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maxresdefault The Miracle of Ladder Company 6

‘It was the furthest thing from my mind, that building coming down. I didn’t think that building could come down.’ 
— TOMMY FALCO
Firefighter

It is hard to speak of lucky breaks and happy endings in a tragedy of this magnitude. But there have been a few. This is a story about a group of New York fire-fighters caught inside one of the Twin Towers when it collapsed. It’s a story of courage, duty, selflessness, and more than a little luck. Though it begins like so many others, with the horror of that day, the ending is a good one.

They went in to fight a fire. They’re alive, they say, because they stayed together to save a life. This is the story of Ladder Company 6 and a woman they call their guardian angel.

Tommy Falco“I just heard the rumbling and the shaking. And I imagine we got knocked down the stairs. And I just remember laying down and, OK, this is it, you know, what’s it going to feel like. And I said, ‘This is how it ends for me.’”
Sal D’Agostino: “In the stairwell, after I got blown backwards and found my helmet, I said a Hail Mary. It’s the only prayer I ever really remembered. And sweet Jesus protect me and forgive me of my sins.”
Matt Komorowski: “An hour or two into the whole thing, I started seeing light at my feet. And it was dim at first and then all of a sudden, a beam of light shone at my feet. And that was hope that the outside was still there.”
Mike Meldrum“Out of nowhere we find Josephine. And like the guys say, she’s our guardian angel. She must have been sent to us for a reason.”

Dateline NBC brought the men together 11 days after the worst day of their lives. They were still grappling with the notion of being alive.

Stone Phillips: “Is this the first time you’ve all seen each other since that day as a group?”
Firefighters: “Yes.”
Stone Phillips: “What’s it like being together?”
Matt Komorowski“It feels good, comforting.”
Stone Phillips: “How lucky do you feel to be here? To be alive?”
Bill Butler: “Very, very, very lucky.”
Richie Picciotto: “I’m sure we’ve all seen the tapes already. And every time we see it, I don’t think it’s possible that anyone survived being in there. And I know it is possible, because I did. And we all did. You’re looking at seven miracles.”
John Jonas: “There weren’t many. There weren’t many miracles that day. I hope we have a few more.”
John Jonas was promoted to Battalion Chief five days after the attacks in a somber ceremony for a decimated fire department. He led the men of Ladder 6 into the hell that was the World Trade Center.

A HANDFUL OF MIRACLES
On duty that day was Mike Meldrum, a 20-year veteran, known as “the chauffeur” because he drives the truck. Sal D’Agostino, with five years in the department, is the son of a retired firefighter. Tommy Falco has been a firefighter for 18 years. Matt Komorowski has 12 years experience. And Bill Butler, seven years on the job, is the ladder company’s strongest man. To them, the man they followed was simply Captain Jay — the first man into a fire, the last man out.
John Jonas: “We were all in the fire house preparing for roll call at the beginning of the day when the first plane hit.”
It was 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11 when the first Trade Tower erupted in flames. From their firehouse in nearby Chinatown, Ladder Company 6 made it to the scene in minutes, driving into a hailstorm of debris.
Richie Picciotto: “It was actually very difficult to get our tools off the rig because we had to look up and make sure nothing was hitting us while we were getting our tools.”
Stone Phillips: “Pieces of building?”
Matt Komorowski: “Yes.”
Bill Butler: “Computer monitors were smashing in the street next to our apparatus.”
Immediately, they saw foreboding images of the injured.
John Jonas“As we entered the building at Number One World Trade Center, the tower, there were two badly burned people right there at the lobby door.”
Matt Komorowski: “They were in the elevator on the way down.”
Sal D’Agostino: “And jet fuel had gotten them.”
Matt Komorowski“And then it opened up on the lobby floor, and that’s how they made it all the way down, even though they were severely burned.”

