Six New York firefighters were saved from the crushing collapse of the north tower of the World Trade Centre because they stopped to help a grandmother who was struggling to climb down the stairs after she had already descended 46 floors.
When the second tower collapsed, they found themselves – in what they now term a “miracle” – trapped for over four hours in a three-storey high stairwell void, a pocket of mangled steel girders and concrete.
Captain Jay Jonas of Ladder Company 6, said: “It was a freak of timing. We know the people below us didn’t fare well. Above, to my knowledge, none got out. God gave us the strength and courage to save her, and unknowingly, we were saving ourselves.”
Three of the six surviving firefighters are back at work in the firehouse in the middle of New York’s Chinatown. A pot of chili is on the stove and the men are sitting round the kitchen table recalling what happened the day they came across their “guardian angel”, Josephine.
On the morning of September 11 they were milling around waiting for roll call when the first aeroplane hit the World Trade Centre. They heard a boom and then saw the smoke. When they announced that “a plane has gone into the World Trade Centre” on the intercom, the officers though it was a joke.
Captain Jonas knew it was not. “Oh my God, they are trying to kill us,” he said. Because of their position right downtown in Manhattan, Ladder 6 was at the scene in less than three minutes.
Firefighter Billy Butler says: “There was pieces of aircraft lying on the sidewalk and there were computer monitors smashing in the street. We waited for the debris to stop falling and grabbed our stuff and made a beeline for the front door.”
Around 100 firemen were standing in the north tower lobby waiting for their orders. Soon they started going up and various companies were on different floors.
Ladder 6 got to the 27th floor when they heard the first building collapse. On the order to evacuate, they were asked by another lieutenant from 16 Engine to help Josephine Harris, who worked for the Port Authority on the 73rd floor.
Mr Butler says: “We started down with her and it was a slow process because she was extremely fatigued, her legs were collapsing.” Captain Jonas could hear a clock ticking in the back of his head and was thinking: “C’mon, c’mon we’ve got to keep moving.”
Mr Butler was trying to gee Josephine up, talking to her about her grandchildren and telling her that they would be waiting to see her that night. He says: “We made it down to the fourth floor. We took two steps down the stairs and the whole building started to collapse. It threw us down to a half landing.
“I have never been in a tornado or an earthquake but I think it was like a combination of both. You could see stuff coming down past your face and the next minute it was going up past your face.
“My lower legs were covered with debris and as I picked it off I heard something. It was this woman Josephine, she was laying at my feet. Then some of the other guys started getting up. The dust and the smoke did not clear for an hour and half.”
The firefighters realised that there were not just the six survivors from Ladder 6 around them, there was also chief Rich Picciotta from another company, a lieutenant from 16 Engine, three or four guys from 39 engine, a port authority police officer and Josephine. They were all alive.
“We didn’t give a Mayday initially because we thought we could walk out of there like gentlemen,” says Mr Butler. “Then we gave a Mayday and nobody answered, we couldn’t get a signal. The chief finally climbed up on a fire truck and got a message out. Captain Jonas told them that they were in the north tower’s stairway B. The reply came back ‘Where’s the north tower?'”
That was when the firefighters started to worry. When the men of Ladder 6 told them to come and get them through the front door, they did not know there was no longer one to come through.
“We are thinking, what’s wrong with these guys, why can’t they see us? We actually started hearing Maydays from companies that were missing, so they were able to give Maydays, they were alive. But they never came out alive.”
It was then that Mr Butler called his wife on a borrowed mobile phone. “I said we are trapped in the World Trade Centre and you can’t cry right now. I told her to call the firehouse and tell them we are trapped. She bit her lip and took down our location.
“Luckily somebody who was coming in from home picked up the phone in the firehouse. He then called down to one of our other guys down at the scene who had a cellphone and gave him the information.”
But none of this was quick enough so they rigged a rope round Captain Jonas who began shimmying out across a girder. He did not get very far along when some firemen appeared out of the dust and rubble. “We have no idea how they found us,” says Mr Butler.
The fresh fire officers stayed with Josephine, while the survivors climbed down into a crater and struggled out across the vast areas of debris and rubble to safety.
Tucking in to his chili, Mr Butler says: “This woman was soooo slow, but she was a guardian angel sent to us. It was because she slowed us up that we ended up in that void. If we had gotten out of that building we may have sought refuge in our fire truck which was flattened. I saw it the other day and it’s just one twisted piece of metal.”