The Entombed Man's Tale
Featuring the unabridged transcript and audio.

Jay Jonas
Age: 44
Hometown: Goshen
Family: Wife and three children
Occupation: FDNY battalion chief
Was trapped in stairwell B when the north tower collapsed. He and the 10 others with him were among the total of 14 who survived the collapse.


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Hello, my name is Jay Jonas. I was scheduled to report in for work on Sept. 10th for the night tour. It was a very stormy night. It rained very heavily that night. As a matter of fact, we had a few responses – let me backtrack even further.

I was not a battalion chief at the time. I was the captain of Ladder Company 6, which is located in the Chinatown section of Manhattan. On that night, we had two firefighters from another company, Ladder Company 15, that were filling vacancies. They were detailed into my firehouse for the night.

One of the fellow’s names is Scott Kopytko and the other firefighter’s name was Doug Oelschlager. We had a good time with him that night. We had quite a few runs with the storm.

I remember in particular we had one scaffolding collapse due to the ground being undermined with the heavy rains around the Manhattan Bridge. At that run, we worked with Engine Company 55, which was commanded by Lieutenant Pete Freund and Squad 18, which was commanded by Lieutenant Billy McGinn. Billy McGinn was one of my former firemen when I was a lieutenant in Ladder 11 on the Lower East Side.

So it was a very stormy night. By the time 8 o’clock rolled around, I was getting cleaned up for the day tour, getting ready for the day tour.

The morning of September 11th was stunning. it was a beautiful day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was almost as if the heavy rains had cleansed the air. It was beautiful.

I was in the kitchen having a cup of coffee and a bowl of Wheaties and I was talking to Scott Kopytko and Doug Oelschlager. They had just gotten relieved by the incoming members of my company, so they were just getting ready to leave. We shared a few jokes with each other, and they left the firehouse.

So the members I had on duty even before the day tour started were Michael Meldrun was my chauffeur, Matt Kamorowski was my tillerman, Sal D’Agostino was my roofman, Bill Butler was my ironsman and Tom Falco was my canman.

About 8:43 in the morning, we heard what sounded like an airplane and all of a sudden, we heard a very loud boom. We all kind of looked at each other and said, “What was that,” and ran out to the front of the firehouse. My house watchman was yelling over the intercom, “A plane just crashed. A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

We came running out and I was looking at his eyes and his eyes were as big as saucers.

I said, “A plane just crashed?”

He says, “Yeah, a plane just crashed.”

“What kind of plane?”

“It was a big plane, that what it was.”

I said, “A commercial jet?”

“Yeah, a commercial jet.”

“All right, turn both companies out.”

And as I’m saying that, I can start to see the black smoke come across Canal Street. We don’t have a direct line of sight to the World Trade Center at that time, but I know we’re second-alarm units at the World Trade Center so I knew we weren’t jumping the gun by going.

He turns out both companies. My office is right off the house watch, right off the front of the firehouse. I start putting on my bunker gear, in the office, and there’s a firehouse on Liberty Street, which is directly across the street from No. 2 World Trade Center and I hear them on the radio. The officer said, “Transmit a third alarm and a 10-60 signal,” which is for a catastrophic incident like a plane crash or a train crash. He says, “A plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

So I knew that this was going to be big.

We get on the apparatus, and we start pulling out the doorway, heading west on Canal Street. As we climb up on Canal Street over by the Manhattan Bridge, we get a panoramic view of Lower Manhattan. What I could see was indescribable.

The pictures that I have seen and the videos that I have seen, while they’ve been very vivid in their images, don’t come close to capturing how horrible of a sight this really was. There were large gaping holes in the upper floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center, No. 1 World Trade Center. There was smoke pushing out of every crevice on the upper floors.

I’m looking at this scene and I’m thinking, “We have 20 floors of fire.” And how long did that take for me to run from the kitchen, which is in the back of the firehouse, to the front of the firehouse, have a short discussion with my house watchman, tell him to turn the companies out, put my bunker gear on, get on the firetruck and go – maybe it takes a minute, at best – and I’m looking at 20 floors of fire.

And each floor on the World Trade Center was roughly an acre, so I was looking at 20 acres of fire, 90 floors above the street. It was the most unbelievable sight I ever saw, up until that point.

I had been in some very busy units during my time in the fire department. I broke in, in Engine 46 and Ladder 27 in the South Bronx when the South Bronx was burning down. I was in Rescue 3, which was extremely busy; they covered the Bronx and Harlem. And then as a lieutenant, I was in the Lower East Side when that was burning down. As a captain, I was in Chinatown. I saw some unbelievable fires in Chinatown.

What I saw pales in comparison to anything else I had seen previously.

So we’re responding. We’re coming in over by City Hall and trying to cross Broadway. Once we cross Broadway, we’re going onto Vesey Street, which surrounds the World Trade Center. It’s the northernmost street on the block that houses the World Trade Center.

As we’re trying to go across on Vesey Street, there are hundreds and hundreds of people running the other way. We’re trying to weave our firetruck through the people to try to get to West Street.

We finally get there and we park our firetruck right in front of No. 1 World Trade Center. Needless to say, there’s nothing left of my old firetruck.

We start to take equipment off that’s commensurate with a highrise building assignment. And as we’re taking equipment off the firetruck, pieces of the building are coming crashing down around us. So we have to run back and forth. There’s a walk bridge that crosses West Street, which connects the World Financial Center with No. 1 World Trade Center.

We sought shelter under that a couple times in order to gather all our equipment. We would look up to see if anything was falling down. We’d run back to the firetruck to get what we had to get and then we ran back. We had to do that three times.

Once we got everything assembled, we looked up and we waited for a time where we didn’t see anything falling. I looked at everybody and I said, “OK, ready, set, go.” And we ran to the front door of No. 1 World Trade Center, off the West Street entrance.