High rise fires were nothing new to Ladder 6, but a fire fed by the incendiary power of highly flammable jet fuel was another matter. And, on this day, the front line was 80 floors up, an arduous climb. But before they even hit the stairs, there was another fireball, this time from the other tower.
Sal D’Agostino: “We were in the lobby when the second plane hit. And Captain Jay was at the command post. And you could hear a rumble and an explosion. And from the windows in the World Financial Center across the street, the reflection of the explosion came off of that, came off of those windows.”
Both buildings now blazed. And, among the fire-fighters, there were rumours of hazards they’d never even imagined.
Sal D’Agostino: “And somebody was saying that they were hitting us with rockets from the Woolworth Building. Initially we didn’t know it was a plane. They said, ‘Rockets from the Woolworth Building.’ So I’m like, ‘Wow, this is bad. You know, this is going to be real bad, they’re hitting us with rockets now.’ And then somebody mentioned the Pentagon got hit. And there were reports that the Sears Tower got hit and stuff like that. I remember telling Tommy this is not going to be good.”
Stone Phillips: “What’s the worst you expected?”
Sal D’Agostino: “I’m not expecting the building to collapse. I’m expecting to get up there and fight this fire. And the jet fuel. I was worried about the jet fuel in my mind.”
Mike Meldrum: “And we could smell that at times.”
Matt Komorowski: “Yes, I think it was coming down the elevator shaft.”
Mike Meldrum“We could smell it.”
Using elevators was out of the question so the fire-fighters headed for stairwell B — the only one that extended all the way down to the lobby.
Matt Komorowski“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that… the stairways only fit two people abreast. So there’s only one line of firemen going up single file. Civilians are coming down on the right.

Bill Butler: “As we started up the stairwell, there was no confusion whatsoever. At one point I saw at least one person, a woman, who had her clothes burned off of her. But men were actually taking their clothes off, their sport coats, and wrapping them around the injured people.”
Matt Komorowski:
 “And the most amazing thing about the people coming down, evacuating this building that is on fire, is that they were breaking into vending machines and handing us water. They were thinking about us. In the meantime, these civilians were trying to escape a disaster and they’re thinking about us going up.”

Stone Phillips: “Were there words of encouragement?”
Firefighters: “Yes, God bless you, Firemen. God bless you. God bless you.”
Sal D’Agostino: “Go get ‘em.”
Firefighters: “There was a lot of that.”
Sal D’Agostino: “‘You deserve a raise,’ all that kind of stuff.”
Firefighters: “A big raise.”
Bill Butler“You know, white people, black people, yellow people, whatever. You know, whomever lives in New York City was coming down the stairwell that day.”
Mike Medlrum“Some of these people were coming down from, I don’t know what floor. And you could see they were exhausted themselves just from walking down.”
Tommy Falco“Well, there was one gentleman, we had paused on the stairway, and he took my helmet off, and he was pouring water over my head, down my neck. You know, he just told me, ‘Good luck.’”
They climbed 12 floors before stopping, just 15 or 20 seconds to catch their breath, then pushing on through their exhaustion.
Stone Phillips: “How much weight are you carrying?”
Bill Butler“We weighed it one time at the fire house. With our gear, not counting the extra cylinder we were carrying about 110 pounds.”
Stone Phillips: “A hundred and ten pounds on your back?”

Sal D’Agostino: “Yes. So I was talking to myself, ‘Suck it up. You know, you got to get to the 80th floor.’”
By the time they reached the 27th floor, they were no longer seeing civilian evacuees. While paused in the stairwell for another moment’s rest, something they never thought could happen, did.
John Jonas“We heard that rumble that nobody’s ever heard before — a 110-story building coming down. And there was a fellow on the 27th floor, another captain, and I looked at him, and I said, ‘Is that what I thought it was?’ He says, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘The other tower just collapsed.’ And I just looked at my guys, and say, ‘OK. It’s time to pull the plug. Time to go. If that one can go, this one can go. Time to go.’”
The south tower had vanished, taking with it with thousands of people and most of the fire department’s command structure. Suddenly, saving the remaining tower seemed too great a risk.
Matt Komorowski“And now we’re told to leave. It just, it’s like a paradox because our job is to go to the fire. And we’re leaving while the fire’s still going.”
Batallion Chief Richie Picciotto is still recovering from eye injuries he suffered. Ladder 6 isn’t under his command but, on the day of the attacks, their paths crossed. As Ladder 6 began its descent, the chief was some 15 floors below, wielding a bullhorn, trying to clear everyone from the building.
Richie Picciotto“I get to one floor and I look in the office and there’s approximately, I’ll say, 50 civilians sitting there, I’m saying, “what are these people doing here?” And I say we’ve got to get ‘em out and I say let’s go, and then I see the wheel chairs moving and people coming up in their walkers and I say, “Oh, this ain’t good”
The chief had to act quickly to evacuate those with disabilities, and those too fatigued to go on by themselves.
Richie Picciotto“I’m taking companies and saying, ‘You take this one, you take that one, you take this one.’”
Captain Jonas and his five man company took a woman who’d made it down from the 73rd floor. She was so tired, she could barely take another step.
John Jonas: “And Billy’s my biggest, strongest guy. I said, ‘Billy, just put her arm around you, and just, we’ll do the best we can.’ And she was having a hard time. She was elderly, and she wasn’t walking very well.”
Bill Butler“And I was kind of lifting and guiding her at the same time. As I was going down, she seemed like she was scared, and I just, I said, you know, ‘What’s your name?’ And she said, ‘My name is Josephine.’ And I said, ‘Josephine, we’re going to get you out of here today.”
They hadn’t fought the fire that day, but maybe they could save a life. They never suspected the exhausted woman leaning on Billy Butler, would wind up saving all of their lives by forcing them to stop when everyone else was fleeing.columns-surrounding-stairwell-2-large

