By Gerald M. Carbone
NEW YORK - From the firehouse kitchen they heard the swoosh of a jet trail punctuated by a boom. Breakfast stopped; Capt. Jay Jonas set down his spoonful of Wheaties and looked at his men.
What was that? Jonas thought.
Then the voice of the house watchman broke over the intercom: "A plane just crashed. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center."
What did he say? Jonas dashed through the firehouse's two-bay garage to the front sidewalk where the watchman stood, staring skyward. He looked toward Confucius Plaza, the apartment tower a couple of blocks away from the Chinatown firehouse.
"Did you see?" said Jonas, the captain.
"Yeah I saw,"said the watchman.
"What kind of a plane was it?"
"It was a big plane."
"Was it a commercial jet?"
"Yeah, commercial jet."
Then smoke stained the blue sky, came curling around the Confucius Plaza tower.
"All right," Jonas said. "Turn out both companies."
The captain's gear waited in his office right off the dispatch area. He kept his boots inside the legs of his heavy bunker pants, so he just stepped into the boots, grabbed the suspenders, and his pants slid up his legs. Jonas slipped into his coat, plopped his leather helmet onto his head, and buckled the chin strap. He was ready to roll the mile-and-a-half toward the World Trade Center's No. 1 Tower, 1,368 feet high.
Jonas, captain of Chinatown's Ladder Company 6, is an expert on fighting high-rise fires; he wrote the text that the New York City Fire Department uses to teach firefighters how to rescue unconscious people from burning buildings. He has studied skyscraper fires in detail and can rattle off the pertinent facts of the worst ones: 1 Meridian Plaza, Philadelphia, 3 firefighters killed, 8 stories gutted; Sao Paulo, Brazil, 25 stories burned from top to bottom, leaving a charred shell.
Jonas thought he knew the worst that could happen to a skyscraper. He did not know as he dressed for battle on Sept. 11 that entire skyscrapers could come tumbling down, would soon come tumbling down, with him and the five men of his ladder company still inside.
“I have never seen a photograph that truly captures how horrible a sight that was. The two biggest buildings in the world with a huge gaping hole and fire coming out of it."
— Capt. Jay Jonas, on his first view of the World Trade Center aflame.
The fire companies in Chinatown were second-alarm companies for calls to the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, Jonas did not wait to hear the call for a second alarm. He jumped into the ladder truck's shotgun seat, next to the "chauffeur," Mike “Mickey” Meldrum.
A lot of firefighting experience sat in Ladder 6's two front seats. Jonas, 43, had been with the New York City Fire Department for half his life. Meldrum, 44, had 20 years with the department, all of it with Ladder 6. His hair had gone white over two decades, but at 6-foot-5 he was still as strong as any man in the company.
Together, Jonas and Meldrum had seen a lot. But as they clambered up into their seats they heard a radio transmission unlike any they'd ever heard: It was Engine Co. 10, housed directly across from the World Trade Center, calling out a third alarm. Ordinarily the call for anything more than a second alarm is reserved for the level of deputy chief or higher; you just don't hear an engine company call for that many extra trucks on its own.
Then Engine 10 called: "10-60," the signal for a catastrophic event.
Jonas's truck was a red, hook-and- ladder rig, with brass dragons mounted on the two doors. The dragons symbolized Ladder 6's nickname: The Chinatown Dragon Fighters. The truck was 50 feet long, with a "tillerman," or second driver, sitting high on the truck's tail to steer the back end.
On Sept. 11, Matt Komorowski drove the tiller. At age 39, he had 8 years of experience fighting fires. Like all of his colleagues, he was broad-chested, the effect of humping 110 pounds of gear to the tops of tall buildings.
Komorowski climbed into the tillerman's seat; from his perch he looked down at the 10-foot-high basketball hoop installed on the garage wall. He stomped a button on the floor that buzzed a horn inside the front cab, signaling the chauffeur that the tillerman was in place and good to go. Meldrum punched the ignition button — fire trucks ordinarily do not use keys — and Ladder 6 roared, lights flashing and sirens screaming, onto the streets of Chinatown.
Rounding Canal Street to the Bowery, the six men aboard Ladder 6 caught their first view of the North Tower on fire. Each tower was, by itself, one of the biggest buildings in the world; now one was torn open by a Boeing 767, one of the world's biggest airplanes. A dark hole bored through the building; plumes of black smoke spiraled out.
From the back seat, Sal D'Agostino, the youngest member of the crew at 31, said: "Billy, this is really bad." He was speaking to Bill Butler, who wore around his thick neck a medallion of St. Florian, patron saint of the firefighter.
"Yeah, Sal, I know," Butler said.
Next to Butler sat Tommy Falco. In his late 40s, he was the oldest of the Dragon Fighters, but as a body builder, he was also the most fit.
Ladder 6 ran 20 blocks to the World Trade Center in less than 3 minutes. Meldrum parked the rig at the base of the smoking North Tower, and the Dragon Fighters bailed out to grab their tools.
Firefighters with urban ladder companies carry almost as much gear as medieval soldiers heading into battle with axes and pikes. Once, out of curiosity, the crew of Ladder 6 dressed a man in the gear each typically carries into a high-rise fire: shirt and slacks; leather boots with steel shanks; bunker pants; a life-saving harness; fire-retardant coat; gloves; hood; leather helmet; a flashlight; radio; air packs; two coils of rope; rescue webbing; a 6-foot hook, and a Halligan, which is like a crowbar with special edges. They put the fully geared firefighter on a scale, and discovered that a member of a New York City ladder company carries 110 pounds of equipment.
As they unloaded gear, debris from the North Tower fell, a ruthless rain of pieces of building, pieces of jet. They heard it knocking dents into the ladder truck.
