“It’s said we never forget. We don’t. We won’t. Not ever.”
FDNY Deputy Chief John A. “Jay” Jonas of Goshen, who, along with his men, survived the collapse of the North Tower while escorting a woman down the stairwell. As he recalled that fateful day at this year’s Patriot Day remembrance at the Orange County Arboretum, the large audience was spellbound, quiet and intently listening to every word.
“It was frightening, it was terrifying,” Jonas said.
He was on duty at Ladder Co. 6 in the Chinatown section of lower Manhattan when he heard the first plane hit the North Tower.
"We responded and as soon as we got to the crest of Canal Street, by the Manhattan Bridge, there it was -- the North Tower of the World Trade Center with large, airplane shaped holes in it, pushing flames and smoke out under pressure.”
Nothing had prepared him for this.
Jonas went to the command post inside, which was surrounded by officers receiving orders.
“All of a sudden," he said, "we saw a large black shadow on the ground. We heard a loud explosion and saw pieces of flaming debris fall to the ground. We didn’t know what that was-possibly an explosion in our building. And a man came running in from the outside and he said a second plane has just hit the south tower.
"All of a sudden, you could have heard a pin drop. Everybody was trying to absorb what they just heard. And one of the firemen looked up and said, 'We may not live through today.' Realizing the truth of that and the possibility of more attacks, they took a moment to shake each other’s hands and wish each other ‘good luck. It’s great knowing you. I hope I see you later.’ And out of all those guys I was surrounded by when the second plane hit the South Tower. I’m the only one that’s alive."
They couldn’t take the elevators, so they had to climb the stairs carrying 100 pounds of equipment. They had a plan to take it 10 floors at a time to save some stamina and strength to fight the fire and rescue people once they got to the 90th floor.
They were on the 27th floor of the stairwell, taking a break before pushing on. They heard and felt an earthquake-like rumble, and the building swayed violently back and forth.
Firefighter Billy Burke from Engine 21 was on the same floor. Jonas told him, "You check the south windows and I’ll check the north windows and we’ll meet back here."
Jonas couldn’t see anything -- just the white dust against the glass. Burke returned, looked at Jonas and told him the South Tower had just collapsed.
“Right next to our building, a high rise building has just collapsed and killed thousands of people, probably some of our good friends," Jonas said.
He looked at his men and thought, “All right, if that one can go, this one can go. It’s time to get out of here. This sister building got hit after our building and it was done. We’re dead men walking -- time to get out.”
Witness to heroism
They started their retreat down the B stairway of the North Tower.
“As we’re going down,” Jonas said, “I’m hearing and seeing other examples of courage and heroism.”
Jonas said the chief in command, Peter Hayden, got on the radio to Capt. Patrick Brown, in command of Ladder Co. 3 and said: “'Command Post to Ladder 3, Command Post to Ladder 3, get out of the building!' And in as forceful a voice as you can possibly imagine, the former Marine, the highly decorated fireman got on the radio and said, ‘This is the officer of Ladder Co. 3. I refuse the order. I’m on the 44th floor, I’ve got too many burnt people with me. I’m not leaving them.’ Captain Paddy Brown and all those burned people were killed when the building collapsed.”
They got down to the 20th floor, and stopped when they saw a woman standing and crying in the doorway. Josephine Harris was one week shy of her 60th birthday and had been in a motor vehicle accident a couple of weeks before.
“She had made it down from the 72nd floor, and now she couldn’t walk anymore," Jonas said. She was done.”
Firefighter Billy Butler put her arm around his shoulder, and they continued down. It was two feet on a step, and then two feet on the next step, which greatly slowed their progress. Jonas’ firefighters didn’t know how dire the situation was. Harris quickly became their reason for being there.
Jonas saw former Orange County resident Lt. Michael Warchola of Ladder Co. 5 on the 12th floor. It was to be his last day in the NYFD. He was retiring on Sept. 12. He and his men were working on a civilian, and Jonas said, “Mike, let’s go, it’s time to go.”
Warchola said he’d be right behind them.
“We got to the fourth floor and I’m beginning to allow myself the luxury of thinking we might actually get out of this thing,” said Jonas.
The men from Ladder 6 were spaced out on the stairway when it started, the collapse of the North Tower with them still inside.
It started from the top down.
“You felt the rumble, and that rumble got more violent and more violent as the collapse got closer and closer,” Jonas said.
The collapse created tornado-like winds within the stairway that pummeled them with debris.