Josephine Harris with Firefighter Bill Butler, one of her rescuers, in front of a portrait of him at a 2002 reception. Credit Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

Josephine Harris with Firefighter Bill Butler, one of her rescuers, in front of a portrait of him at a 2002 reception. Credit Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

NTstairwell-fullThe men of Ladder Company 6 were in a race against time. The other tower had collapsed and they feared the one they were in might soon follow. They were determined to stick together, but they could only move as fast as Josephine Harris, the woman they were helping down the stairs.
Bill Butler: “I kept saying to her, ‘Josephine, your kids and your grandkids want you home today.’ I said, ‘We gotta keep moving.’”
Stone Phillips: “So she was exhausted and trying to make it down. But progress was excruciatingly slow.”
Bill Butler: “Yes. Step by step. She’d take a step. Two feet on the same step, and another step, two feet on the same step.”
Sal D’Agostino: “And I remember looking at the floors, on the way down and saying all right, ‘I’m on eight, I’m on seven, I want out of this building now. Let’s go.’”
Urged on by her escorts, leaning on Bill Butler, Josephine Harris was moving as quickly as she could. But having come down from the 73rd floor, her legs were giving out.
Tommy Falco: “I was just trying to move faster, you know, we have to get out of here and just trying to will her to move a little bit faster. We weren’t going to leave her.”
So they did the best they could, inching their way down the stairwell, moving aside to let other firefighters pass, drawing ever closer to the building exit and safety. And then they reached the fourth floor.
John Jonas: “That was when Josephine couldn’t, she said, ‘That’s it, I can’t go anymore.’”
Stone Phillips: “So she stopped there?”
John Jonas“She stopped. She stopped at the fourth floor. And very frustrated, because we’re thinking I got all my guys in front of me. We gotta get outta here.”
Billy Butler: “And that’s when everything hit.”

Stone Phillips: “And when you say, that’s when everything hit. What happened?”
Richie Picciotto“The noise started again.”
Mike Meldrum: “You heard the rumble. You could feel the rumble.”
Their tower was now disintegrating. Hundreds of thousands of tons of cement, steel, and glass began to melt away. And Ladder 6 was still in the stairwell.
Matt Komorowski: “The first thing I really felt was the incredible rush of air at my back. And maybe I felt it before everybody else, because I was the last guy.”
Stone Phillips: “Like a gust of wind, behind you.”
Matt Komorowski“Gust of wind. Wind tunnel. It was the most incredible push at your back, that you can feel.”
Stone Phillips: “A rumbling sound, this gust of wind? And then what happened?”
Sal D’Agostino: “When I hit the fourth floor landing, I remember the plaque on the door. And that’s when the building started shaking. And you heard the rumble. And I said, ‘Oh, here we go. This is it for me.’”
Sal D’Agostino lurched toward a doorway, thinking its metal frame might protect him from what was to come.
Sal D’Agostino: “I didn’t even make it to the doorknob. The door got blown open at me. Just missed my face. Hits my shoulder. And that’s when the gust of wind blew me backwards. I got on my side and I crawled to the doorway, and then I just laid there. And waiting for it to come. This is it. This is horrible, and this is it. And I said a prayer.”
Stone Phillips: “You were ready to die at that point. Expecting to die.
Sal D’Agostino: “Yes. I kept waiting to get hit. Kept waiting to get hit with something really big.”
Stone Phillips: “Tommy, what do you remember?”
Tommy Falco“I remember I was on the stairs with Josephine. And I imagine we got knocked down the stairs. I just remember laying down, and ‘OK, this is it.’ You know. ‘What’s it going to feel like?’