Even out of uniform, Capt. Jonas looks like he belongs in one, with blue eyes beneath close-cropped hair. He drilled it into his men that you never run at a fire. He'd say, "If you're running, you're probably not looking, you're not looking at clues that the building's giving you. Your chance of tripping increases. Walk at a good pace, but walk and look at the building."
Most of the debris thumping down through a snow of papers was unrecognizable hunks of building — not large, but lethal in their speed. Mickey Meldrum recognized one piece as it came arcing down: a whole computer monitor. It hit with explosive force.
"Run!" Jonas said. It was an order his men thought they'd never hear.
The burning tower loomed above the hook-and-ladder, parked near a long pedestrian bridge. The skybridge spanned all four lanes of West Street, connecting the World Trade Center to the World Financial Center. Jonas ran beneath that bridge, his men following.
From beneath the bridge the men stared skyward, waiting for a lull in the rain of debris. "Ready," Jonas said, "Go!" They made a foray to the truck, grabbed gear, ran back to the shelter of the bridge. After a few runs to the truck, the six men of Ladder 6 were geared and ready to enter the North Tower. They entered around 8:55 a.m., a little more than 90 minutes before the tower's 1.5 billion pounds of concrete, glass, and steel collapsed while they lay curled up inside the building's core.
"You could hear the banging or the thud of people who were jumping. You could hear them landing." — Firefighter Mike "Mickey" Meldrum on the sounds he heard while in the North Tower lobby, awaiting orders.
Jonas and his men walked quickly into the North Tower's marble lobby, ready for action. A captain from another company called, "Let's go, let's go up!" but Jonas would have none of it.
"No," Jonas said. The rules say you stop and check in. "Stay here," he told his men. "I'm going to the command post and get our orders."
As he waited for orders, Meldrum, the chauffeur, noticed that all windows in the high lobby were blown out. Glass and marble from busted walls littered the floors, crunched underfoot. He caught an occasional whiff of jet fuel, a smell like kerosene, wafting from elevator shafts.
On the floor by the elevators he saw burned people.
Then the thud of the jumpers started, the sickening sound of people hitting pavement at terminal velocity, 120 mph.
About 10 fire companies milled about the shattered lobby, 60 firefighters. Some, medics, treated the burned; others channeled the office workers streaming off the stairwells into calm, orderly columns, steering them away from West Street, where debris and people struck.
Jonas stood in line waiting to get his orders, when he heard the dragon roar. He felt the rumble of a loud explosion; the glass facade of the World Financial Center reflected a bright fireball.
Jonas thought: A fuel tank just let go on the jet burning in the floors above him. Flaming debris fell past the blown-out windows. A man in a business suit came in from outside and yelled, "A second plane just hit the other tower!"
The ramifications hit everyone simultaneously: This was no accident; this was a purposeful act. Somebody's out there trying to kill us.
At the lobby command post, Jonas reported to Battalion Chief Pete Hayden. "You know a second plane just hit the second tower," Jonas said.
"Yeah, I know," Hayden said. "Just go upstairs and do the best you can."
Jonas walked over to his guys and said, "OK, here's the deal. We're gonna go upstairs and we're gonna perform search and rescue. The deal is, we're gonna have to do it on foot." He wasn't comfortable using the elevators after seeing them disgorge burned people. "We're gonna take 10 floors at a time, take a quick breather, and push on for 10 floors."
He knew they would have to do this until they reached fire up on the 80th or 90th floor — a climb of nearly 1,000 feet. Each man carried his 110 pounds of gear.
In a high-rise building, search-and-rescue teams always work as a unit, not as individuals. Every floor in that North Tower spanned an acre; a man on his own could get lost, and in Jonas's words, "Getting lost in a high-rise building fire is not a good thing. Getting lost is not an option."
Jonas didn't even have to say it: the Dragon Fighters of Ladder 6 knew they were in this thing together, as a team. If they encountered smoke on a floor, five would tie off to one stationary man, then fan out to search for survivors, all tethered to the one.
They moved together toward Stairwell B, anticipating a long climb. Jonas said, "They're trying to kill us, boys. Let's go!"
"We're all taking a breather on the 27th [floor], and we all heard a sound that nobody on earth has ever heard before: the sound of a 110-story building collapse." — Capt. Jay Jonas, on hearing the South Tower collapse from inside the neighboring tower.
So many people flowed down the stairwell that it backed up the firefighters trying to get in. Ladder 6's crew took its place in the line of firefighters waiting to go up.
For the office workers, it was an orderly exit; no pushing, no sense of panic. People didn't seem to know that a plane had hit the building.
Rumors began to circulate among the firefighters in line: a plane has hit the Pentagon; another one's heading for Washington; a third plane's heading for the World Trade Center. Sal D'Agostino was on one knee, adjusting his tool straps, when a security guard said to him, "They're shooting rockets at us from the Woolworth building."
D'Agostino believed that rocket rumor. This wasn't firefighting, this was combat. He told himself to stay calm, keep it together, focus on the task at hand.
One by one, the six men of Ladder 6 slipped through the door into the fluorescent light of the stairwell. Although much about the World Trade Centers was titanic in scale, the stairwells were just normal-size, barely wide enough to let the two columns of people pass: civilians came down in single file; the firefighters stepped up, single file. Stairwell B was crammed with sweaty people, the air stale and hot.
The climb was slow-going. As the lines of civilians and firefighters crawled past each other, the office workers called out, "God bless, firemen." "God bless you." "Go get them." "You deserve a raise."
Some civilians reached out to touch the coats of passing firefighters. "God bless you."
There were vending machines on every floor, displaying bottles of Poland Spring water. Civilians had smashed the glass and pulled out the water; they handed cold bottles to firefighters, sweating beneath the strain of climbing the hot stairwell.
One man lifted Tommy Falco's helmet and poured water over his head, down his neck. "Good luck," he said.
