WTC: This Is Their Story - Part II

I don't remember if it was that night that we found a bunch of guys there, but I remember a bunch of guys coming out of there over the course - every time I went there, I went up to that spot if I could. After a while, you just got to know what deputies were working. Anytime I showed up, I would say I've been working up there with rescue and they would pretty much let me go up there. And so that went on, on and off for a couple of different days I was there, but that operation just kept continuing right there. And then you'd come back and they'd be 20 feet lower, but still digging in the same spot. Then they'd take us all out of there. The cranes would lift three or four or five or 10 big pieces off. Then we'd go back up there again and now the whole pile was a little bit lower.

Firehouse: What reports did you give?

Salka: They were constantly asking us up there is it safe, should you still be up there, how does it look, is it going to collapse or is there fire under you? It was ridiculously dangerous up there, but everybody was doing what they were doing. There were guys there and we knew it, and it was a stairway, it was a hot spot to be, so nobody was leaving.

Firehouse: Did you see any signs or anything, any floor numbers, any you remember?

Salka: Yes, there were stairways. We were finding plates with floor numbers on them.

Firehouse: Do you remember any of them?

Salka: 27, I remember seeing 27. And a lot of the stairway treads. These other guys that were up there with us, these guys didn't have to be there. These guys were tradesmen, steamfitters, and they were up there doing it with us, which I thought was really super. They were very decent guys, and we couldn't have done it without them.

Rescue knows how to cut with torches, the machines and the stuff like that, but not like these guys. We had a crew of six guys up there and they could just cut stuff and move it and really quickly. They facilitated the whole thing up there. A lot of stuff happened - and they knew how things were going to move when you cut it, so it was really good having them up there. So we were working on that and that pile just kept getting lower and lower. There was a big pile and behind it almost looked like Pick-Up Sticks. You know how you drop them and they end up in a pile? There was a pile behind us that had been explored the first or second day.

There were a couple of big beams 30, 40, 60, 80 feet long, those big 100-ton beams, that were just sort of like teetering up there. They were held down by wires and by other beams leaning on them, but I guess they could have just fallen, so we tried to stay away from that. We found a couple of helmets and frontpieces up there, a lot of masks, cylinders. I remember finding masks and cylinders. You'd see the top of a bottle. You'd go digging down to that.

Eventually, we didn't have to climb up and down anymore. They would bring a "man basket" up with the crane, and we'd all climb into the basket. Then, they'd hoist us and lower us back down, so it took us two minutes to get up and down rather 25 minutes to climb up there. We would bring all our tools and everything up or back or if we were going to come right back, we'd leave everything up there and come down. A couple of times, for hours they tried to get me to leave there, but we were uncovering fireman after fireman. I said no, we've got firemen in our hands, we have guys in our hands here that we've partially uncovered, we're not going to come down right now. They wanted to take a bridge down, but I mean they can take it down later. And they did. We held them off for a while until we ended up at a dead end where we had nothing. So we said all right, we'll come down now, take a break, swap off crews, while we're swapped off, they can do that, so they did.

I took a detail to SOC because all the guys in SOC got killed so (SOC Chief) John Norman called me up, asking if I could come over there for a month or so. I said yeah. I went over there and every tour we spent half the day down there. There were two SOC chiefs. One guy would go for one part, you go for the other part. We'd swap off and if anything happened, you were able to just go right to wherever it was happening.

Most of the other chiefs who were down there were in sectors because they were on the detail or they were on the task force, but the SOC chiefs, we had a little bit of leeway. We could almost go anywhere we wanted to go. Anytime we'd think we've got something or we've got somebody, I would zoom right over there. Fellini was the boss. (Firefighter) Sammy Mellisi was ever present there. He was there every day working with those grapplers, standing up on the machine, telling the guy what to do and what not to do. The guy knew how to operate the machine, telling him what we wanted him to do. They uncovered a guy and we pulled him out, then they uncovered another guy and we're digging in this hole. Every time he dug, something else would come up, a tool or a helmet or a Scott bottle, and sure enough it was another guy. Some of them were in not such good shape. Some of them were in OK shape.