And I said, ‘This is how it ends for me.’ I just kind of like covered my head. And, you know. Just, you know, it was just shaking and everything coming down, and the noise. It was, it was terrible.”
Richie Picciotto: “We’re like rag dolls. Getting tumbled. And I had that feeling of falling, too.”
After clearing those civilians around the 12th floor, Chief Picciotto had joined up with Ladder 6.
Richie Picciotto“You know, when this happened, I got hit, I fell. My wife and my children flashed in front of me. And then, I prayed. I said, ‘Please God, make it quick.’ Because I just knew, you know, that we weren’t gonna survive. And I wanted to, I wanted to die quick.”
John Jonas“I felt the floor actually moving you know, it felt like I was in a funhouse almost. The way things started heaving a little bit.”
Mike Meldrum“I remember covering up, and saying, ‘This is it.’ And, you know, my kids, my wife. You know, my family. And it rumbled and rumbled. And it was pitch black. And then the next thing I know, I remember the dust starting to clear some. And I’m wondering if I’m, you know, where am I? Am I here? Am I not here? You know, I was guessing. I didn’t know at that point.”
Stone Phillips: “Were you all wondering, ‘Am I alive, am I dead? Where am I, what happened?”
Sal D’Agostino: “Stunned. The dust and smoke was so thick, I remember gagging, and pulling something out of my mouth. And gagging really bad. And couldn’t get a gasp of air.”
John Jonas: “We all had at least six inches of dust on us that we had to use our fingernails to get out of our eyes and our mouths.”
Stone Phillips: “Had it occurred to any of you that this building could come down like that?”
John Jonas: “No.”
Tommy Falco“It was the furthest thing from my mind, that building coming down. I didn’t think that building could come down.”

The North Tower had crumbled, following its twin by about 30 minutes. Coated with concrete dust and debris, the firefighters looked like ghosts. But they were alive. All of them.
Bill Butler: “I was like pushed into the corner, and I was kind of pinned up against the wall, there was a lot of dry wall falling. And once I was able to lift that off, I found, I found Josephine was at my feet. And she was alive.”
Tommy Falco“And she was moaning. You know, ‘Help me, help me.’ So I told Billy, ‘Billy, we have to get her out.’ Because she had a bunch of sheet rock and debris on her.”
Bill Butler“We got the sheet rock off of her. And the captain said to me, ‘Billy, put a full body harness on her.’ So I put a full body harness on her. Yes, we slid her down like a half a floor length, thinking, ‘OK guys, you know, get up, dust yourself off, let’s get out of here now.’”

But which way was out?
They were scattered along what was left of the stairwell between the second and fourth floors, their pocket of safety one of the few spaces in the building that hadn’t been crushed in the collapse. As workers continue to clear the rubble, the space is actually visible. Trapped with them was a Port Authority police officer and a couple of firefighters from other units. Captain Jonas did a quick survey. As best he could tell, through the heavy smoke and dust, the stairwell above them was blocked. And they couldn’t go down either.
Matt Komorowski“Where I landed was where it stopped. That’s where all the rubble, all the cement, the sheet rock settled on my half landing between the first and second floor. So that’s where I was and there was no way out going down.”
They seemed to be in a safe haven but with the constant threat of a secondary collapse, how long would it hold?
John Jonas: “While I’m walking on the stairway, I think it was Mike who said, ‘Cap, be careful going up there. When you went up there the stairway was shaking.’”
Stone Phillips: “Be careful how you move, where you go?”
Richie Picciotto: “Don’t move.”
John Jonas: “And we were hearing explosions. We were hearing rumblings right after this happened. And where I was there was like a little hole in that double sheet rock wall and I could see out and all I could see is twisted I-beams and steel. Like, just a big maze of wreckage. That was like no man’s land. We didn’t know what that was.”
Remember, that day, the stairwell was not exposed as it is today. It was surrounded by tons of fallen debris that rose like mountains around it.
Inside the stairwell — darkness. Did anyone know they where they were? Would anyone hear their calls for help? In the captain’s words, the stairwell had become their life raft.
John Jonas: “So we just decided to stay put. And then we kind of transferred into more of a survival mode, for a while. Rich gave the order, says, ‘Everybody shut off their radios.’ Because basically we’re thinking, we’re going to need those batteries tomorrow.”

Richie Picciotto: “Long term survival. There was no way out. We were encapsulated. So even though we were alive, there’s 105 floors above us.”

Or so they thought. In fact, those 105 floors were now in pieces all around them. The men of Ladder 6 had survived the collapse but were now marooned in one of the few fragments of the building still standing — a darkened stairwell. And surrounding them, a craggy wasteland, shrouded in smoke.
John Jonas“The stairway was basically a life raft for us.”
Stone Phillips: “At this point, did you realize the whole building had come down?”
John Jonas“I wasn’t 100 percent sure. I thought maybe half the building went down. So that we were very reluctant to leave the stairway because we weren’t sure what was dangling above us.”
Stone Phillips: “You were essentially in a cave.
Richie Picciotto“Right.”
Stone Phillips: “Like a shaft that has been left.”
John Jonas: “We really have no concept what it looks like outside.”
Richie Picciotto: “That big dust cloud. No one could see. We’re enveloped with that.”