On the 10th floor, Ladder Co. 6 rested. Every man held a fresh bottle of water. "Everybody OK?" Jonas said. "Catch your breath. ... OK, 10 more."
Twice, Ladder Co. 6 stopped to help firefighters in other companies deal with chest pains. They saw some odd sights coming down the stairs: several Port Authority police officers carrying a belligerent guy in a chair clutching a stuffed pink bunny; an obese man strapped to a hand truck being wheeled down the stairs.
The higher they climbed, the thinner the traffic. Around the 20th floor, a golden retriever led a blind man down.
Billy Butler, the firefighter with the St. Florian medallion, knew he wasn't supposed to interact with a guide dog, but he couldn't help it. At that point he needed that dog as much as that man did. He stroked the dog, said, "I got one just like you at home."
They paused for water on the 20th floor, then pressed on, lungs burning, legs straining beneath the weight of gear.
On floor 27, Jonas stopped to count heads; he was missing two, Billy Butler and Mike Meldrum. "OK, everybody stop here," he said. Then he went down to find Billy and Mike. He found them, one floor down. He said, "Come on up to 27 and we'll take our break there, and our next push we'll do 13."
They gathered in the lobby on 27, sweat streaming off their faces. Bunker pants don't breathe like cotton. A few other firefighters were there, Capt. Billy Burke of Engine 21; Andy Fredericks, firefighter, Squad 18. Fredericks had just come off medical leave for a hurt knee, and was having a hard time with the stairs.
As they rested, they heard a sound that no man had ever heard.
The North Tower shook and swayed with the concussion. The lights went out. The rumble shook jet fuel, flowing it down the elevator shafts; Jonas smelled a strong odor of kerosene. He pressed his air mask to his face.
After a half-minute the lights snapped on. It was eerie. The stairwells were deserted now, rife with the smell of fuel. No one was sure what had just happened. D'Agostino was sure they'd been bombed from below.
Jonas called to Capt. Burke, "You check those windows, and I'll check these windows." Jonas ran to the north side; all he could see was white dust pressed against the glass.
Burke, looking south, could see that the South Tower was gone.
They met back at the stairwell. "Is that what I thought it was?" Jonas said.
Burke said, "The other tower just collapsed."
- "The spooky music in the whole background of this now is the twin building to this one just collapsed, and ours had suffered the same fate [of being struck by a jet] about 15 minutes before that one did. So I'm thinking: we're living on borrowed time." — Capt. Jay Jonas.
Jonas alone was aware of the scope of the calamity. The South Tower fell at 9:50 a.m., while his company rested on the North Tower's 27th floor. The North Tower fell at 10:29. Jonas didn't know that he had less than two minutes per floor to get his men out, but he knew he had to hurry.
His gut feeling was to pull an about-face and get out of there. He was not getting any communication from the lobby. Civilians were gone; he smelled a faint odor of smoke, the dragon's breath, wafting into the stairwell. His instinct was to leave, and he acted on it.
"Let's go," he said.
It seemed strange to Jonas's crew to be heading down, away from flames raging on the floors above. It didn't feel right to be leaving a building with a fire still burning, to flee the dragon.
For Jonas, giving the evacuation order was not an easy decision. They had come 27 hard floors; that was a mountain they had just climbed with all their gear. He was reluctant to give up those hard-won floors. Plus he had no evacuation order from central command.
Firefighters take pride in their companies, pride in the fact that they go where other people don't. Jonas feared that his Chinatown Dragon Fighters would be a laughingstock if they walked into the lobby and found nothing seriously wrong.
Are we doing the right thing?
Going down, D'Agostino asked Butler if he could leave the rescue rope he carried. It was 150 feet of heavy, braided rope coiled into a canvas sack; it weighed nearly 30 pounds. Jonas heard the question; over his shoulder he snapped, "Take the rope. We might need it."
Somewhere around the 18th or 19th floor, Tommy Falco called, "Cap, what do you want to do with her?" Falco pointed to a woman standing in the stairwell. She looked about 60, heavyset; she moved slowly, her lips set tight in an expression of pain.
She was a bookkeeper for the Port Authority on the 73rd floor. Her feet had a bad case of fallen arches, yet she had managed to come down more than 50 stories. She had trouble walking on a good day; now she could go no farther.
"Well," Jonas said, "take her with us. We'll do the best we can."
Billy Butler was the burliest guy in a company of burly men. He placed her arms around his neck, wrapped his right arm around her, and guided her down the stairs.
Lt. Mickey Kross from Engine 16 joined the Dragon Fighters in their quest to help the woman down the stairs; every man took a piece of Butler's gear to lighten his load. Firefighters from other companies were dropping their tools on the way out, but that wasn't an option for Ladder 6. Those who had served with Jonas for decades knew better than to even ask; you don't drop your tools with this company.
It wasn't long before Butler was carrying most of the woman's weight. He made small talk with her in hopes of distracting her from the pain stabbing her feet.
"What's your name?" Butler asked.
" Josephine Harris," she said.
'Where are you from?"
"I'm from Bushwick." Not Brooklyn, but the Bushwick section of Brooklyn; not just Josephine but Josephine Harris. Butler noted that these were remarkably complete answers for somebody who was really hurting.
Harris said she had children, and grandchildren.
"Your kids want to see you tonight," Butler said. "Let's get going. You gotta get out of here."
Before finding Harris, Ladder 6's crew moved down the stairwell at a normal pace; now it was one foot on a step, then the other foot on the same step; step-step; step-step. Progress was painfully slow.
On the way down, they saw members of Ladder Co. 5 on the 12th floor. They were treating an office worker's chest pains. Jonas knew Ladder 5's officer, Lt. Mike Warchola.
"Come on, Mike, let's go," Jonas said. "It's time to go."
"That's OK, Jay," Warchola said. "You have your civilian, we have ours."