I think we pulled nine guys out of there that night and we were there for 12 hours digging in that hole. (Mayor Rudolph) Giuliani showed up that night. He came right to the site that night and stood right there.

(Retired Firefighter) Lee Ielpi was there. We were just uncovering these guys one after another after another. That's when they started using a fire helmet to carry the guy out because they wanted to make sure everything looked right and that we did everything the right way. We put them in a body bag and then we put them in a Stokes. Then we handed the Stokes up out of the hole to the top of the hole. They put it down and put the American flag on it up there somewhere. Then, when I had two or three of them out next to each other, they would carry them out and line everybody up. All the other guys who were standing around or helping would put all the buckets down and line up, and that's when we were still removing the guys on those little EMS golf carts, for lack of a better term. Eventually, they said let's bring ambulances in here, which is more professional and dignified.

One of our fire department chaplains was up there, standing by, waiting for us to pull guys out. As we did, he would run it. He would absolve them and say a prayer in his official capacity as a chaplain. But he couldn't be up there 24 hours a day and certainly some of these older chaplains who were volunteers coming in from different places weren't going to be at the top of that pile. So a couple of times, I was the guy. I was the only chief up there and all of a sudden they'd get a guy out. I'd say all right, let's hold on, let's get him in the Stokes, lay him down. OK, brothers, everybody uncover and we'd say a little prayer, sometimes we just said the "Our Father." Sometimes I just said a couple of words, God, grant him peace and watch over his family and whatever, and then we would cover him back up and get him out of there and keep on digging.

FDNY Photo
Captain Jay Jonas, Now promoted to Battalion Chief

Captain Jay Jonas Ladder 6
22 years

It was a quiet, routine morning, a beautiful morning. Guys were checking the saws. The apparatus doors were open. My house watchman was standing in front. He sees the plane coming across Canal Street. I was in the kitchen and I heard a loud explosion. It sounded like a truck driving off the Manhattan Bridge.

He started banging on the intercom. He said a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. We ran out and all we could see was a plume of black smoke. We couldn't see the World Trade Center from quarters. He said turn both companies out. We're a second-alarm company, so I knew we were going. I went in to put my bunker pants on in the office and I heard the radio. Engine 10 transmitted an immediate third alarm and a 10-60 signal, so I knew we were going. Whether it took a minute, a minute and a half, by the time we made the crest by the Manhattan Bridge heading down toward the Bowery, it was easily 20 floors of fire in the World Trade Center. It was the most incredible sight I ever saw.

Believe it or not, there wasn't a lot of vehicular traffic. We had more problems with the pedestrians especially the closer we got. People were running away from the scene and we had to clear the pedestrians out of the way.

We pulled onto West Street just on the north side by the pedestrian bridge. We pulled right in front of Ladder 20 and Ladder 1 was in front of us. We were using that bridge for cover because debris was still falling down, coming off the building. We were treating it as a high-rise building fire. We weren't treating it as anything more than that.

We gathered up all our equipment and made sure everybody was ready to make a sprint to the building. We just kept looking up for an open spot that we can make a dash for the building without getting hit, and I gave the order, I said run and we started running to the building. As a matter of fact, Fire Commissioner Von Essen ran into the building right alongside us.

And once we got to the entrance door, there were two badly burned people right at the front entrance. I'm assuming that they were in the elevators and the vapors must have traveled down the shaft. Somebody had just gotten there to give them attention. EMS was there. You know, your first impulse is to stop there and help them, but there's two people here, there's a thousand people up there.

There was a lot of activity in the lobby. There was some loose debris on the floor. I saw Patty Brown from Ladder 3 heading up. They got in before us. They were at a box, so they actually beat us into the box. And I went to the command post and (Battalion Chief) Joe Pfeifer and (Deputy Chief) Pete Hayden were at the command post. And the commissioner just got there as well. They had a desk and a panel.

There were two officers in front of me. I was waiting to get orders and that's when we heard another loud explosion and we weren't sure what it was, whether it was something exploding on the upper floor of our building. And somebody came running in and said a second plane had just hit the second tower.

Then it was my turn to get my assignment. I looked at Chief Hayden. I said a second plane just hit the second tower. He said yeah, I know, I heard. He said just go upstairs, do the best you can.

Engine 55 was in front of us. I had Rescue 1 with me because I was talking to Jerry Nevins from Rescue 1 when the other plane hit. We just looked at each other and said they're trying to kill us. All of a sudden, it was almost incomprehensible what was happening to us.

I hit the first stairway. I didn't want the guys to take any elevator. I wasn't sure if there was a low-rise bank of elevators that was working. We had seen the people burned at the entrance lobby. I said elevators aren't the best thing right now. It's going to be tough and it's going to take a long time, but we'd better start thinking about taking the stairs. So the B stairway is the first stairway that I saw. That stairway is no wider than the staircase going up a firehouse.

There was a stream of people coming down as we were going up. They were very orderly. Every once in a while somebody would try to pass somebody, but we'd say stay to your side, we'll stay to our side, because if they jumped out of line, then we couldn't move. So they had to stay on their side.

Every floor had a vending machine, and they were breaking into them and giving us bottles of water, which was great because we were working like crazy just to get to the upper floors. Before we even went up, I told the guys look, we're going to take breaks every 10 floors, just so we can approach this intelligently, so we'll have something when we get up to the fire.

So we stopped at 10. We stopped at 20. We stopped at 27 because I was missing two guys. I said all right, wait here, and I went down and looked for my two guys and we all got back up together. I said all right, take a break right now and take some water. I had Andy Fredericks with me from the squad and Billy Burke, the captain of 21 Engine. And we were all on that floor, you know, taking a knee, catching a breath.

All of a sudden, we felt the earthquake of the other building coming down. It was a loud rumble earthquake sound and like a loud rush. Billy Burke and I looked at each other and he ran to the south side. I ran to the north side to see what I could see. I couldn't see anything. We both came back to the stairway and I asked him, is that what I thought it was? He says yeah, the other building just collapsed. I said all right, all right, we're all going home. I said it's time for us to get out of here. So we all started evacuating at that point.

Firehouse Collection
Initially, firefighters had to climb up and over steel and debris in huge piles to reach the interior sections of the collapse.

We didn't see anybody else going down. We ran into more civilians on our way down. That's where we picked up this woman, Josephine Harris, somewhere between the 15th and 20th floors. There was a floor that had a lot of incapacitated people on it. I don't know if that was a sky lobby where people got that far down and they couldn't get down any further, but it seemed to be they were all congregated there.

So we saw her and I said, all right, you know, one of my guys said, Cap, what do you want to do with her? And I says bring her with us, you know, let's make the most of a bad situation here. Everybody was coming down with us. And I think maybe Andy must have spotted Billy McGinn, the officer of Squad 18, on the way down, so he must have peeled off. Billy Burke, I don't know, he must have peeled off and tried to tell guys to evacuate or something.

Once we picked up Josephine, it was very slow. She wasn't walking well at all. It was both feet on the same step kind of a thing. So it took a long time. A couple of times, we stepped to the side to let other companies pass us, like 28 Engine passed us. And then other groups of firemen. They got out, which made me feel good that we made the right decision.

It took a little while to get confirmation that our evacuation was the right thing to do. I was a little nervous about it, and justifiably so. (Battalion) Chief (Rich) Picciato was ordering his own evacuation. He had a bullhorn with him and he was telling people to evacuate. I heard Patty Brown come out with a Mayday message that there was a collapse on the upper floor, this had to be while we were walking down.

We hooked up with Rich Picciato, probably around the 15th floor. We're friends, so I said hey, Rich, how you doing and we're cordial and then I knew he was in front of us. And then when the collapse started, he was one of the guys in my mind when I gave a roll call after the collapse stopped, Rich Picciato, are you there? He said yeah. He's a floor away from me, so we tried to figure out who was still with us, who wasn't.