Ironically, the New York City fire commissioner at that time was Tom Von Essen and he ran in with us. He ran right alongside of us.

The first sight that we saw when we entered the building, there were two badly burned people right at the front door of No. 1 World Trade Center. Your first impulse is to stop and help them. We couldn’t do that. There were other people that were just, the EMTs, that were starting to show up and they were going to take them, but it was kind of an awkward feeling. Well, yeah, there are two badly burned people here, but there are maybe a couple of thousand people that need our help upstairs, so we had to make one of those judgment decisions just as we’re entering the building.

How those people got burned was, they were in an elevator when the plane hit. The vapors from the jet fuel are heavier than air and they started working their way down throughout the building and they ignited. They were trapped in an elevator and they got burned.

We were reporting to the lobby command post of the north tower of the World Trade Center. It’s a big console-like looking place. They’re able to answer all those telephones in elevators and floor warden phones and they’re able to monitor where smoke detectors are going off in the building. And that’s where we normally set up our operations. That’s where the chief in command usually sets up.

By now there are a lot of companies reporting in. I’m kind of awaiting my turn to get my assignment for my company and get my name recorded. I saw the captain of Ladder Company 3, a man name Pat Brown, as I was about to report in and he says, “Jay, just come on upstairs. They’re just going to send you upstairs.” I said, “This is big. Let me get my name on paper that I’m here.”

So I’m standing at the lobby command post and I’m awaiting my orders. Rescue 1 arrives and the members of Rescue 1 are standing next to me. A good friend of mine, Gerry Nevins, Captain Terry Hatton, Lieutenant Dennis Moyica, Fireman Dave Weiss, they were all around me. Lieutenant Pete Freund from Engine 55; he shows up right around that time. And we’re waiting. Right now, the chiefs are overwhelmed. There’s a lot of things happening. The fire commissioner has Chief Hayden’s ear. Battalion Chief Joe Pfeiffer from the First Battalion is juggling three phones. He’s trying to talk to people on elevators and floor warden phones and things like that. They’re managing it and they’re handling it and I don’t know how they’re doing it, but they did an unbelievable job.

Just as it’s almost my turn to get order, we hear another loud explosion and we weren’t sure what it was. We thought that maybe a fuel cell on the plane blew up or something like that. We’re looking around and there’s large glass windows all around the lobby of No. 1 World Trade Center and the glass had already been blown out before we got there on a lot of those windows just from the sway of the building going back and forth from the plane hit.

We could see large pieces of metal coming down and hitting the ground. We were all kind of looking at each other, wondering what that was. A man came running in from the outside and yelled out that a second plane had just hit the second tower.

That radically changed the demeanor in the lobby as soon as he said that. Right away, there was an eerie silence. We all just kind of looked at each other and Gerry Nevins said, “We’re going to be lucky if we survive this.”

We all just kind of looked at each other, wished each other good luck and gave each other a wink and a nod and then it was my turn. It was my turn to get orders. I went up to Deputy Chief Pete Hayden and I looked at him and said, “You know a second plane just hit the second tower?” He says, “Yeah, I know. Just go upstairs and do the best you can.”
“All right chief, you got it.”

I went to my guys who were standing remotely away from the command post, and I went to them and said, “OK. Here’s the deal. We’re just going upstairs and we’re on a rescue mission. We’re just going to help out whoever needs help. The bad part is we can’t take the elevators.” I thought it was an unacceptable risk, remembering the badly burned people inside, right by the building entrance.

“So here’s the deal. We gotta walk up 80 floors. And it’s a raw deal. I know it’s bad, but this is what we’re doing.”

Without hesitation they all said, “OK, Cap, let’s go. We’re with you.”

And as we’re about ready to hit the stairs, I couldn’t help but wonder, where’s our air cover? I’d never been to a fire where I was wondering where the United States Navy and where the United States Air Force were, that they would be protecting us. And that was kind of an eerie feeling that I was hoping that someone was watching our back as we were going upstairs.

So we started our long trek up the stairs. These were two of the biggest buildings in the world and they only had three stairways. They had like 98 elevators to accommodate everybody going up and down there with different sky lobbies and things like that, but they only had three stairways, the A, B and C stairways, and the B stairway is the only on that goes to ground. The A and the C stairway go to a mezzanine which takes them into like a concourse level where they have shops and things like that.

But the B stairway is the only one that goes directly to ground so that’s the one that we took. We started our long trek up, up the stairs. It’s not this big grandiose stairway, either. It’s about wide enough for two people to stand side by side. It’s just an average-size stairway. It’s wide enough for one row of firemen to be going up and one row of civilians to be coming down. They’re coming down on my left and we’re going up on my right.

I can’t say enough about the people that were in those buildings. They were escaping from the worse catastrophe to befall the United States in our generation and they’re as calm as could be. As a matter of fact, as we’re going up, they’re encouraging us. The sense of altruism that was going on with them, every once in a while you would see somebody was burned and they would be wearing somebody else’s sportscoat, that they would be covering them up, things like that.

Every floor right up the stairway had a vending machine with a glass front, had those spiral things. It was refrigerated. Every one of those was just loaded with bottles of water. They were just breaking into those machines and giving us the water as we’re going up the stairs, guys having little bottles of water in their coats. When they felt that they had to take a drink, they would.

My plan was with my guys was, look, we had to go up at least 80 floors before I thought that we would see anything that would require us to go into action. So I said, “We’ll take 10 floors at a time. Take 10 floors. Take a quick break. Get a quick drink of water and press on to another 10.” I felt this way that we would have something left when we made it to the 80th floor.

You have to realize what we’re wearing. We’re wearing about 100 pounds of gear between what we have on our bodies, the pants, the boots and the coat, and we also have a hood that’s around our necks and our helmet. And then we have our air mask, which weighs about 22 pounds, and the tools that we’re carrying. Just the bunker gear alone, it doesn’t allow the perspiration to evaporate and cool down the body, so you can get overheated. That’s why it was good if we stopped every 10 floors and just replenish their fluids, and just keep moving up.

So we make our trek. We stop at the 10th floor. Somewhere between the 10th and the 20th floor, we responded to a couple of Mayday messages which are messages that a firefighter needs assistance. They were firefighters who had chest pains. One was from Engine 9, one of the firefighters was from Squad 18. We made sure that they were getting medical assistance and we pressed on.

We made it to the 27th floor and I was emphatic about trying to keep everybody together. A highrise building is so big, it’s easy for people to get separated and get lost and that’s not a good thing in those types of buildings, and this is the biggest highrise building that we have in New York City. So I said, “Everybody must stay together.”

And I got to the 27th floor and I started counting heads and I only saw three heads. I said, “All right. Let’s stop on the 27th floor. Wait here and I’ll look for the other two guys.”

I go downstairs and I find them. They were separated from people coming down the stairs.

Everybody got to the 27th floor. I said, “All right. Everybody take a knee, get some water. We’ll take a quick break here and we’ll press on and we’ll go up to 40 on the next push.”

On that floor along with all my guys was Fireman Andy Fredericks from Squad 18 and Captain Billy Burke from Engine 21. Billy Burke was another one of my fireman when I was a lieutenant in Ladder 11. Andy Fredericks was a friend of mine. He was a nationally know fire instructor. He was a very bright man.

They were all on the 27th floor with me doing the same thing, catching their breath so that they could push on.

While we were on that floor, we felt and earthquake-like rumble. Our tower swayed back and forth, and then the lights went out. All day long you were wondering, now what was that. And we heard something that almost sounded like another jet plane, it was a loud whooshing sound. I looked at Billy Burke and he looks at me and I said, “Billy, you go check those windows and I’ll go check these windows and we’ll see what we can see.”
So I ran to the north windows and all I could see was that white dust pressed against the glass. He ran to the south windows and we met up again at the stairway door at that little vestibule. I look at him and said, “Is that what I thought it was?” He said, “The south tower just collapsed.”

That was a difficult piece of information to process. In my entire fire service career, I can’t ever remember a highrise building ever collapsing. And this was one of the biggest ones in the world, a 110-story building coming down.

I said, “I can’t believe it.” I thought about it for a second and I looked at my guys and I said, “OK, it’s time for us to go home. It’s time for us to leave.”

At first, they were a little reluctant. I said, “We’re going home. If that tower can go, this one can go. It’s time for us to get out of here.”

So we start our evacuation with Billy Burke and Andy Fredericks in tow. We start heading down the stairs. One of my firemen had a lifesaving rope with him and he wanted to start jettisoning some of his equipment. I said, “No, bring everything. You never know what we’re going to come aKross on our way down. Bring everything with us.”

We start heading down. I was a little nervous about doing that because I didn’t get a radio order to do it and that was hard territory to get up to. I didn’t want to take the same territory twice.

Around the 20th floor I heard on the radio an order for everybody to evacuate the north tower. And I’ve seen on the videotapes that they had ordered the evacuation of my building before the south tower collapsed, but we didn’t get it. Sometimes in highrise buildings with the steel and the concrete and the distance, communications are not good.

They did have procedures in place to overcome the communications problems. They had repeator systems within the building and everything, but they got wiped out when the plane hit, so we were basically working on whatever power the radios were giving off.

We heard the call for the evacuation; that made me a little bit more comfortable. It was around this time that we ran into a woman in the doorway, a woman named Josephine Harris. She was just standing in the doorway and she was crying. And one of my firemen looked at me, a fireman named Tommy Falco, he looks at me and he says, “Hey, Cap, what do you want to do with her?” I said, “We can’t leave her here. Bring her with us.”

I had some guys who were very strong men. This guy Tommy Falco was a big weightlifter; a man named Billy Butler is also one of these guys who could play football today. They’re very big, strong men. I told Billy, “Put her arm around yours and we’ll start going down the stairs.”

But that did a couple of things to us. That greatly slowed our descent. We want to stay together as a unit but now we’re going one step at a time. Step by step. We’re not going step, step, step, step, step. We’re going step...step...step, like that. And it’s bottlenecking everybody behind us who are trying to evacuate.

So on like three or four occasions we step to the side to allow people to pass us so we’re not holding them up. And then we continue our descent. The other firemen who were with us from Ladder 6, they took Billy’s tools and we were going down that way; we were staying together.

Somewhere around the 15th floor, I ran into a friend of mine, Rich Picciotto, who was battalion chief in the 11th Battalion. He and I studied together for years, but we rarely worked together. As a matter of fact, I don’t think we’ve ever worked together because he works in the Upper West Side, I work in Chinatown and it would have to be something this big for that many units in Manhattan to converge on one spot.

He was wielding a bullhorn, which nobody ever brings a bullhorn into a fire. But he was working at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He was a newly promoted battalion chief back then and he remembered he had a big crowdcontrol problem and he remember to bring it. He says, “Well, this might help.”

He used that bullhorn to order firemen to leave the building. That act alone probably saved a lot of firemen’s lives. He probably was able to evacuate, at least that I know of, at least a half a dozen companies. That was a very headsup move on his part.

But again, it was unusual to see him there. So he starts evacuating with us as well. On my way down, I saw a fireman that I know who’s a chief’s aide for the 2nd Battalion, a man named Faustino Apostol. His nickname is Faust, for short. I see him standing in the doorway off the stairway and I said, “Faust, c’mon let’s go. It’s time to go. Come with us.”

“It’s OK, Cap, I’m waitin’ for the chief.”