“I kept waiting for that big piece of concrete to come," Jonas said. "The collapse stopped and for us, it didn’t come. We were coughing and gagging and trying to figure out what we had just lived through.”
Their eyes and mouths were coated with debris and dust, but they and Josephine were alive.
Cut off from the world
They could hear guys from Engine 39 below them who said it was ‘no go.' They were cut off. For four hours they didn’t have any light. They were trying to conserve batteries, using one radio and one flashlight at a time. They could hear fires burning outside.
Over the radio, they heard Lt. Mike Warchola give out a mayday -- a firefighter in distress.
“Officer of Ladder Co. 5. I’m on 12th floor, B Stairway. I’m trapped and I’m hurt bad," Jonas relayed.
Jonas started climbing the twisted stairway, which was full of holes.
“I got up to the 5th floor, and Mike gives out a second mayday," he said. "This time he’s in more distress. I kept climbing. Got to the halfway point between the 5th and 6th floors and the debris is too heavy. I can’t move it. And Mike gives out a third mayday—this time he’s openly distraught. I just said, ‘I’m sorry Mike, I can’t help you.’”
That was heartbreaking enough. But they were soon to have another tragedy.
“Our battalion chief Richard Prunty was on the ground floor, cut off from us and we couldn’t get to him,” Jonas said. "And every time I gave out a mayday message of my own, he would get on the radio and say, ‘Don’t forget about Battalion Two.’ And every time he spoke, we could hear him going further into shock and we couldn’t get to him.”
They were trying to figure out how to get out and eventually got a response from Deputy Chief Tom Haring. “And he said, ‘Okay, Ladder 6, we got you.’ Jonas said. “And I said okay, things are looking up, we’re going to get out.”
Fellow firefighter and Goshen neighbor, Clif Statner would get on the radio, saying, “This is Clif, we’re coming to get you. We’re coming for you, brother.”
“I get choked up just saying it," Jonas said. "Firemen are so used to being on the giving end of that equation, not the receiving end. It’s so humbling.”
Jonas said he told his men, “We’re not only going home, we’re going home today.”
He projected that belief onto his men. And they were repeating it. They later said that was the turning point in their entrapment.
At one point there was a second explosion outside the stairway, and more debris fell. His driver, Mike Meldrum, rolled onto Josephine to protect her. Sal D’Agostino, the youngest member of Ladder Six, who’s still there, put his bunker coat over her and said, “Nothing’s going to happen to you as long as we’re here.”
Jonas was so proud of his men for taking care of this woman and taking her mind off their situation.
“All of a sudden the smoke and dust clears and we get a little bit of visibility in the stairway,” Jones said. “And I looked up and could see a little sliver of blue sky through the rubble. And I looked down at my guys and said, ‘There used to be 106 floors above us and now I see blue sky. I think we’re on top of the World Trade Center.’ And we started digging around and we found an area where we could breach a hole through the rubble and we could get out."
Outside, firefighters from Ladder 43 made it to the stairway. Jonas, still inside, got half the people out on a rope and told members of Ladder 43 to get a Stokes basket for Josephine.
He poked his head out and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“We had just gotten bombed," he said. "The bombs were in the shape of aircraft, fully fueled for transcontinental flights.”
The men made their way across the dusty, slippery rubble to West Street, now 35 feet above them, where they climbed a rope hand over hand to freedom.
'A family organization'
Jonas remarked on the poignant aftermath.
“The fire department is such a family organization," he said. "You had sons digging for fathers, fathers digging for sons, and brothers digging for brothers.
“The number of people killed was 2,749. It could have been exceptionally higher. That includes 343 firemen; 37 Port Authority Police Officers and 23 New York City Police Officers. And the people on the planes. While that number is horrific, and the pain is still there for the families and friends, that number could have been exponentially higher. There are thousands of people alive today because firemen ran into those buildings. It was a tough day, but it was also our finest hour.”
Jonas received a standing ovation. Then the names of Orange County residents who died, as well as members of the military lost since 9/11 were read and a bell was tolled after each name.
The men of Ladder Company 6 survived, probably because they stopped to help Josephine Harris, whom they called their guardian angel.
Jonas is a 40-year veteran of the FDNY. He graduated from Monroe-Woodbury High School, Orange County Community College, and Empire State College.
He was the Captain of Ladder 6 and was on duty on September 11, 2001. He is one of only 22 survivors who were inside the North Tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed.