What did you see as you fought your way up the stairway?
I remember one woman in particular with burns. And there was a gentleman who had his sportscoat off and put it on her. But for the most part, they were just people trying to get out. We were looking to get up, our target floor was the 90th floor. We obviously didn’t get there. The plane hit the North Tower at about the 93rd floor. We figured a couple of floors below, the fires would be dropping down. We would take it 10 floors at a time, that was my plan. 10 floors, then stop, because we were fully geared, each fireman is carrying about 100 pounds (45 kilos) of gear. Drink some water and then push on to the next 10. I thought that way we would have some energy left, once we got to the 90th floor, because then we gotta work. We stopped at 10, we stopped at 20. In a high-rise building, especially in one as big as the WTC, it’s easy to get lost. Periodically, I would turn around and count heads, see if I had five helmets with me etc. At the 27th floor, I only had 3 guys with me. I told those 3 to wait, I have to find the other 2.
Did you find them?
They were just pushed out of the way by some civilians coming down. By the time we made it up to the 27th floor, we took a rest there and said we would push on to the 40th floor. There, I pushed into some guys I knew– one was a former fireman of mine, Billy Burke, the captain of Engine 21, and another fireman named Andy Fredericks. I just finished saying, “Hello” to them, when we heard a loud roar outside. Our building started to shake violently and the lights went out. Once it stopped, I looked at Billy Burke and said, “You go check the south windows, I’ll check the north windows. And we meet again here and find out what happened.” I could just see dust pressed against the glass. Billy Burke came running back toward me, with a frightened look on his face. He said: “The South Tower just collapsed!” Right next door to us, thousands of People had just been killed. Probably some of our friends. So, I turned to my guys and said, “Ok, if that one can go, this one can go, too; it’s time to get out of here!” I thought I was very clear, but they aborted my order. It turns out they hadn’t heard the conversation I had with Billy Burke. They didn’t know the South Tower collapsed, and I didn’t know that they didn’t know that for a couple days. We descended. We were moving along at a good speed until about the 20th Floor.
Then there were more problems.
We ran into a woman who was standing in a doorway, crying. My guys stopped – again, they don’t know how much danger we are in; I know. One of them, Tommy Falco, turned to me and said, “What do you wanna do with her, cap?” I’m thinking to myself, “You are being very free with our time!” Every second that we waste is a second closer to not getting out of the building. I said, “Bring her with us.” The biggest guy we had in the company with us that day was Billy Butler, who took her around his shoulders, and gave his tools to the other guys. We stick together as a group. But now this greatly slows our descent.
What went through your head in that situation? Did you ask yourself, “Will we survive?” Or do you just focus on the job at hand?
The focus is on the immediate situation. You are so focused on, “Ok, this is what we have to do! We are getting out, taking her with us.” I wasn’t thinking anything else, just, “Keep going!” Again, the guys don’t know in how much danger we are in. I whispered into Billy Butler’s ear, “Billy, can you move a little faster?” Then I heard Captain Pat Brown on the radio, after Chief Hayden gave him the following order: “Command post to Ladder 3, Captain Pat Brown – leave the building!” And Captain Brown gets on the radio, and I can’t believe “This is the officer of Ladder Company 3; I am on the 44th floor. I got a lot of burned people with me: I am not leaving, I refuse the order.” He stayed there with them, with his old company. Never, before or since, have I encountered as much heroism and bravery as on that day. When the building collapsed, they all died. Right around the 15th floor, I ran into a guy who I used to work with periodically; his name was Faustino Apostol. He was just standing in the doorway. I said, “Fellow, let’s go!” He says, “It’s alright, Captain. I am waiting for the Chief.” His chief was supervising some rescue effort, and Apostol didn’t want to leave his partner. Both he and the Chief were killed in the collapse. We continued down the stairs and around the 12th floor, and ran into a man named Mike Warchola, a friend of mine, who was a lieutenant in Ladder 5. He and two of his guys were working on a man with chest pains in the stairway. I said, “Let’s go!” He said, “It’s alright, Jay. You have your civilian, I have mine. We will be right behind you.” – “Don’t take too long!” We continue down, and I have the luxury of thinking: “Wow, we might actually get out of here!”
Captain Pat Brown was on the 44th floor assisting injured people. He refused the order to leave the tower, and died with the people he wanted to save. Never before or since have I encountered as much heroism and bravery as on that day.
And then catastrophe struck.
We were on the 4th floor and the woman we were rescuing, Josephine Harris, falls to the floor. She started yelling at us: “Don’t touch me, leave me alone! I am staying here!” I broke into the 4th floor to look for a sturdy chair we could put her in and carry her. I said: “We just have to drag her down the stairs.” I run back to the stairway and I get into 3 feet (1 meter) to them, when the North Tower starts to collapses with us still inside.
Every time a floor hit another floor, it made a loud noise and a tremendous vibration. And suddenly everything went very quiet.
How did you experience the collapse itself?
All the air in the building was being compressed, so it created enormous winds in the stairway; the winds were filled with debris. Every time a floor hit another floor, it made a loud noise and a tremendous vibration was produced. Keep in mind that in terms of the building I was in, the collapse started from the top down. So, it got louder, and the vibrations more violent, the closer the collapse got.
Each one of those Buildings was 1350 feet (415 meters) in height. The other sound you could hear was twisting steel, like the screeching sound of a train. I was expecting our floor to be next at any moment. But suddenly the collapse stopped, and I am coughing and gagging and trying to breathe out of my nose, and I could hear others doing the same, so I figured that other people were still here. I gave a shout out: “Who is still here? Tommy? Sal? Billy?” etc. They all said, “We are still here!” – “What about the woman?” – “Yeah, I’m still here!” – “Alright, let’s continue down the stairs.” We were not aware of the totality of this collapse. We still had that focus on continuing what we are doing. But our focus was outmatched by the winds, which were so violent, that they threw Matt Kamorowski down to the 2nd floor. And he quickly spoke upwards, to tell us that we wouldn’t be able to get down that way. We weren’t trapped for very long, when I heard my first Mayday through the radio. It was from Mike Warchola, who said that he was on the 12th floor, B-stairway, trapped and injured badly.