His chief was on the floor and he didn’t want to leave his chief.

I said, “Don’t wait too long.”

He says, “All right. I’m coming.”

I’m seeing and hearing other acts of courage and heroism on the way down. I’m hearing Captain Paddy Brown from Ladder 3 saying that he has a lot of burned people on the 40th floor and he doesn’t want to leave them. I run into members of Ladder Company 5 from Greenwich Village. There’s a Lieutenant Mike Warchola, who I used to carpool with when I was a young fireman. He and his company are working on a man on one of the stairway landings who’s having chest pains, a civilian.

I said, “Mike, c’mon, let’s go. It’s time to go.”

And he sees we have this woman that we’re bringing down.

He says, “I know, Jay. It’s time to go. We’re working on this guy. You have your civilian, I have mine. We’ll be right behind you.”

I said, “All right. Don’t wait too long.”

So we continue on our way down. We get to the fourth floor. I’m starting to feel pretty good about things. I’m thinking, maybe this building isn’t going to collapse. Maybe we’re just going to go outside and this is gonna to work out OK.

We get to the fourth floor and Josephine Harris’ legs give way. She can’t stand anymore. Now I’m starting to get nervous again. We’ve got to move a lot faster. The spooky music in this whole scenario is that the clock is ticking. I can almost hear the clock ticking in the back of my head that we gotta get out of here. This is bad. This is really bad.

I break into the fourth floor to look for a sturdy chair that we can throw her on and we could pick her up and run with her. That would be the fastest, to negotiate the stairway and make our move that way. So I break into the fourth floor. It’s not an office floor. It’s a mechanical equipment room floor. It’s where they have the airhandling equipment for that zone.

I’m looking and I’m not finding anything. I find one metal desk with a stenographer’s chair, a swivel chair, and that wouldn’t do. I find one overstuffed couch. Naturally, that wouldn’t do. It’s a little scary to think about it now, but I was way on the other side of the building, just seconds before this building collapsed. And I don’t know what told me to do it but I’m thinking, this isn’t working out. I’ve gotta get back to the stairway and we’re just going to have to drag her.

I start running back to the stairway and I’m about four feet away, four or five feet away from the stairway door and that’s when the collapse starts. I feel almost like a compression effect with the wind. I try to open the door to the stairway and I couldn’t open it. A second pull opened the door. I don’t know whether it was assisted by the compression effect of the building coming down with the wind or with my first try, maybe the building was warping and twisting, and I couldn’t open it for that reason. But the second pull I was able to open the door and I dove for the stairway landing on the fourth floor.

Now, people have tried to get me to describe what it was like while the collapse was happening. It was a montage of different sounds and experiences. The sounds were a combination of sounds. This building collapsed in what’s called a pancake fashion. In other words, one floor would hit another floor and would collapse that floor and then collapse the next floor. And every time a floor would hit another floor, it created a loud boom and tremendous vibration.

The entire collapse of this 110-story building took 13 seconds. So it sounded like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, you know, like that. And every time that happened, it shook the entire building. It shook the whole floor. So every time a floor would hit another floor, we’d be literally bouncing off the floor. We were being thrown around the stairway.

There was also this very loud sound of twisting steel all around our heads. These massive steel beams and girders were just being twisted around our heads just like they were twist ties on a loaf of bread. And a very loud, like a steel screeching sound, almost like a lot of trains coming into a subway station at the same time and all of them hitting their brakes at the same time.

There was tremendous air movement with the building coming down. The air movement was so strong that one of my fireman was standing on the fourth floor. You’ve got to figure with his gear and everything on, he’s well over 200 pounds. He’s about 180 pounds and with his gear, you gotta figure he’s about 250 pounds. This wind kind of picked him up and threw him down two fights of stairs.

We were getting hit with all kinds of debris. Thank God it was nothing that was going to really hurt us, but after it was all over, it was almost like we kind of got mugged. We were all bruised up and small cuts and things like that.

And then the collapse stopped.

In a day of first experiences for everybody, well here’s another one. I can’t believe we just survived that. It was very quick and during the collapse you couldn’t help but think that this is it. It’s over. This is how it ends. I kept waiting for that big beam to hit or that big piece of concrete to come down and crush us.

It never came.

When it stopped, my first thought was oh, man, I can’t believe I just survived that. But then we were in a battle with the dust and the smoke for a while. That big cloud of dust that was surrounding lower Manhattan, I was in the middle of that. I know exactly where Ground Zero was. It was the B stairway of the north tower, that’s exactly Ground Zero. That’s the geographic center of that building. And I was in the middle of that.

So we had no visibility. We had a very hard time breathing. We were all coughing and gagging for a while. As soon as I was able to talk, I wanted to see who was still alive, who was still with me. So I gave a roll call and all my people were accounted for.

Josephine Harris was accounted for; she was alive. There was a Port Authority police officer with us, a man named David Lim. Rich Picciotto was with us; he was a floor below me. He was on the third floor. We had on the base of the stairs, on the second floor was Lieutenant Mickey Kross from Engine 16, and there was a fireman from Engine 39 at the base of the stairs.

So initially there was 11 of us. There were three other firefighters from Engine 39 that got out later that were separated from us and they were the last firemen removed from the World Trade Center, and they got out about two hours after we got out, I think. But that was it.

We have no visibility. And I gave this roll call and saw who was there. And we’re trying to comprehend how bad this was. We knew we just experienced a catastrophic collapse.

But it was relatively quick. I even thought the collapse lasted longer. Somebody asked me soon afterward, “How long do you think it lasted?” I estimated about 30 seconds. I saw on the tapes it was only 13. But it felt like it moved along pretty fast.

So I didn’t think the entire building collapsed. I thought maybe half of it came down, and the other half was still intact. Again, with no visibility, you don’t know. We’re just trying to let things settle out for a little.