Seeing no way out, above or below, Chief Picciotto and Captain Jonas began calling for help.
Radio: “Mayday, mayday, mayday!”
In the chaos, with radio frequencies overcrowded, it took about 45 minutes before the responses began. But when they did, the voices on the other end belonged to men who might as well have been family.
Radio: “Go with the mayday, go ahead.”
John Jonas: “The first one that replied to me was deputy chief Tom Haring. And I knew him. And I get a response from deputy chief Nick Visconti who came to my wedding.”
Nick Visconti: “Ladder 6, Tower One, Tower One, Stairwell B. ‘Rescue Three to Ladder 6, Captain Jay Jonas This is Cliff. I’m coming to get you. Where are you?’ It’s Cliff Stapner. He and I are best of friends. His daughter and my daughter go to school together. Then I hear one ‘Battalion One Eight.’ It was Battalion Chief John Salter. I’m godfather to his son James. Battalion One gets on the air. Battalion Chief Blaich.
Radio: “Battalion Chief Blach, we’re trying to get find a way into the building. Can Jay tells us how to get into the building?”
John Jonas“His son is assigned to our house. And he said, ‘He’s coming and he’s got all the off-duty platoon of Ladder 11 and Ladder 6.’ So the troops were coming.”
Radio: “We’re coming for you brother, we’re coming for you.”
The troops were coming. But how could they find their brothers from Ladder 6 in a landscape like this? From the limited vantage of his cavern in the rubble, Captain Jonas couldn’t understand why his directions weren’t helping.
Radio: “Operations to Ladder 6. OK, Jay I’m sorry, one more time. What is your location?”
John Jonas“Tower one, which is the north tower.”
John Jonas“I was telling them, we’re in World Trade Center One. You enter through the glass doors, you make a right, stairway B is the first stairway on the left. We’re on — between the second and fourth floor. And my five year old daughter could follow those directions.

Stone Phillips: “You’re thinking, ‘Where in the world are they?’ It’s not that complicated.”

John Jonas” I had to give that out a dozen times. And I heard one firemen reply, he says, ‘Where’s the North Tower?’ And I say, ‘Oh boy, we’re in trouble.’
But Jonas says his men remained calm and for the most part, so did Josephine Harris, the woman they’d been helping down the stairs when the tower collapsed.
John JonasThe only time she got flustered in the whole thing was maybe about 20 minutes after the collapse we heard a secondary explosion. And she just started whimpering a little bit, she said, ‘I’m, I’m scared.’ I just said to her, in the calmest voice I could muster, I says, ‘Look, we’re all a little scared, darling. Just hang in there.’”
Sal D’Agostino: “And then she said she was cold, you know. And then somebody gave her their jacket.”
John Jonas“And, right from that point, she was, she hung in there like a trooper. She was terrific.”

Carefully, the men continued to search for an escape route. At one point they considered climbing down an elevator shaft to find a way out, but decided it was too dangerous.
Stone Phillips: “What was your biggest concern as you waited for them to reach you?”
Richie Picciotto: “There was smoke and fire. That was my concern. See the building on fire across from us.”
John Jonas: “There were fires around us. The building next door, World Trade Center Tower Number Seven was roaring. It was on fire. So in a couple hours, we may have had a fire to deal with. The dust we can breathe. The fire is a different story.”
Fire was a threat to them. And it was impeding the rescue. For hours they waited.
Chief Picciotto used a siren on his bullhorn as a crude homing device for the searchers.
Radio: “Bring it up to the top of the hole and make some noise so we know which way we’re going.”

And then they realized there might be a more hi-tech solution. Captain Jonas turned to the Port Authority police officer who was trapped with them.
John JonasI say, ‘I bet you have a cell phone on you, don’t you.’ And all of a sudden like a light went on in his head and he said, ‘Yes, I got two cell phones.’”
Cell phone service was crippled in New York City, so Captain Jonas couldn’t reach police or fire headquarters. But maybe they could reach someone outside of the city. Bill Butler phoned home.
Bill Butler“My wife answered the phone. She said how are you doing. She was asking a lot of questions. I said, listen to me. And she started to whimper a little bit, and I said, ‘You can’t cry, do not cry right now.’”
Stone Phillips: “And what did she say?”
Bill Butler“She actually is writing this stuff down, so I just told her call the fire house and tell the guys where we’re at.”
Shortly after the call, the cell phone batteries died. But getting that message through was a tremendous boost, sustaining them as the hours wore on. And then, a break in the dust cloud and a revelation.