Let me backtrack a little bit. You know, on the way down we came across 5 Truck with Lieutenant Mike Warchola and John Santore. They were working on a guy in the stairway who was having chest pains. I said Mike, it's time to go, let's go. And he says that's all right, Jay, you got your civilian and we got ours, we'll be right behind you. Like maybe a floor away from that on the upper floors, I saw the aide to the 2nd Battalion, Faustino Apostol Jr. I said Faust, it's time to go, come on. He said it's OK, Cap, I'm waiting for the chief.

So then we get to the fourth floor and Josephine falls to the floor and she says she can't walk anymore. And we're pretty much carrying her all the way anyway. I broke into the fourth floor to look for a sturdy chair that we could use to put her on and run out with her. It turns out this was a mechanical equipment room floor, it wasn't an office floor. There were a couple of overstuffed couches, nothing that was suitable to carry her in. I'm running around this floor looking for something and I'm not finding it.

I'm heading back to the stairway door and I'm about here from the office door away from the stairway door when the collapse starts. And I hear this extremely loud rumble, like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It was like a train off the tracks and it's hitting railroad ties, so much of it that you're bouncing and the floor was moving. I couldn't get the door open initially and then a strong wind gust came. It must have helped me and I was able to open the door. I dove for the floor in the stairway and I just rode it out. Everybody who was in that stairway was just lying there waiting for the big beam to come and it never came.

Two or three minutes after the collapse, I got a Mayday from Mike Warchola that he was in the B stairway on the 12th floor, he was pinned and hurt bad. At the time, we were still buried with loose debris. I'm the highest one in that group on the stairway, so I get up and I start climbing the stairway, moving stuff, climbing. We were all encased in dust. It had to be six inches of dust. You scraping it out of your eyes, you were coughing, gagging. The visibility was about three feet.

So I get to the fifth floor and all of a sudden, I can't move the debris anymore. It's too big and too heavy. Mike continues his Maydays and I can't help him. I felt really bad the whole time I'm in there, but then once I got out, I looked at the stairway. He said he was on the 12th floor. The 12th floor didn't exist anymore. The 12th floor was in the debris pile someplace. And we were getting Maydays from a chief that he's in a long corridor between the lobby and the stairway, but we couldn't get to him. There were two guys from Engine 39 that were entombed. I believe they got out, but we couldn't get to them.

It took a while for a command to get re-established. Because I felt it was painfully obvious, I didn't want to give a Mayday when the collapse occurred. I thought it was redundant. Initially, we tried to continue our evacuation down. That was our first impulse. I had one of my guys, Billy Butler, take out his tubular webbing and put a full-body harness on Josephine to carry her down the stairs, so him and Tommy Falco carried her down the stairs. They got to the third floor and they couldn't traverse the stairs anymore and they couldn't go down anyway, so that kind of scuttled that idea.

Right about that point, I said look, we're in a bad spot, but we're alive. I'm talking to Richie Picciato and he says we should turn off our radios, we'll keep one radio on. So I told my guys all right, turn off your radios.

The stairwell was like the worst vacant building stairwell you could ever see. One landing was all twisted and warped and littered with debris. But we were alive. We could see out one side or the other, the side where the doorway was. I went to the fourth floor, there was a masonry block wall. The other sides were double sheetrock, so parts of that were blown open and I could see mountains of twisted steel in front of us.

Our time lines are a little fuzzy, but we're thinking it was at least 31/2 hours, maybe more, until the smoke and dust cleared enough where we started figuring out OK, that's our way out. As a matter of fact, about the 31/2-hour point, a beam of light started shining through and I said guys, I see sunshine. There used to be a 106 floors over our heads and I see sunshine.

And that's when Rich Picciato came up. He said that's it, Jay, that's our way out. I said Rich, it probably is, but let's wait, the guys are coming for us. I said I don't know what's dangling over our heads, I just want to make sure. I said if you fall right now, I got no way of getting you out. So he held off. And then once we saw the guy from 43 Truck about 10 minutes later, that was confirmation enough for us that it was good for us to venture out that way.