A couple minutes after the collapse stopped, we’re starting to get radio transmissions. The first one I hear was from a fireman and he says, “Just tell my wife and kids that I love them.” The second radio transmission I hear is from Lieutenant Mike Warchola from Ladder 5, who I passed in the stairway. He said, “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. This is the officer of Ladder Company 5. I’m in the B stairway on the 12th floor. I’m trapped and I’m hurt bad.”

One of my guys, Sal D’Agostino, looks at me and he says, “Cap, did you get that?”
“Yeah, I got it.”

So I start heading up the stairs to see what I can do. We’re on the fourth floor, maybe I can do something for him.

Now, we’re seeing that our stairway is somewhat intact. There were parts of it missing, some of it’s warped. There’s a lot of debris in the stairway that we have to move in order to move around the stairway. Parts of some landings were missing. It’s quasi-intact but it’s not a pristine stairway. It’s like a real bad vacant building stairway.

The landings were only good for maybe an eight-by-eight area. There wasn’t much left to every floor before you started encountering immovable debris.

So I start heading up the stairway and in order to make my way up the stairway, I have to move a lot of debris to get up the stairs. I make it up to the fifth floor and I start heading up toward the sixth floor and now the debris is getting very heavy and I can’t move it.

A second Mayday comes in from Mike Warchola. And then a third. And I realize I can’t move it. There’s nothing I can do and I got on the radio and I said, “I’m sorry, Mike, I can’t help you.”

That was a difficult thing for me to say, especially since I knew him. There was just nothing that I could do for him. And it wasn’t until after I got out that I found out that the 12th floor didn’t exist anymore. We thought that maybe half the building was intact, maybe 50 floors were left.

So I felt a little more comfort in the fact that I really couldn’t get him, that he wasn’t just that far away. His company got thrown out and he was in the debris. He gave out his third Mayday and that was the last we heard from Mike.

We were getting other Mayday messages in. We were getting a Mayday message from Chief Prunty, Richard Prunty from the 2nd Battalion, and he was trapped right around the lobby. He was pinned and he was hurt bad. And every time we spoke to him, we could hear him going deeper and deeper into shock. There was nothing we could do for him.

This is very frustrating, now. It’s not that we’re in great shape, either, but none of us have any mortal injuries. We’re able to walk around. Like one of my fireman has a concussion. One has a separated shoulder. One has badly bruised ribs; we thought they were broken. We’re all coughing, gagging and our eyes are getting damaged. But nothing life-threatening.

But we’re hearing these calls for help coming in around us and there’s nothing we can do about it. That was a little bit frustrating.

At this point, not really knowing what the full enormity of this situation is, I’m thinking that we can possibly dust ourselves off and continue down and work our way out of the building. I’ve taken several rescue classes and I’ve taught classes on how to rescue other trapped firemen, so I carry some specialized equipment that not everybody carries in their coat pocket, and a lot of my guys did, too.

I told my guys to take out their one-inch tubular webbing and they can make a harness out of that and put Josephine Harris into this harness and we’re going to take her down the stairs and we’re going to walk right out the front door.

My tillerman, Matt Kamorowski, was at the bottom of the stairs. We start making our way down and he yells up, “Don’t come down. There is no way out. There is no way you can get past this.” He got down to the landing between the first and the second floor and he says, “That’s it. It’s packed with debris. There’s no way we can get out.” I said, “All right.”

Now we’re trying to figure out what to do, thinking that we’re probably going to be here for a little while now. So we go into a little bit of a survival strategy, which Picciotto initially yelled up the stairs for everyone to turn their radios off so we can conserve our batteries.

I told my guys, “OK, turn your radios off.” And then I got to thinking, wait a minute, he’s on the command channel. We have several different channels on the radio and the chiefs are all ordered to go onto the command channel. I said, “I’ll put my radio on the tactical channel and he’ll be giving out Mayday messages on the command channel; I’ll give them out on the tactical channel.” And that’s what I did. I put mine on the tactical channel.

I started giving out Mayday messages. It took a little while for somebody to answer me, but I finally got an answer after about 40 minutes. It was from Deputy Chief Tom Haring. He says, “OK, Ladder 6. I have you recorded. You’re in the B stairway of the north tower. You have 11 people with you. OK, we’re going to start sending people out.”

OK, that made me feel good. They know we’re here. They know we’re alive.

We start looking around for other things that we can do. In my travels when I was looking for Mike Guarcola, on the way back down, I saw that there was a toilet on the fifth floor. Naturally, it wouldn’t work. But if you have 11 people in a stairway, somebody’s going to have to go to the bathroom sooner or later, so they could use the toilet and they we could cover it up. At least we wouldn’t be smelling human waste. When you’re in a confined space, any little comfort that you can have is good. Nobody had to use it, but that was a good thing.

One of my guys broke into, I think, the third floor and he found some sprinkler piping. “OK, that’s good. We can break into them when we get thirsty.”

On my way back down on the fifth floor, I found Chief Picciotto’s bullhorn in the rubble on the stairway, when I was moving rubble on the stairway. So I handed that back down to him and later on we used that to attract attention to ourselves.

We were almost playing a waiting game. And we were trying to evaluate every move that we were making because we wanted it to be a productive move. We didn’t want to make a move just to make a move. We didn’t want to have to cover the same territory twice.

I found a service elevator right off the fourth floor. The door was warped and I could see down it and I could see that the shaft was open down below. And I thought, there’s a possibility that we can rappel down the elevator shaft with out rope. We got to thinking about it. I said, “What if we can’t get in?” My initial thought was we can rappel down this elevator shaft and we’ll come out in one of the subcellars and we can walk through the Path tubes and we’ll end up in Hoboken. But we thought better of that. We thought we’d save that strategy for Day 2 or Day 3, when we start getting desperate.