Bill Butler“And then all of a sudden, everything cleared just for a moment. And we could see that we were at the top of this debris pile. And I’m thinking, this is going to be OK, you know? This, we’re going to be OK here.”
Richie Picciotto“There’s light there. I thought it was an optical illusion. There’s light, we’re safe. There’s life. There’s light.”

Chief Picciotto followed the light to an opening they had not seen before, climbed out and secured a rope to show others the way. Still sounding his bullhorn siren, the chief was soon discovered by the men of Ladder Company 43. The firefighters could now climb out. But what about Josephine Harris?
Bill Butler“I knew that we couldn’t get Josephine out by ourselves.”
They wouldn’t leave until the rescuers were at her side.
Bill Butler“And we kind of, you know, said, ‘Josephine, these guys are going take you out. They’re making us leave, you know, these guys will get you out.’
Sal D’Agostino: “I come up to her. I kneel down on the stair and I’m talking to her and now here comes 43 truck, the officer. I remember he’s like, ‘Doll, we’ll take care of you, honey, we’ll take care of you, you know, we got you.’ And I grabbed his left arm and I remember I said, ‘Listen, her name isn’t doll. Her name is Josephine.’ I wanted him to get personal with her the way I had gotten personal, the way we all had. And he’s like, ‘Sorry, Josephine, we’ll take good care of you.’”
But the ordeal and the danger were far from over for the men of Ladder 6.
Matt Komorowski: “Not only did we have to get out of the stairwell, and we couldn’t go out of the building because of fire, now we’re trekking 400 yards across all of this, these girders, and electrical equipment, and cement and then we come to a two-story drop, that we had to go down into a pit, across, and back up it again.”
Stone Phillips: “So being out of the stairwell was by no means the end of it?”
Richie Picciotto“Out of the frying pan and into the fire literally. Because there was the smoke.”
Matt Komorowski“And seeing the leaning structure, what was left of it, the shell of the building, just ominously over you.”
One misstep in the smoke and fire was the difference between life and death. At one point the men had to pick their way across a steel beam just 12-inches wide.

Stone Phillips: “And had you fallen?”
Bill Butler: “You would have been down in the rubble. They probably would have never got you out. In some areas it looked like there could have been 150 feet down, 200 feet down.
Mike Meldrum“It looked like a funnel in some spots. You could see there was a hole in the middle and you could just keep going.”
Stone Phillips: “Just a gauntlet of danger.”
Richie Picciotto“Yes, moon craters.”
Bill Butler“Ammunition going off also.”
Stone Phillips: “Ammunition going off?”
Richie Picciotto: “By the Secret Service Bunkers.”

As if there weren’t enough ways to die, the Secret Service’s New York arsenal was now cooking off in the raging fires. It looked and sounded like a war zone. But their battlefield commander kept them moving.
John Jonas: “I says, ‘Come on boys, you got to keep going.’ I said, ‘Look. Your wife and kids are on the other side of that hill, just keep going, just keep going.’”
It was the longest 400 yards and the longest day of their lives. At about 2:30, when Ladder Company 6 finally emerged from the death trap that was once the World Trade Center, a fellow firefighter couldn’t believe his eyes.
John Jonas“And he looked up and he saw one of the guys’ front pieces, saw the Ladder Six front piece. And he was in shock. He said, ‘You’re the guys!’ ‘Yes, we’re the guys who were trapped. We’re going home. We’re going home.’”
Stone Phillips: “Tommy, what do you remember about coming out?”
Tommy Falco“Just the total destruction of the buildings. And there’s, when I got to the street, I seen two firemen from 18 Truck. I just hugged them, and I didn’t want to let go.”
How had that small section of stairway remained intact? The men of Ladder 6 may never know for sure. But whether it was sturdy architecture or the luck of the draw, how much time do you spend questioning a second chance at life?
Mike Meldrum: “The more I think back on the day, the more I remember the people as we were going up, touching us and saying, ‘God bless you,’ you know. ‘Take care. Be careful.’”