"Don't wait too long."
On the 10th floor, Jonas saw Faustino Apostol, an aide to Battalion Chief William McGovern. "Faustino, let's go, time to go."
"It's OK, Cap, I'm waiting for the chief."
Twice they stepped aside to let by logjams of other firefighters. Civilians who could get out themselves were long gone; Engine Co. 28 was the last company that passed.
Jonas knew that the North Tower could fall, that his next breath might be his last. He walked just behind Butler, and was constantly in his ear: "Let's go, fellas. Let's go. We have to go. Let's go. Josephine, we have to go."
Jonas's radio snapped to with an urgent message from Car 4D: "Evacuate the building. Evacuate the North Tower." He almost sighed with relief.
OK, we got a jump on it. We're doing the right thing.
"All of a sudden, the floor started going like this, just like ripples in a lake. And all of a sudden, there's a tremendous vibration and a shaking." — Capt. Jay Jonas.
"It's pancaking from the top down, and there were these huge explosions — I mean huge, gigantic explosions."
— Firefighter Sal D'Agostino.
"It was like a train going two inches away from your head: bang-bang, bang-bang, bang-bang." — Firefighter Bill Butler.
"I think we all initially were thinking that we were going to die at that moment." — Jonas.
"I remember thinking — this is how I go. This is it, this is it, this is it." — D'Agostino.
Jonas felt a knot in his stomach the size of his fist. Throughout his entire career as an officer, as a lieutenant and a captain, he had never lost a man. He was proud of that.
Now we are in a bad spot. A real bad spot.
They could not leave without Josephine. But with each floor she was stepping more slowly.
On the fifth floor, Tommy Falco propped her up beneath one armpit, while Billy Butler took the other. A ninth person joined the Dragon Fighters, Kross, and Josephine Harris in the stairwell: a Port Authority policeman named David Lim. Lim walked just behind Falco and Butler as they hurried Harris down to the fourth-floor landing.
On the landing, she shook out from under them. Harris fell to the concrete floor, crying. "Stop," she said. "Leave me alone. I can't go any farther. Stop."
This was not good. They needed something to carry her, some way of helping her take weight off her feet. Jonas hit on the idea of seating Harris in a sturdy chair, then two men could carry the chair.
With his officer's tool, Jonas deftly snapped the lock to the fourth-floor hallway. He often drilled his men on lock-breaking, for he thought it a waste to axe through somebody's $500 door just to douse a pot of burning beans.
Jonas assumed that he'd have no problem finding a stout chair; after all he was in the biggest office building in the world. But this wasn't an office floor, it was a mechanical equipment floor crammed with heating and ventilation equipment. He saw one desk with a swivel chair, which would not do, and an overstuffed couch.
"I'm running around on this floor looking for a chair," Jonas recalled. "Seconds before the collapse, I'm way on the other side of the building. I was on the other side of the building looking for a chair to put her in. And I don't know what made me decide that, you know, that this isn't working out, we're just gonna have to drag her. I made an about-face."
He was steps away from the stairwell door when he felt a tremendous vibration and shaking; the floor began waving.
Jonas pulled the door, and it would not open. It was wedged in its warped frame as firmly as Excalibur in stone. Jonas pulled again. The door opened. He jumped onto the heaving landing of the fourth floor.
From above, someone shouted, "Here it comes!"
And Matt Komorowski yelled, "Move!"
High above came a sound as rhythmic as the wheels of a train: bang-bang, bang-bang, bang-bang. A train, but a lot louder, explosive, like the colorless, noisy, salute rounds of a fireworks display: bang-bang.
It was the sound of 105 floors, falling like dominoes — and picking up speed.
The sound grew louder as it came closer, louder and faster.
Another sound, nearly as loud, pierced the stairwell: the screech of steel, twisting. The stairwell shook, swayed, and shrieked, and banged.
Rapid-fire explosions; screeching steel; high-force, cyclone-like winds. D'Agostino wanted out of that stairwell. He reached for a door and it blew open, smashing him against a wall. He had been standing next to Meldrum, the 6-foot-5-inch chauffeur of Ladder 6. Meldrum weighed 240 in street clothes; D'Agostino saw him fly off the landing and down a flight of stairs as lightly as Peter Pan.
"I took a few steps down from the fourth floor with Josephine, Tommy and I," Billy Butler recalled. "All of a sudden we noticed this ripple effect or whatever. I was actually thrown down the stairs to the next half-landing. The last thing I remember I'm turning and spinning around. I remember David Lim trying to grab her arm on my side and Tommy Falco still had her on the other side and then everything went blank."
The lights went out. D'Agostino fell to his knees in the dark to retrieve his helmet. He put it on, crawled to the door, and curled. While he waited to get crushed he prayed: Sweet Jesus, look over me, protect me, forgive me of my sins.
The wind lifted Jonas off his feet, dropped him in darkness onto the fourth-floor landing. "Everybody's curled up into a ball, and we were just waiting, waiting for that big piece of steel to come," Jonas said later. "And for us, it never came."
All but five stories of that building — 110, 1-acre floors, stacked 1,368 feet high — came down in 13 seconds. It kicked up a man-made tornado of dust and ground glass, a funnel cloud that rolled through lower Manhattan coating everything and everyone in choking, white dust.
The collapse created what Jonas called a compression effect. The floors collapsed straight down, compressing the air column in the stairwell. There were 55 million cubic feet of air in that tower, being squeezed out in a 13-second plunge. When the air hit the lobby level, it had no place to go but back up.
Komorowski had been walking behind Jonas, bringing up the rear.
Though he's the lightest man in Ladder Co. 6, Komorowski weighs 180 pounds stripped. With his gear, plus Butler's 6-foot hook and Halligan, he weighed more than 300 pounds. The wind blast from behind flung him down whole flights of stairs; he flew from newel post to newel post, his boots only occasionally touching a stair.