There were holes in the stairway and they yelled down to Matt Comaraski, who was the lowest guy, they said Matt, can we keep going down? He said no, don't come down here, there's no way out. So they stopped at that point.

To backtrack, after Rich said everybody turn off your radios, I had everybody turn off their radios and I started thinking to myself well, he's on the command channel, I'll keep my radio on the tactical channel. He's giving out Maydays on the command, and he didn't know what I was doing up above. He didn't know until about three days later that I was giving out Maydays on the tactical channel. I told him that's why I wasn't very anxious for us to leave the stairway, because I was in contact with so many people. I knew guys were coming for us.

It took about a half hour, 40 minutes. The first guy I spoke to was (Deputy Chief) Tom Haring. I gave him a complete Mayday message, our location and unit, where we were. I said Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Ladder 6 to command post, Mayday. We are in Tower Number 1, which is the north tower. We are in stairway B between the fourth and the second floor, we're trapped. And he says Ladder 6, I got it, I got it reported, I got your location.

And then guys really started coming on. I was speaking to (Battalion Chief) John Salka. I was talking to Cliff Stabner from Rescue 3. I was talking to (Battalion Chief) Bill Blaich from Battalion 1. I was talking to (Lieutenant) Gerry Murtha (Rescue 3). I could hear (Captain) Ralph Tiso (Rescue 3) on the air. I knew there were competent people on the way.

Then I started to talk to (Deputy Chief) Nick Visconti and Nick was very helpful. Nick's got a very distinctive voice. I knew exactly who it was. He was talking to me, all right, they're having trouble finding you, what's your exact location, how did you get there, so we had good communications going. And Rich didn't even know that all this was happening until three days later in my kitchen and I told him, yeah, I was talking to the world. He was talking to (Battalion) Chief Mark Ferran, who was with 43 Truck, so he thought he had the only communications out of our hole. And I said no, I was talking to everybody else.

There were explosions happening, the secondary explosions. We could hear the rubble shifting. Adjacent to us was the Customs House and 7 World Trade Center. They were on fire. We could hear those fires. It was tense for a little while.

Once in a while you get a whiff of jet fuel, so we're not sure exactly what's above us, how much of the building is intact above us, so we started searching for different ways out. We found a warped elevator shaft door. We could see into the shaft and we said there's a possibility we can rappel down the elevator shaft and go out a loft wall, but there was no guarantee we would be able to get in on a lower floor, so we postponed that idea for a later time, maybe a couple of days, if we were in a little tighter spot.

We started going into survival mode. We were conserving batteries, not only our handie-talkies, but our flashlights. We found a sprinkler room and they broke into that and they found sprinkler pipes. We thought maybe they could get water out of the sprinkler pipes.

There were 11 of us. Six from the truck. We had David Lynn, a Port Authority cop. Josephine Harris, the woman that we were rescuing. Chief Picciato, Lieutenant Mickey Cross from Engine 16 and a Fireman Bacon from Engine 39.

Billy Butler was with the police officer, who had a phone. First, I told him, call the Manhattan dispatch and tell them where we are, but they couldn't get through. So he tried somebody's house in Staten Island, and he couldn't get through. So I told him, try his house because he lives up by me up in Orange County, and he got through. He told his wife to call Ladder 6 and tell them where we are and then to call the other wives. We knew they'd be watching on TV.

We have our life-saving rope with us. We spot this guy off in the distance and we sent Rich Picciato out. We tie him off with the life-saving rope. I have Billy Butler in the stairway with a multi hitch on his personal harness, so if he falls, at least we have a way to retrieve him, because there was a big drop and there's all kinds of holes and everything. And visibility is still not great.

We send him out on the life-saving rope and I told him once you got out, tie off your end and we'll tie off this end, at least we'll have something to hold onto getting out of the stairway. So Richie went out about 100 feet and he tied off, and that's where he met the guy from 43 Truck - 43 Truck came in through 7 World Trade Center, and by the time they got through there, you couldn't go back that way because of the fire.