But there is one New Yorker the fire-fighters couldn’t stop thinking about — Josephine Harris.
Stone Phillips: “Do you all believe that she is the reason you’re all here?”
Firefighters: “Yes. I do. Definitely.”
Stone Phillips: “If she hadn’t stopped, at that point in that stairwell.”
John Jonas: “If we were a little quicker, we were done.”
Mike Meldrum: “It was her just picking, I guess, the right spot. It was her time to say, ‘Guys, this is where we’re going to make a stand.’ I guess because she decided that was it.”
On a day of incomprehensible inhumanity, a grandmother from Brooklyn proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Mike Meldrum“She’s like our guardian angel. She must have been sent to us for a reason. We can’t find her, we don’t know where she is, we’ve tried to get, you know, we’ve tried two phone books and stuff to get her. And I just, I think that was the answer to all those people’s prayers for us as we were going up. To be blessed and to be taken care of. And for us, we were taken care of.”

What happened to Josephine Harris? With help from “Dateline,” the men of Ladder 6 were about to find out.
Stone Phillips: “Do you have any idea how grateful these fire-fighters are to you? They say, had they not been slowed…”
Josephine Harris“By me, slowed down by me.”
Stone Phillips: “By you, helping you down and they weren’t about to leave you, that they wouldn’t have been in that spot and none of you would have survived.”
Josephine Harris“God loves us. All of us. Oh.”
A few days after the attack, Josephine Harris turned 60 years old, a milestone she might not have reached but for the men of Ladder 6. She’s a bookkeeper for the Port Authority. Her office was in the north tower of the World Trade Center, on the 73rd floor. By the time she met Captain Jonas and his men, she had already walked down 60 stories.
Stone Phillips: “Was it hard going down the stairs?”
Josephine Harris: “Oh yes. Very.”
Stone Phillips: “Step by step, one stair at a time, one foot at a time.”
Josephine Harris“I’m thinking, I think now I’m taking like one foot, I’m putting one foot and one foot, instead of going step by step. I’m going like one, one. And the next thing I know, they said, ‘She’s going to go.’ I heard, ‘She’s going to go.’ I don’t know whether I guess they were talking about me, they were talking about the building. The building came down on us.”
Stone Phillips: “What was that moment like, when the building collapsed, for you?”
Josephine Harris: “Scary. All the sounds. Just scary. I didn’t know whether I kept saying, ‘Help, help, help.’”
Stone Phillips: “And the force of it all knocked you all down?”
Josephine Harris: “It knocked me down, it knocked one of the firemen down, and I remember also I was holding onto a fireman’s boot, his leg, like for dear life.”
Josephine Harris: “And this stuff is just hanging everywhere. But you can see the light coming in, you see the big beams, I guess is what you call just — oh, just — just torn up, like paper. This is a building. And we’re sitting there for a long time. A very, very long time.”

She told us that when the rescuers from Ladder 43 and 53 took over, she was lifted from the stairwell and carried across the debris field in a rescue basket, a cloth protecting her face.
Josephine Harris“When I took that scarf or whatever it was that was on my face, that they had covered my face with. And I saw the sky, it was a beautiful blue sky. That meant that I was, I had made it. I was safe. I had been blessed. They brought me to safety like they said they would. They brought me from my tomb to safety.”
Stone Phillips: “Physically you came out OK. And emotionally?”
Josephine Harris: “Not good. But it’s going to get better. It’s getting better.”
Stone Phillips: “How would you describe what those men did?”
Josephine Harris: “They are strong, brave, caring, kind people I have ever met. When I was scared they held my hand. They took off their jackets and gave them to me when I was cold. They told me not to be afraid, they would get me out. And they did. They are magnificent.”
Stone Phillips: “You know what they say? They say you are their guardian angel.”
Josephine Harris“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today. I would not be sitting here. I wouldn’t have made it.”
Stone Phillips: “How do you begin to thank them?”
Josephine Harris“I don’t know. I don’t know. All I can tell them is God bless them and may God keep them safe. I don’t know what else to do except give them a big hug.”

The Reunion

Ms. Harris first went to the firehouse, on Canal Street, about two weeks after Sept. 11, to meet the fire-fighters. They gave her a jacket with the words “Guardian Angel” embroidered on it. In the days that followed, there were many requests for interviews, to retell the story of what they had endured.
Josephine Harris“Hello guys. Hello. Hello. Good to see you.”