Komorowski landed on his feet on the second-floor landing, a drop of three stories in less than 10 seconds; before he could pitch onto his face, the wind blasted him from beneath, flinging his back into a wall. He felt pain deep in his ribs.
The wind ripped off his chin-strapped helmet. Powder and Sheetrock buried his boots and covered his shins, not raining from above but rising from below. "It was like you're standing at the beach and the water rushes over your feet and buries them in sand. Debris at the lobby level was coming in and up. I was up to here in debris," Komorowski said, touching his kneecaps.
The uprushing wind destroyed the lobby and funneled debris upward, burying everyone below the second floor.
The 105 floors crashing down hit the uprushing wind on the fifth floor. The air rushing up created a cushion, a stasis, a counterbalancing of forces. And from the second to the fifth floors — above and below the landing where Josephine Harris had flung herself to the floor — the stairwell stood.
"Once the collapse stops, you start checking fingers and toes and making sure you're there." — Bill Butler
"Right after the collapse, the dust was so thick it had to be six inches of dust. ... We had to use our fingernails to get it out of our eyes. We were picking like whole chunks of stuff out of our mouths and our noses. It was unbelievable."
— Jay Jonas
At first there was darkness, a darkness as total as the inside of the belly of a beast. In the darkness there was dust.
D'Agostino tried to catch a breath and could not. He gagged on dust. He could not breath. He pressed his air mask to his face for a breath of air. He got nothing but dust. He gagged till he nearly vomited, shook the mask, then breathed again. The air came cleanly into his lungs.
In the dark, no one knew if anyone else was alive. Mickey Meldrum wondered whether he himself was alive. His arms and legs were numb. In dreamlike confusion, he wondered how he would explain to his wife and two sons that he had been killed; he felt he owed them an apology.
Meldrum tried to call out, "Jay," but he could not. His mouth was packed with dust, and Sheetrock, and pulverized glass. It felt like a gritty sponge. He reached into his mouth and pulled out a large fistful of this stuff.
The stairwell was broken and shaky.
Meldrum had fallen on a landing between the third and fourth floors. Intact, that landing would have been 4-feet by 8-feet. All that was left was the foot-and-a-half chunk beneath Meldrum's butt.
Meldrum could not feel his arms and legs, but he could feel a weight pulling in the small of his back. A man had a bear hug on Meldrum's right leg, which was dangling into a hole.
"Come help me!" yelled the man, a firefighter from another company.
From a few steps above, D'Agostino shone a flashlight on Meldrum; he could see bolts between the wall and the staircase; the steps pitched at 80 degrees, nearly straight down. Through swirling dust, D'Agostino saw the struggling firefighter, dangling over a black pit.
D'Agostino took a step onto the broken staircase to help Meldrum grab the man.
Meldrum said, very calmly, "Sal, stay where you are. There's a hole in the landing and your weight might make the whole thing fall down."
Meldrum said to the dangling man, "I got you, you're not going to die, I got you." Then David Lim joined him on the broken landing; together each grabbed a strap of the man's airtank harness and gently set him on the landing below.
Jonas's voice called out: "All right, we're gonna have a roll call. Sal."
"I'm here," Meldrum said. "I'm here. I'm here."
"Matt. ... Anybody seen Matt?"
Three landings below Jonas, Komorowski called out, "Here."
Billy Butler stood just below the fourth-floor landing, his waist pinned by a collapsed wall. Josephine Harris lay at his feet, holding his boot.
"It was double 5/8-Sheetrock, real thick Sheetrock, and I remember picking this stuff off of me," Butler said. "And all of a sudden, you could see silhouettes, up comes Josephine out of this dust. And she still had her purse."
Harris was covered with dust, inches thick. She came up sputtering, but she came up alive.
Jonas continued a roll call, to determine who else may be alive. Lim was there, the Port Authority policeman. Chief Rich Picciotto was there, from a battalion uptown; Lt. Mickey Kross from Engine 16 answered; Lt. Jim McGlynn from Engine 39 was there, just above the second-floor landing with Komorowski.
Two of McGlynn's men from Engine 39 were trapped on the landing below him, separated by an impenetrable pile of Sheetrock and steel. They were OK, but at their feet lay First Battalion Chief Richard Prunty. They yelled through the Sheetrock that Prunty was in bad shape; he could not feel his legs.
Komorowski tried to dig down to them, but "where I landed, you couldn't get down any further. It was just pure debris."
A mayday message crackled over Jonas's radio: "Mayday, mayday, mayday. This is Ladder Co. 5, mayday. We're in the B stairway, 12th floor. I'm trapped, and I'm hurt bad."
D'Agostino said, "Cap, did you get that?"
"Yeah, I got it," Jonas said. He recognized the voice of Mike Warchola of Ladder Co. 5, the team that had stopped to help a civilian with chest pains on the 12th floor. No one knew it, but there no longer was a 12th floor.
"The stairway's in real bad shape," Jonas recalled. "It's shaky, it's twisted, there's all kinds of debris on it. There's no stairs to the third floor. So it took a while even to get up to the fifth floor."
Jonas reached the fifth floor: "And a second mayday comes in from him. And then a third. I got up to the fifth floor and I couldn't move the debris anymore. It was just too big and too heavy. And I said to him, 'Sorry, I can't help you.' And that was emotional for me because he and I worked together as firemen. ... We're not that far apart. And I can't help him. He gave out three maydays and we didn't hear from him anymore."
Then word passed up the battered stairwell that Chief Prunty was also dead. Of the 16 people who survived the collapse in Stairwell B, 14 still lived.
"We still don't know what it looks like outside. We don't know if half the building collapsed, if just the top fell off, is the whole building gone? So we're thinking: we're not out of this yet." — Jay Jonas
"Keep in mind any little sound — and we're twitching. We're not knowing if it's going to collapse again around us."
