had no idea that both the North and the South Towers had completely collapsed. There was no North Tower. I don’t recall if any of us who had heard his Mayday call actually told him there was no North Tower. We did, however, make it clear that the debris was so extensive that we really couldn’t tell where the North Tower was.
I asked, “Do you remember where you went into the building? Was an apparatus parked near where you went in? Were you near 101 Truck?”
He couldn’t tell me about a specific apparatus. The only signposts we had were some apparatus and a bridge on West Street. The North Tower happened to be where the largest pile of debris was. Fires were still burning in December, so you can imagine the intensity of the fires in the area. Buildings 6 and 7 were almost fully involved.
We began to make our way as quickly as possible toward the area where the North Tower once stood. This proved to be quite difficult. Every step was a chore. The multiple-foot layer of debris on the street contained steel beams, pipes, sheet metal, and vehicles. Several multistory sections of the exterior wall of the WTC were left jutting from the debris field in slated, unsupported positions. We were forced to steer clear of these areas, since these sections could have collapsed. Consequently, we had to travel around, through, and over various debris piles. Adding to this the unsure footing, heavy smoke, and dust conditions, the trip toward the North Tower ruins was very slow and frustrating.
Meanwhile, we had tried with teams several times to rescue guys. There were so many radio transmissions, so many operations going on. It was hard to stay focused on one thing. All of us had our hands full. There were thousands of firefighters digging, searching voids, and removing debris—and there were many fires burning.
Deputy Chief Peter Hayden told me to take some firefighters and see if I could get to Jonas. It was not going to be easy. Several groups of chiefs and firefighters maintained radio contact with Ladder 6 members to try to learn more about their predicament and location. They were asking similar types of questions so we on the outside could determine the best way to reach them. Several attempts were made to penetrate the area in which we estimated they were trapped.
Several of our attempts to access the area where Ladder 6 was trapped, over the course of several hours, were not successful. With my group, around 15 to 20 firefighters, I went to Vesey Street, across from 7 WTC, which was well involved in fire but still standing, and entered through a level of the garage on the north side of that building. We walked through an opening that had been cut in a rolldown door, looking for a way to access the North Tower stairwell where Jonas was. All the while, we were well aware of the fire burning in 7 WTC and the potential for its collapse. We had entered at the lower level of 6 WTC. It seemed to be in fairly good shape, although it was dusty and filled with debris. There was some smoke, and you could see where debris from the North Tower had penetrated the structure. We appeared to be in a crater. You could see fire when you looked down the debris hole. There were also stairways, which we thought possibly might lead to Jonas. A firefighter was ready to go up the stairs. We had Jonas on the radio. Other chiefs came in now. A line was stretched for protection if needed. However, we were told to leave the building because of the dangerous conditions. We left and headed toward West Street, after taking an accountability count.
We were standing at Vesey and West streets, after Rescue 3’s collapsed apparatus had been towed to clear that site. Battalion Chief Rich Picciotto, who, unbeknownst to us, was one of Jonas’ group in B stairwell in the North Tower ruins, appeared. Much of his personal protective equipment was gone—no coat or helmet. He was trying to direct us to Jonas. Still unaware that he knew exactly where the group was, we assembled another group of firefighters to see what we could do.
We tied off a life-saving rope to a beam so that we wouldn’t get lost when negotiating the rubble pile that was emitting very heavy smoke. The rope was stretched, and several firefighters began walking up the beams. It was very slippery, and the pile was very large. It was not until the next day when I was working at the top of that B stairway that I learned how high—it had to be at least 15 stories high.
Just then, we heard the announcement on the radio that Jonas and his group were rescued and were at the command post. He and the others trapped there, including a Port Authority police officer and members of Engine 39 and Engine 16, had survived.
John J. Salka Jr. is a battalion chief (Battalion 18) and a 23-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He had previously worked in engine, ladder, rescue and squad companies in various boroughs of the city. He has also instructed at the FDNY Fire Academy in the Probationary Firefighters School; the Captains Management Program; the Firefighters Professional Development Program; and, most recently, the Battalion Chief’s Command Course. He writes and lectures extensively throughout the United States and was the recipient of the 2001 Fire Engineering Training Achievement Award.
“There’s such a sense of guilt. People all around them in four directions were killed, and they were spared. People who had swapped tours with guys who died. There’s tremendous, tremendous amounts of guilt.”—John Norman, FDNY chief of special operations, in “The Smoldering Fires of 9/11,” Chris Smith, New York Magazine, March 18, 2002
Although 29 minutes separated the failure of the two towers, many firefighters said they had barely dug out from the first collapse when they were engulfed by the second. Chief Al Turi said he had struggled after the first collapse to find his way out of a parking garage where he had sought refuge. Stumbling about in the cloud of debris, he said he did not realize that he had made it outside until he walked into a tree.—9/11 in Firefighters’ Words: Surreal Chaos and Hazy Heroics, Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer, The New York Times, Jan. 31, 2002