We didn’t talk too much. Everybody stayed quiet and they were listening, more or less just trying to evaluate what we were going to do. For the most part, everybody was calm. At one point, Tom Falco, one of my firemen, looks at me and he says, “Hey, Cap, what do we do now?”

I just looked at him. “I don’t know. I’m making this up as we go along.”

While we were in the stairway, we could hear fires breaking out around us. We could hear explosions. After one of the explosions that was rather close, Josephine Harris started crying a little bit and she said she was scared. The explosion shook me up a little bit, too.

In the calmest voice I could muster, I said, “That’s all right, darling, we’re all a little scared. Just hang in there.” And from that point on, she barely said a word. She knew that we were going to take care of her. The guys would take turns comforting her. I didn’t know about this until later, but one of the guys said, “If anything happens, we’ll cover you. We’ll use our bodies to shield you.” They told me about that later.

So it was a waiting game. We were trapped in there for over three hours and it seemed like it was about 40 minutes. It seemed like a short period of time, just because your mind was so active. We were listening to other radio transmissions. We could hear the captain of Rescue 3, Ralph Tiso, calling for a line because he was getting trapped. He was looking for trapped firemen and he says, “There are fires breaking out. I have to get a line so I can get out.”

We could hear fires crackling. We didn’t know it at the time, but No. 7 World Trade Center and No. 5 World Trade Center were immediately adjacent to us and they were roaring, they were on fire. Those were the sounds that we were hearing.

The visibility in the stairway started clearing out pretty good because there was no new dust coming in. Whatever dust was in the stairway was starting to settle out. But we still couldn’t see outside. We had a small hole in the stairway and all I could see was a wall of twisted steel.

We were thinking, geez, if we did have a major collapse, there was 106 floors above us. This was a 110-story building. We’re on the fourth floor. It may take them a while to get to us, you know.

We were waiting. And I started getting some productivity out of my radio. I started making direct contact with people that were looking for us. I hear a radio transmission from John Salka. He goes, “Battalion 1-8?” “Two out of six.” “Where are you? We’re coming to get you.”

I would give my location. “We’re in the B stairway of No. 1 World Trade Center. I’m on the fourth floor in the stairway.”

Then I heard a man who lives down the block from me, who happened to be with John Salka. I didn’t know that at the time. He said, “Rescue 3 to Ladder 6. Captain Jay Jonas, this is Cliff. I’m coming to get you. Where are you?”

I would give my whole transmission again. And then I got a radio notification from a man name Nick Visconti, who was a longtime friend of mine, and he’s a deputy chief and one of the most highly respected members of the fire department. But he has a unique voice. I can pick out his voice right away. And he was in charge of the Operations Post.

He started calling me. “Operations Post to Ladder 6. Operations Post to Ladder 6. Jay, where are you?”

I would go through the whole thing. He was telling me later that he was surrounded by people that were trying to get some sort of landmark so that they would know where to start looking for me. And again, I have no concept what it looks like outside. So some of their transmissions are a little unique from my perspective and I’m sure my transmissions to them were rather unique.

He asked me, “How did you get there. How did you get inside the building? Where was your firetruck.” Things like that.

“We parked the firetruck on West Street, just south of the north walk bridge.

He says, “OK. How did you get into the building?”

“OK, we walked from West Street into the glass doors off of West Street. To get to the B stairway, after you get through the glass doors, make a right and then you make your first left and the B stairway is on the left.”

And I’m thinking to myself, this is not that hard, gentlemen. Again, not knowing what it looks like. And he had to ask me several times. I won’t put a number on it.

I heard one fireman on the radio saying, “Where’s the north tower?”

And I’m thinking to myself, where’s the north tower? I’m thinking to myself, it’s one of those big buildings on the corner. C’mon. It’s not that hard. Oh, we’re in trouble if they don’t even know where the north tower is.

So I was getting very good radio transmissions out to a lot of different people and everybody I was talking to on the radio was not only a very competent person, some of the best people in the New York City Fire Department, but they were all personal friends of mine. Like John Salka, we had been friends since public school. I’m godfather to one of his sons. Cliff Stabner, he and I had been friends for years. Our kids are close. We’ve been good friends for a long time. Nick Visconti, he’s been almost like a mentor to me.
He came to my wedding. Battalion Chief Bill Blanche from the 1st Battalion. He used to be a captain of Engine 9, which shares my old firehouse in Chinatown. And his son is assigned to Engine 9 right now. He called me on the radio. He’s trying to get my pinpoint location. He’s asking me some very good questions over the radio. This man is a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, a very squared-away guy, very precise. He kind of let the cat out of the bag. “It’s really bad out here. It’s gonna take a long time for us to get to you, but we’re gonna get to you. I have the entire offduty platoon of Ladder 11, Ladder 6 with me and we’re going to come and get you.

I was able to tell the guys then, “They’re coming. It’s gonna be a while, but they’re coming. So we just gotta be patient.”

This is what was happening in the stairway. We were giving out transmissions and taking care of Josephine and we had David Lim with us, the Port Authority police officer. He’s a K-9 police officer. His partner’s his dog. He was concerned about his dog. He was making radio transmissions out on his radio for somebody to check on his dog. I’m sure the people outside who he was talking to thought your dog is low priority right now, you know, but it was his partner. So he was concerned about his dog.

That’s what was going on. And right around the three-hour mark, all of a sudden, a beam of sunshine hit the stairway. I looked and said, “Guys, there used to be 106 floors above us and now I’m seeing sunshine.” They’re like, “What?” I said, “There’s nothing above us. That big building doesn’t exist.”

So that was a revelation to us. Then Chief Picciotto came up the stairs and he said, “Jay, that’s it. That’s our way out.” I said, “Rich, it probably is, but let’s just wait for a little more confirmation just so we know that this is the right move again.” We didn’t want to make a move just to make a move. We wanted it to be a productive move.

