Hell and Back
Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department returns to the World Trade Center site to talk about his remarkable escape on 9/11, and how that day forever altered the fire service and built environment
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012
It is a sunny afternoon in March in Lower Manhattan, and Jay Jonas is at the 9/11 Memorial, greeting memorial officials with a large smile, a firm handshake, and a gentle “hello.” Jonas, 54, a deputy chief with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), is dressed in his dark FDNY uniform; the day is warm, and he pauses occasionally to wipe the sweat from his brow. He holds the hand of his wife, Judy, and looks out over one of the memorial’s large reflecting pools, the one now located in the space once occupied by the North Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC).
YOUTUBE VIDEO INTERVIEW
Jay Jonas of the New York City Fire Department will share his harrowing story of survival while highlighting improvements to the fire service and built environment since 9/11 during the featured presentation "9/11: Leadership Before and After the Crisis" at NFPA's Conference & Expo on June 12.
On 9/11, Jonas, who was then a captain with Ladder 6 in Chinatown, and five other firefighters ascended stairway B of the North Tower on a search-and-rescue operation as both WTC towers burned. When the South Tower collapsed, their orders immediately changed: get out as fast as you can. Heading back down the stairs, they stopped to assist a woman on the 20th floor who was having trouble walking.
Slowly, they helped her negotiate the stairs, floor by laborious floor. What they feared ultimately occurred only four floors from the exit — the building began to collapse above them, then around them, and there was nothing they could do. Jonas and his team, along with the woman they were helping, survived the collapse of the towers, but 343 of his FDNY comrades did not, and were part of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the 9/11 attacks.
Now the site, once the scene of unimaginable destruction, is devoted to remembrance and contemplation. Large reflecting pools, their floors 30 feet (9 meters) below the plaza, are set inside the footprints of the WTC towers. Jonas, like many visitors, gazes reflectively at the water as it cascades down the pool’s granite sides. He rests a hand on one of the low bronze walls surrounding the pools, walls inscribed with the names of the 2,983 people who died in the 9/11 terror attacks at the World Trade Center, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The sound of rushing water blends with the din of nearby construction, the cornerstone being 1 World Trade Center, an office building near the North Pool that will eventually rise to 104 stories and become the country’s tallest building.
Before long, word spreads among some of the visitors that Jonas is a 9/11 survivor: He was here. He was in one of the buildings. A few of them snap photos of him with their cameras, but no one approaches him or asks him about 9/11. If they did, Jonas says, he would willingly talk to them. He has made it a priority to keep the tragedy at the forefront of public consciousness.
As the featured presentation at NFPA’s Conference & Expo in June, Jonas will share his harrowing story while highlighting improvements he’s seen in the fire service and building safety since 9/11. He spoke with NFPA Journal at the memorial site about surviving the tragedy, his 32-year career with the FDNY, and NFPA’s role in keeping America safe.
What goes through your head when you visit the memorial these days?
I continue to have little revelations from 9/11. One of them is that from the time I walked into the North Tower to the time I got out, the world changed. Having been very much involved on 9/11, you walk through here and you actually make contact with the ground and you say, ‘This is where everything happened.’ And then you see the reflecting pools. Most of the people I know that died are listed around the South Pool. I was at the very center of where the North Pool is. That’s where the stairway of the North Tower was.
Where were you when you first arrived on the scene that day?
We parked right here, right in front of the North Tower. I was the first officer to receive orders after the second plane hit the South Tower. The chief gave me orders to go upstairs for a search and rescue in this building. We just happened to stop at the 27th floor to catch our breath and get a drink of water. That’s when the South Tower collapsed.
Did you feel it collapse?
We heard a loud noise outside. Our tower swayed back and forth violently. It was as if you were on a boat in choppy seas. It was significant movement. We also felt a rumble. It wasn’t entirely clear what was happening. Another captain from Engine 21 was on that floor with me and experienced the swaying. I checked the north windows, he checked the south windows. We came back together. I asked him, ‘Is that what I thought it was?,’ thinking a piece of our building fell off. He said, ‘The South Tower has just collapsed.’ That was the catalyst for us getting out of there.
Did you think you would make it out alive?
No. It was a subtle feeling, though. It wasn’t like the typical firefighter danger you experience, such as billowing smoke overhead or a fire. The men were remarkably calm. We started to descend down the stairs, and the further down we got the more optimistic I became that we were going to make it. Then we approached Josephine Harris on the 20th floor.
What was she doing?
She was standing by the doorway, and she was crying. She couldn’t walk very well — she’d been involved in an accident a few weeks prior. She’d made it down from the 73rd floor, but she could no longer move. One of my guys turned to me and said, ‘What do you want to do with her?’ Keep in mind they don’t know the situation with the South Tower. Every second we waste is one second closer to us not getting out. But I looked at her and said, ‘Bring her with us.’ That’s why we went inside. We didn’t go in there to be spectators—we went in to save lives.
At what floor did Josephine say she couldn’t go any further?
The fourth floor. We were getting to the point where I started to feel pretty good about our chances. But then she fell to the floor and started yelling at us to leave. I broke into the fourth floor to look for a sturdy chair we could carry her on. But it wasn’t an office floor, it housed mechanical equipment. Something told me we were just going to have to drag her down the stairs.
I got about three or four feet from the stairway door when the floor started to move — the collapse had started from the top down. Every time a floor hit another floor it made a loud ‘boom’ noise and created a vibration so violent that it bounced us off the floor. The noise got louder and the vibration more violent as the collapse got closer. There was a loud sound of twisting steel all around us. The collapse also created strong winds inside the stairway, and these winds contained debris.