— Matt Komorowski
The dust slowly lifted till it looked like a foggy morning, punctured with silhouettes of jagged steel. Each of the survivors wore a shroud of white dust; you couldn't tell where a sleeve ended and skin began. Every limb, every face, every hair was a uniform white. The survivors looked like 14 ghosts haunting a broken stairwell. The dust scratched their eyes, packed noses, and stuffed ears, muffling sound.
Meldrum had a terrific headache, like screws in his brain.
Over the radio came reports of fires breaking out all over: the Marriott Hotel; Towers 6 and 7; multiple fires in the debris field. Jonas heard muffled explosions.
All right. We can move out. Walk our way down to the lobby and walk our way out of here.
"Billy, put a full body harness on her," Jonas said. Butler rigged Josephine Harris in a harness of purple webbing; he eased her down one half-landing.
From below, Komorowski heard them coming. He called, "It's no good, you can't go down in here. There's no way out if you come down."
The first inclination had been to go down; now that wouldn't work out. All were silent. They could hear fires, crackling. Jonas thought, Better make sure the guys conserve their air, because we're gonna have fire coming in here pretty soon.
Rich Picciotto, the battalion chief from uptown, told everyone to shut off their radios to save batteries. He broadcast a mayday call over his radio, but got no answer. The repeater system set up in the South Tower for communications had been knocked out when the second plane hit. Communication with the outside world was poor, but Picciotto kept trying. "Mayday, mayday, mayday." His calls went unanswered.
Jonas did not know what the landscape looked like out beyond this staircase. He considered the stairwell as their life raft, precarious but safer than the unknown.
Outside, something rumbled. Harris said, "I'm scared."
Jonas said, "We're all a little scared, darlin'.'"
"I started to freak out internally. I started to freak out. This is nuts, I really want out of here. I started to really get the jitters. But ... I looked at Josephine; she was quiet, she didn't say more than two words. Mike was quiet. Matt was down in the hole, he was quiet. Then I looked at Captain Jonas and he was sitting there and he was quiet and calm. The strength I got from them." — Sal D'Agostino
"To say you weren't in fear that whole day, you'd be lying. It was bad." — Bill Butler
In the dust by his feet, D'Agostino saw a small cylinder, the size of a can. He brushed aside the dust, revealing a full can of Sunkist orange soda. He cracked it open.
The fizz felt good against the dust in his throat. He took only one, small sip, and handed the can to Falco, who passed it up to Harris. She refused to take her sip. She said, "No, I don't want any. You drink it."
Urban ladder crews carry ropes and harnesses because they are like Spidermen: they sometimes swing from the roofs of burning buildings to smash through windows and pull people from the floors above raging fires. They develop a sailor's expertise with ropes.
Now they thought they could put that skill to use by rappelling down an elevator shaft. Jonas considered forcing open an elevator door and sending a team down. Then he thought better of it. Maybe they'd get down there and discover no way into a lower floor. Maybe an open elevator door might suck in smoke or fire. The elevator idea was out.
Then it occurred to Jonas that Chief Picciotto's radio would be tuned to a command channel, instead of to the tactical channel that most firefighters would be monitoring. He switched on his radio: "Mayday, mayday, mayday!" Jonas called. " Ladder 6 to the command post, mayday."
Over his radio came the voice of Deputy Chief Tom Haring: "This is the command post. Go ahead Ladder 6."
"We are trapped in the North Tower. There's 14 of us in the stairway. We're in B stairway between the 4th and the 2nd floor."
Then Jonas heard the familiar voices of friends: " Ladder 6, Tower 1, Tower 1, Stairwell B." It was Deputy Chief Nick Visconti, who attended Jonas's wedding, repeating Ladder 6's location.
"Rescue 3 to Ladder 6, Capt. Jay Jonas, this is Cliff." It was Cliff Stabner from Rescue 3, Jonas's neighbor. "I'm coming to get you."
Bill Blaich, chief of the 1st Battalion came on. He said he had the entire, off-duty platoons of Ladder Companies 6 and 11 with him. "We're coming for you, brother," he said. "We're coming for you."
Visconti: "Battalion Chief Blaich, we're trying to find a way in. Can Jay tell us how to get into the building?"
Again, Jonas gave precise directions to his location: Tower 1, B stairwell, 2nd to 5th floor. Again and again he had to repeat them; it was frustrating. What was taking them so long?
Then Jonas heard over the radio an anonymous firefighter say, "Where's the North Tower?" It confirmed Jonas's fear: the entire North Tower was down.
We're in trouble.
"After about three hours, I saw a light at my feet. It was a beam of hope." — Matt Komorowski
Mickey Meldrum looked at his watch, a $15 Casio that he'd had for years. Three times he had lost it at fires, and each time it had come back ticking. It now read 12:30; he hadn't moved from that broken landing for two hours.
Radio communication continued to be spotty. Rescue teams were out there somewhere looking for them, but the debris field covered 16 acres; the pile was massive, taller in places than their stairwell, five stories high.
Jonas looked at David Lim, the Port Authority policeman, and a light clicked: "I'll bet you have a cell phone," he said.
"Yeah, I got two cell phones."
The first phone didn't work. The next one did, but calls to the dispatch center and to the firehouse in Chinatown did not get through. Nothing was getting through in the city.
Billy Butler called his house in a suburb. He was surprised to find his wife, Diane, at home. He said, "Hi, how are you doing?"
"Where are you?"
"Well, we're in the Trade Center. ... We're OK, but we are trapped inside. But we think we're in pretty good shape here."
Diane started to cry.
"You can't cry now. Do not cry right now. You have to call the firehouse for us. Tell them that we're trapped in the North Tower, Stairwell B."
The phone went dead.