A short time later, maybe 10 minutes later, the smoke and dust cleared to where we could see a little bit of a distance outside the stairway, which was again a radical change for us. Off in the distance we could see a fireman looking through the rubble. “OK, that’s it. That’s our way out.”

We decided that Rich Picciotto would be the first guy out of the stairway. We had our rope with us and we tied him off on the rope because it was a little treacherous going down and if he fell, there was all kinds of sharp metal and everything. We wanted to have a way that we could retrieve him. So that’s why we felt if we put him on the rope, that would be a good way to go. We tied a special knot on a harness that if he fell, it would act like a seat belt and it would lock off.

So we sent him out on the rope. He went out and he made contact with this one fireman. He tied off his end and we tied off our end. One by one, we started sending people out of the stairway. I think the next person out was Matt Kamorowski. And then we sent out David Lim and then Mickey Cross, then Fireman Bacon from Engine 39. One by one, they started going out, to the point that the only people that were left were me, Tom Falco and Sal D’Agostino.

Sal D’Agostino and Mike Meldrun had already gone out but they had all stayed very close to Josephine during the entrapment. Tommy Falco, again, looks at me and says, “Cap, we can’t leave her.”

I said, “We’re not going to leave her. We’re going to wait till other rescuers come in and we’ll transfer her to them.”

So that’s what we did. We waited in the stairway until Ladder 43 showed up, commanded by Lieutenant Glenn Rowan. They came into the stairway and I started giving this Lieutenant Rowan from Ladder 43 a briefing.

I said, “All right. You have her. You have to take care of her. She can’t walk. She couldn’t walk before the collapse and now after lying on her side for all this time, she can’t walk at all.

“You’re going to need a Stokes basket stretcher to take her out and we don’t have one. You’re going to have to call to get one.

“OK. You have Chief Prunty on the first floor. We haven’t heard from him in about a half-hour. He’s bad. His situation is very bad. So you gotta get to him right away.”

He says, “OK.”

And I said, “Some guys from Engine 39 that sound like they’re OK, but they’re separated from us. You’ll have to move some debris to get them out.”

He said, “All right.”

And I said, “And you got Ladder 5 on the 12th floor in the B stairway and we couldn’t get to them, either.”

And he looks at me like I got three heads.

I said, “What?”

And he didn’t say anything.

So we introduced Josephine to the members of Ladder 43 and I said, “They’re going to remove you now. We’re going to go. They have to get a special piece of equipment to get you out, but you’re going to be out of here very shortly.”

So we left. We left the stairway. Sal left the stairway. He had to kinda go down on the rope a little bit in order to get out because it was elevated and you had to make your way down across some debris. Then Tom Falco leaves the stairway. I wanted to be the last one of our group out of the stairway just because I don’t want to have to go back, “Ah, where’s Tommy? I gotta go back and see where he is.”

Tommy Falco leaves the stairway and then he comes back in. He pokes his head in and he says, “Hey, Cap, wait until you get a load of this.”

So I make my way up to the hole. I poke my head out and I couldn’t believe what I saw. I couldn’t believe it.

The first thing I saw was that corner facade that was still standing. And I was looking at it.
I said, “I can’t believe this. This is unbelievable.”

That was about 14 stories high. And I’m just looking at it. It looked like New York City got bombed. At the same time, No. 5 World Trade Center, No. 6 World Trade Center and No. 7 World Trade Center were roaring. They were on fire. And they were right next to us. So we have all that smoke that we’re dealing with.

We start making our way across. We start heading toward West Street because we couldn’t go east because of those fires. So we started heading toward West Street. In the Custom’s House, No. 6 World Trade Center which is right next to No. 1 World Trade Center, houses the New York Arsenal for the Secret Service. Now the fire was reaching that arsenal and it was blowing up as we’re going across. What we’re hearing is almost gunshots and little explosions.

At this point, my guys are pretty well beat up. I’ve tried to explain their condition to people to before and I said, “Well, they responded to the biggest fire in the history of the world. They cLimed up 27 floors in full bunker gear, and then they experienced the collapse of a sister building to it, and then they start heading down. They make a rescue. They survive a collapse of their building. They’re entrapped for three hours, coughing and gagging the whole time and they have all kinds of injuries. Other than that, they’re in great shape.”

We start making our way west toward West Street. And the collapse created like a three-story-deep trench due to the collapsing cellars and things like that. It was naturally filled with all kinds of debris so, in order to make our way across this steel – now, this steel is all coated with this dust that was created from the concrete and all the furniture and everything just being pulverized.

These are the biggest office buildings in the world and I didn’t see one desk or one chair or one phone, nothing. The only thing you saw was steel, some reinforcing rods and this dust. That’s all that was left. There was nothing that was recognizable, no carpets, nothing like that.

But this dust coating is now an inch thick on this steel. And it makes it very slippery. It’s like if you put talcum powder on something, it makes it slippery. So we’re making deliberate steps working our way across the steel and there’s a lot of climbing up and down and you’ve got these fires going off next to us.

We come across this trench. We had to go down this trench and then up the hill on the other side. I’m the last one and I’m encouraging the guys to keep moving. “C’mon, you gotta keep going. We’re not out of this yet. We’re still in danger here. You’ve got to keep going. Keep going.”

And I kept encouraging them to keep going. And one by one, I got to see my people go up over the hill, over the other side of that trench. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my last run, my last response as the captain of Ladder 6, where I was the captain there for seven years. Usually your last tour as an officer in a place, usually you buy the meals and say your good-byes and everything.