They were all there at the Ladder 6 firehouse in New York’s Chinatown all glad to see her.
Matt Komorowski: “Thank you for saving our lives.”
Josephine Harris“Thank you for saving my life.”
Matt Komorowski“God bless you.”
Bill Butler: “Come into our fire house.”
Then another walk with Bill Butler, only today they had all the time in the world.
Bill Butler: “Actually, we have something else for you.”
Josephine Harris: ”A jacket.”
What they wrote on the jacket said it all.
Josephine Harris“Thank you so much. You’re my guardian angels and my heroes. You are the greatest bunch of guys I’ve ever met. Thank you so much.”
Bill Butler: ”Thank you.”
Stone Phillips: “How are you changed by all of this?
Sal D’Agostino: “Feeling guilty for feeling happy to be alive.”
Stone Phillips: “Tommy?”

Tommy Falco: “I guess, you know, like the rest of the guys, you know, I want to be really happy that I made it out. But the rest of the brothers, we lost 300 and something, you know, great men, you know? And it’s hard to be happy when we haven’t gotten them back yet.
Mike Meldrum“There’s countless number of firemen out there that you might never hear their names. There’s countless number of civilians that you’re never going to know their names. But I think we all think about them all the time, and what happened to them.”
Stone Phillips: “Do you believe there’s a purpose for your having survived this?”
John Jonas“We don’t know. We all, talked on the phone. I tried to make contact with everybody almost everyday. And I kept telling them, ‘Don’t feel guilty that you’re alive. We just have to make the most out of this gift.’”
Many stories will be told about this day. And sadly many will be forgotten. That’s how it goes when courage becomes so commonplace. But before any of us takes it for granted, listen to one last story about Josephine Harris and Ladder 6 when they were trapped in that stairwell and the world around them was exploding.

Josephine Harris“I thought the building was going to start moving again. And one of the firemen told me, had told me, says, if anything happen they would put me in that doorway. And he would cover my body with his.”

The firefighters never mentioned that to us. Maybe they never gave it a second thought. After all, protecting lives is what they do. It’s their job.
Stone Phillips: “Any thoughts of leaving the job?”
Matt KomorowskiI’ve thought about it. I thought about it. I even mentioned it to Jay. You know? But I just feel like I’m being cheated, though. I can’t leave on these terms. I have to leave on my terms. I can’t let anybody chase me. I’ve never let anybody chase me out of anywhere I wanted to go or anything I wanted to do. I always fought for what I wanted, and what I thought was right. And I always said I wanted to choose the time I left. I said 25 years, maybe I would think about it then. But I’ve thought about it, and Cap, I ain’t going.”
John Jonas: “Good.”
Mike Meldrum: “I can’t. I’ve got to stay.”
Tommy Falco: “I think, you know, you owe it to the guys that are missing maybe just to stay. You know, it’s the greatest job in the world. And I don’t think I’m going to leave.”
Stone Phillips: Sal? Have you thought about it?”
Sal D’Agostino: “I think everybody thinks about it. But to leave now, after this, I don’t know if I can look at myself in the mirror and like what I see, because, well—”
Stone Phillips: “Because it would feel like a defeat?”
Sal D’Agostino: “Yes. And no, I’m not going. I’m scared, you know? And feeling guilty and all those emotions, but I’ve got to be true to me. And, you know, happy with me, and I’m staying.”
Stone Phillips: “Matt?”
Matt Komorowski: “I think being a fireman runs through your core. And even if stuff happens around that core, you always have that core. And it’s a very difficult thing, especially after what we’ve been through. Those thoughts enter your mind. But that core is always there. So I think I’m going to be sticking around. I’m going to be taking it one day at a time.”
Soon, Matt Komorowski will follow another captain into harm’s way. Captain Jay’s promotion to chief brings him a new command and others to account for the way he did for the lucky men of Ladder 6.
John Jonas“And watching every one of these guys make it. That was my — excuse me. That was my last response as the Captain of Ladder 6, a company I was very proud to lead. And my guys got out.”
After what happened on Sept. 11, Ladder 6 is now being called Lucky 6. Yes, they have been playing that number in the New York lottery. But then again, as one of them said, “We don’t have to play the lottery. We already won it.”

Dateline NBC

The Miracle of stairwell B (full documentary) – YouTube

Josephine Harris, the grandmother from Brooklyn whose story of survival during the September 11 terrorist attacks received nationwide attention, died in 2011.

Mourning a Woman Who Shared a 9/11 Miracle – The New York Times

The Miracle Survivors – New York Magazine

The Miracle of Ladder Company 6 – 9-11 Research

‘She was a guardian angel sent to us’ | US news | The Guardian

Miraculous escape of the 16 trapped in the North Tower’s Stairwell B

Former firefighter recalls the ‘Miracle of Stairwell B’ – The Villager

 


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