There seemed to be nothing to do but wait. They could hear fires crackling outside, sometimes loudly. Occasionally smoke darkened the stairwell, then thinned out.
Around 1 p.m., Josephine Harris said, "I'm cold." Tommy Falco blanketed her with his coat.
If she's cold, that must be outside air, Jonas thought.
Then light filtered into the stairwell. Everyone seemed to notice it at about the same time. D'Agostino thought he was looking at a heat lamp. "Hey Tommy," he said, "what is a heat lamp doing there?"
But it wasn't a lamp he saw, it was the wan light of the sun piercing through dust. Through dust and smoke he could look right at it, like a battlefield sun.
Down on the second-floor landing, Komorowski saw a shaft of light at his feet, his beam of hope.
From the fourth floor, Jonas shouted down to Meldrum, "Mick, there's a beautiful blue sky above us."
Meldrum said, "Cap, there's a 110-story building on top of us."
"Mick, I think we are the top of the World Trade Center now."
All of a sudden, down wasn't the way out. Now, sideways seemed to be the way to go.
Light filtered in through holes in the stairwell's shaft. With his Halligan, Falco widened a hole through the wall on the fourth-floor landing. He set down his Halligan, stuck his face through the hole.
"Hey Cap," he said. "Wait'll you get a look at this."
Jonas peered through the hole at ground zero. It looked like a tectonic event, as if forces of geologic scale had molded the landscape, heaving up mountains of steaming steel where once stood skyscrapers. World Trade Centers 5, 6, and 7 roared with fire; No. 7 was a 40-story building, its top 5 floors all aflame.
The stairwell rose intact for about a dozen feet above the pile, too far to jump. A steal beam spanned the gap between the top of the stairwell and a hill of debris, forming a narrow footbridge about 14 inches wide.
Jonas called down to D'Agostino for the bag of lifesaving rope that Sal had wanted to leave behind. Jonas handed the bag to Butler. "You do it," Jonas said. "You know what you're doing."
Butler tied the rope to a newel post, then clipped it to Chief Picciotto's harness. Picciotto walked across the beam and secured the rope on the other side. But as the survivors prepared to step across onto the pile, Jonas said, "Let's wait and see."
It wasn't time to jump off, not yet time to leave the lifeboat. "It was a gauntlet of danger," Jonas said later. He hoped a rescue team could show them a safe route out.
Butler and D'Agostino repacked the rope as per procedure, coiling it counter-clockwise, then flipping it over into its sack.
"An hour later, 31³2 hours into this, fires are getting worse," Butler recalled. "Smoke is coming in a lot heavier. Smoke — at times it got so bad you'd turn on your breathing apparatus for a quick hit."
It was time to make a move.
"If you should fall off this beam, you fall several stories onto jagged metal. You're shish-kebab." — Bill Butler
"There was no falling. If you fall, pretty much off any of those beams, that was it."
— Mike Meldrum
Butler tied off the rope again, and Chief Picciotto walked across onto the pile. He carried the bullhorn he had been using to herd office workers into the stairwell that morning. Through a curtain of smoke, Picciotto saw three firefighters climbing over the wreckage — rescuers from Ladder Co. 43. He pressed the siren on his bullhorn. That got their attention.
From the bottom landing Komorowski heard D'Agostino call, "Hey, we're gonna make a move out of here!"
Three others stood with Komorowski at the bottom of the stairwell: a firefighter and two officers. He quickly determined that the other firefighter had less seniority than him, so that firefighter would leave before him.
The firefighter shimmied up the railing to the next landing.
Komorowski said to the officers, "You guys want to go up?" McGlynn, the lieutenant from Engine 39, said he wasn't going. Two of his men were still trapped in a pocket beneath the rubble one floor below; they were fine, but he would not go till they were free.
"You would think after 31³2 hours you would just want to be out of there," Komorowski said. To catch a breath of air, to see the sky. "But he said, 'I'm not going without my guys.' And he stayed. The 43 truck was there. It would've been all right. He wouldn't go."
D'Agostino climbed down to where Josephine Harris lay, knelt, and held her hand. " Josephine, listen to me. We're gonna leave you now. Ladder 43 is coming in. They're fresh. They're gonna take good care of you."
To a man, the men of Ladder 6 felt sick about leaving her behind. "You just don't give up a victim," Komorowski said later. "But it was in her best interest." They were battered, and dehydrated, and if they stayed much longer, they wouldn't be able to get themselves out, thus complicating a rescue instead of helping it.
As D'Agostino knelt to say goodbye, one of the guys from 43 said, "Don't worry, doll, we'll take care of you."
"Listen," D'Agostino said. "Her name isn't doll, it's Josephine."
"Sorry, Josephine, we'll take good care of you."
Tommy Falco called down, "Sal, we gotta go." D'Agostino looked down at Harris, then up to Falco. "I know," Falco said. "But we gotta go."
Komorowski pulled himself up the rail to the next landing; he climbed to the fourth floor, where Harris lay, in time to see Billy Butler stepping through to the outside. Komorowski followed Butler across the beam to the pile. Lt. Kross followed, and Jonas crossed last.
Outside, the landscape looked white and dusty, like the surface of the moon. Everything had been pulverized. They saw no desks, no phones, no computers in the wreckage, no broken windows.
Everything but steel had been ground into glass and dust. Meldrum observed that besides steel, the biggest thing he saw was a palm-size piece of glass.
Steel I-beams lay cross-wise and jumbled like a giant's game of pick-up sticks. There were just two textures out there: hard steel and soft dust. Dust coated the steel like talc, turning it slippery.
A firefighter from Ladder 43 led the way, retracing the steps his company had taken to get in. They had come from the north, between Tower 6 and 7; now those buildings were aflame.
"There was a lot of fire and a lot of smoke," Butler recalled. "Man, we were heading right for it." They had dumped their airpacks in the stairwell.