In retrospect, I’m looking back on that day now, that was my last act as the captain of Ladder 6, was watching every one of my guys make it up over that hill and get to the point where they were going to be safe. I always felt that that was my job. Above all else, make sure that I send them home. I’m very fortunate to be able to say that because a lot of times I can’t, not through any fault of their own but through the circumstances of the day.

In order to make it up over the other side of that trench, people were lowering down ropes to us. We were climbing up ropes. We finally made it up.

We had to make our way through, past West Street, and this is still all debris covered, debris filled, through the World Financial Center, through the south side, over toward Liberty Street. I started looking for the command post, and guys were saying, “Don’t go to the command post. Go to an ambulance.”

I said, “No, you don’t understand. I was talking to a lot of people on the radio and they’re all coming to get me. I don’t want anybody getting hurt after I’m already out.”

I finally make my way to the command post and there was a fire department pumper on the street. There were two chiefs on top of this pumper that were running the fire, standing on the roof so that they could see. And one of them was Chief Hayden, the man I received my orders from, and he was running the show. The first chief I got a hold of was Jim DiDiminico, who was standing next to him.

I said, “Get Chief Hayden. Get Chief Hayden.”

There’s hundreds of firemen now. There’s all kinds of noise and heavy equipment, so it’s very loud. I’m standing at the base of a pumper. I finally get his attention and he looks down, he looks down at me. I could see his eyes start to well up a little bit. And he says, “Jay, it’s good to see you.”

I just stood there and gave him a salute. I said, “It’s good to be here.”

And he said something like, “Well, now you’re going to get promoted to battalion chief.”

I said, “It’s going to be good to be around for that.”

So I left. It was a very touching moment. I really enjoyed working for him. He’s a very positive man, extremely knowledgeable. It was an honor to work for him. I was happy to see that he survived as well.

Then we make our way to the ambulances and started getting treatment, mostly for our eyes, because our eyes were starting to burn us now. They were just coated with debris. I saw people, when we were making our way across the debris field, that didn’t recognize me. I was just so coated with dirt and debris.

I saw one guy as we were making our way out, because I didn’t know it at the time, but our transmissions were the only ones that were out there. There was nobody else. All of a sudden, he looked up and he saw my front piece and he says, “You’re the guys. You’re the guys from Ladder 6.”

I said, “Yeah, we’re the guys. We’re going home.”

That was a good moment, too.

So after we made our way to the ambulance, it was about a half-hour later, we saw Josephine Harris come out in the stretcher. I survived. All my men survived. And we have this small victory that is within us that we brought somebody else out with us, that somebody else survived because of what we did. That’s one thing that we’re holding onto and cherishing a little bit.

I think back to all the people that I saw that day, Jerry Nevins, Pete Freund, Terry Hatton, Dennis Moyica, John Fischer, the list goes on, Andy Fredericks, Billy Burke, none of them made it. Almost everybody I saw that day perished. Out of all the hundreds and hundreds of firemen, police officers and civilians that were in that building when it collapsed, only 14 of us lived.

We just happened to be in the right spot. There was nothing magic about it. There was one pocket, one void and we happened to be in it.

When we got out I thought to myself, we had a nice void. We had a nice little pocket. There’s got to be hundreds of them. There’s got to be a lot of people getting out of here. I was very optimistic about that.

It took me about a week to come to the realization that maybe nobody else is coming out. A good friend of ours, John McLoughlin, a Port Authority police sergeant, was rescued the next day. And he was the last person that was removed. Nobody else was removed after John McLoughlin; he was rescued on the 12th, the morning of the 12th.

So it took me about a week to figure out, this is it. I thought there would be a lot more people, and I was shocked that there wasn’t.

The force that was generated by this collapse was monumental. I’ve spoken to people about this event before and I try to put it in historical perspective for people:

Prior to September 11th, the New York City Fire Department in 136 years of existence lost 752 firemen in the line of duty. During six years of bombing in World War II, the London Fire Brigade lost about 400 people. Prior to September 11th, the largest lifeloss the New York City Fire Department experienced was 12 in one incident and that was in 1966. On September 11th, we lost 343 people in 28 minutes. That’s an unbelievable toll.

The death toll from the World Trade Center, I think the final count is 2,823. That number includes 343 firemen, 23 New York City Police officers, 37 Port Authority Police officers and the people on the planes.

So considering that between the two buildings, 50,000 people work in those two buildings, the death toll, as hard to accept as it is, could have been much higher. A lot of people were removed from that building through the efforts of the firemen that were there.

I have my good days and bad. I feel bad about certain things that happened. They bother me more than they should. I’m trying to normalize my life as best as I can after going through such a traumatic thing. My wife is probably dealing with survivor’s guilt more than I am. She’ll see other wives of firemen whose husbands didn’t come home that day and she’s almost apologizing that I lived. “I’m very sorry. My husband was in a bad spot, too.” She feels guilty that I made it and their husbands didn’t make. It’s an awkward feeling for her to go through that.

I knew that we were doing what we were supposed to do. I just happened to be in the right spot. Again, there was nothing magical that I knew that somebody else didn’t know. I was just making the calls that I thought were the right calls at the time, and it ended up being the right calls at the right time.

You think about different things that could have happened, which could have radically changed things for me. If I didn’t abandon my search for that chair when I did, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. If we chose not to step aside to let other firemen pass us, and all those companies made it out, by the way, which I felt very good about, because the last company that we let pass us was Engine 28, which shared the firehouse with me when I was a lieutenant, and I know that they made it out.

© 2002 Orange County Publications, a division of Ottaway Newspapers Inc., all rights reserved. An abridged version of this transcript appeared in the Sept. 8, 2002, editions of the Times Herald-Record. *The Times Herald-Record is not affiliated with RealNetworks and is not responsible for any difficulties involved with using its product. Please refer all technical support questions about the player to RealNetworks. Click here to see the system requirements for the RealOne Player.