Butler thought: That's not the way to go.
They came to a place where the Trade Center's six, below-ground floors had collapsed, leaving a burning pit about 60 feet deep. A steel I-beam had fallen across that pit, spanning it like a log across a river. The beam, square when seen from its end, had rotated so it was diamond-shaped.
One at a time, each sat astride that beam to pull himself across. "There was a tremendous amount of fire down in this hole, 60 or 70 feet deep," Butler said. "We were pretty much directly above it on this beam. The smoke is black. Heavy, thick black smoke. Every so often you're engulfed by it. You keep going. Guys are waiting behind you."
As they shimmied across this beam, the fires in Towers 6 and 7 seemed to be getting worse. Quickly getting worse. Butler looked down and saw a fireman's radio belt.
From the fire pit below came a "poof!" Then: poof, poof, poof.
Mickey Meldrum knew that sound. He had responded to the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, when a bomb in a parking garage blew a crater five stories deep. From that fire he remembered that the Secret Service had a rifle range and a weapons bunker in the basement near Tower 6. They were just above the weapons bunker, and the bullets were cooking off.
The bullets cracked like popcorn, only a lot louder.
I wonder if this leather helmet can stop a bullet, Billy Butler thought.
They decided to turn around, to backtrack. They shimmied back across the beam, then picked their way toward the top of eight stories of rubble about 50 yards from their stairwell.
Their eyes were scratched by dust and burned with sweat; the men wore heavy coats, a few still had helmets; they wore a paste of sweat and dust. "Exhausted," said Butler, remembering. "So hot. Hurting. Every time you blinked your eyes it was like blinking with sandpaper."
They moved slowly. Komorowski gained the top of the pile; through a clearing in the smoke he saw a cluster of rescuers. Between them was a deep ravine.
"Let's go this way, guys," Komoroswki said. A 30-foot I-beam dropped down into the ravine at a steep, 60-degree angle. Komorowski straddled it and slid, using his gloved hands for breaks.
Butler and D'Agostino looked at each other. "Got any rope?" Butler said. D'Agostino still carried a coil of utility rope. They tied it off to the I-beam and, hand over hand, climbed down.
The other side of the ravine was almost as high, but not as steep. They started up with Jonas constantly in their ear: "C'mon, boys, your families are over that hill."
Jonas stayed in the ravine until he saw his last man disappear over the ridge. He knew then that they were going to be OK.
"This is what all the guys — 343 of our friends — this is what they were doing too. This is their story, too. Every other company did the same thing. We weren't doing anything special. We weren't doing anything differently than they did. These guys who were killed were all heroes." — Mike Meldrum
A week later, a clap of thunder woke Jonas from deep sleep. For a while, loud noises startled him. He looked out at the rain slashing past his house.
It's a week. Nobody else is coming out. This is it. It's over.
Jonas was now a batallion chief; he was promoted on Sept. 16.
For a week, Jonas harbored hopes that rescuers would find a lot of people in that pile. He'd been protected in a pocket; he thought there were a lot of pockets in there.
But that night he knew. Nobody else is coming out.
He got out; and his men got out, and Josephine. Why? He wondered about that. He believed in God and still believes in God. And he came to the conclusion that his survival that day was not an act of God — it was completely random.
"People come up and say, 'God was with you that day.'" Jonas said. "I don't like that thinking." That means He wasn't with the others. "Why would He pick me over Father Judge?" Jonas said. [Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain killed outside the North Tower.]
He won't blame God for 343 firefighter deaths.
But he does credit Josephine Harris for his survival. "By stopping to save Josephine Harris, we probably saved ourselves," Jonas said.
If they hadn't found Harris, there's a chance that Jonas could have chased his men out of the North Tower before it collapsed.
"Your first instinct would have been to run to your rig, and put your tools away," Jonas said. "Being outside was not a good place to be either."
Not a good place, indeed. The World Trade Center thundered down upon Ladder 6; the red truck, once higher than a basketball hoop, was crushed to its axles. The only thing left of the truck's brass dragons was a snapped-off tail.
The Dragon Fighters couldn't see their truck as they staggered off the pile on West Street, near where they had gone in. Rescue workers swarmed them as they crept near the edge of the pile. Butler and Komorowski were so dry they needed fluids dripped into their veins; ambulances carried them away.
The other four took some oxygen and an eyewash, then sat on the back step of an ambulance pondering their next move. "Get your stuff," Jonas said. "We're getting out of here."
Meldrum looked at him, incredulous. "How we gonna get there?"
"We can walk," Jonas said,
"I'm not walking anywhere," Meldrum said.
D'Agostino made up his mind: If Meldrum and Falco wouldn't walk, he wouldn't budge either.
Jonas put his hands on his hips, looked at his men. "Get your stuff," he said. "Let's go."
Reluctantly, Meldrum and Falco donned their heavy coats for the mile-and-a-half walk back to the Chinatown station. "The captain was walking, we were stumbling," D'Agostino recalled.
They had walked only as far as Vesey Street, when they saw Engine 9, the truck that shared their two-bay garage in Chinatown. Engine 9's entire crew was there; like the crew of Ladder 6, all had survived.
"We were all hugging," D'Agostino said, "finding out who had lived, who had died. And the captain said, 'Listen. You're alive, you're accounted for. I'll see you back at the firehouse.'"
Jonas set off for the firehouse on foot, a solitary figure trudging through Lower Manhattan's dust-covered streets.
Standing with the crew from Engine 9, D'Agostino noticed a stretcher party walking off the pile. The shield on the lead stretcher-bearer's helmet read 43; it was the crew from Ladder 43 carrying a deep, basket-like stretcher.
"Mike, that's 43," D'Agostino said to Meldrum.
Meldrum called out, " Josephine, is that you?"
From the stretcher, an arm thrust skyward.