What were you thinking at that moment?
I was thinking two things as the sound got louder: I had failed my men, I didn’t get them out, and that I couldn’t believe I’m going to die right here in this stairway.
How did you shield yourself from the debris?
We couldn’t really brace for impact. The vibration in the stairway was so violent that we were being bounced around. We were all hit by debris.
What was it like in the moments after the collapse?
When I realized we were alive, I was still focused. We cleared our airways and our mouths and eyes, gave a roll call to see who we still had with us, and then we tried to continue down the stairway. We were all inside the stairway.
And you still had everyone with you, including Josephine Harris. Were you able to move?
I was mobile after the collapse. The stairway was still there. It was twisted, rubble filled, but it was there. I received a mayday call from someone on the 12th floor stating that he was trapped and hurt. I started climbing. You had to move debris to climb up the banisters to make it to the stairway. And then the second mayday came in. I made it halfway between the fifth and sixth floor but couldn’t move the rubble, it was too heavy. And then the third mayday came in. I just got on the radio and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’ That was my first disappointment of the day.
How did you escape?
We were trapped in the tower for nearly four hours. Eventually we saw a beam of light in the stairway. What happened was that the smoke and dust cleared to the point where sunlight could hit the building. All of a sudden, we could see areas where we could breach a hole, and that’s what we did. We saw a fireman off in the distance, and tied off a rope with him. We started going down over twisted, jagged metal [toward emergency workers at ground level]. By the time rescue crews made it to the stairway, I had almost everyone out. Josephine was banged up and bruised just like we were. She was taken out of the stairway by firemen from Ladder 43.
All of the dust made everything slippery. We made our way towards West Street, but the street was 35 feet above our heads. They dropped down ropes to us, and we went up hand over hand. It got to the point where it was just [firefighter] Mike Meldrum and me. He had a concussion, and told me he couldn’t climb the rope. I said, “Mike, I can’t leave you here. If you stay, I have to stay.” I pointed to a hill and said, “Your wife and kids are beyond that hill. Climb the rope.” And he did. He found the courage and strength.
How did you manage to remain so calm that day?
This was a day when monumental events were happening all around you. You’re just so focused on the things that you had to do. We’re evaluating everything, from a tactical and safety standpoint. I told the team a number of times, “We survived this. We’re not only going home, we’re going home today.” Initially, they must have thought the captain had lost it. But eventually they bought into it. And we did — we went home that day.
While we were trapped, without any orders from me, the guys took it upon themselves to really take care of Josephine Harris. They took it upon themselves to talk to her, get her mind off things. It was an impossible situation for us — imagine what it would have been like for her. As I’m talking about it right now, I feel so proud of these guys. We were in the most adverse conditions you could possibly imagine, and they rose to the occasion. [Harris, who worked as a bookkeeper for the Port Authority on 9/11, died in January 2011 of an apparent heart attack. She was 69. Jonas and his Ladder 6 crew served as pallbearers at her funeral. —Ed.]
As a firefighter, what were the lessons learned on 9/11?
When you’re responding to something this massive, it’s hard to look at it as a first responder. You have to look at it from a distance. We’ve made changes at the FDNY. We have a control center, where staff chiefs have all kinds of visuals and can make an assessment [on an incident] from a distance. It provides us better intelligence than actually being on the scene. You would think the person on the ground would have the most information. With a situation like 9/11, though, that wasn’t really true. If you could view it from a distance, that would actually be better.
What changes are occurring to the fire service on a national scale?
Training for terrorist events and more terrorism awareness are the biggest things. We’ve improved our communications with other agencies. The incident command system has become more widely accepted. The fire service has always accepted it, but more agencies are now accepting it. That’s key — being able to interact with other agencies such as police, ambulance, and utilities. Departments are talking to each other a lot more, which is helpful. Nobody is living in a cocoon anymore.
How has NFPA helped spur these changes?
Anytime NFPA can improve the building, life safety, and fire codes is monumental for us. The World Trade Center towers involved a form of tube frame construction, an innovative design for the times: lightweight metal bridging trusses connected to the outer walls.
There was sprayed-on fireproofing that was completely knocked off when the planes hit, so you had unprotected steel. You not only have to prepare for a contents fire, but you now have to prepare for something a little more catastrophic.
NFPA’s codes can help. Look at 1 World Trade Center — this is not a lightweight building. [A direct outcome of 9/11 was the development of new provisions for NFPA’s codes and standards —particularly NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, that have enhanced building and life safety. For an NFPA Journal feature that examines a variety of these changes on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, visit “Legacy of a Disaster” at nfpa.org/september11. —Ed. ]
Are there other changes to building safety you’ve seen since 9/11?
As far as egress, the towers only had three stairwells, and they weren’t that wide. You barely had room enough for two people to stand abreast. So stairways will be wider and the means of egress will be improved. For the most part, people in the World Trade Center never saw the stairwells. They took the elevators. Fire drills in high-rise buildings are becoming very important, not just for fires but for terrorist events. People have to know what to do in the event of an emergency. It’s my experience that the more [professionally] successful people are, the more they think fire won’t happen to them. Some of the wealthiest people in New York City worked in those buildings, and the worst event happened to them.
NFPA’s Third Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service mentions specific shortfalls — lack of training and inadequate staffing levels at some fire departments, for example—that can be attributed to a decline in federal funding. In your opinion, what can be done to address these issues?
Right after the attacks on 9/11, one of my colleagues said, ‘I hope people don’t forget how bad this day was.’ We just have to keep reminding our elected officials about the lessons of 9/11. People ask me, ‘Why do you keep talking about 9/11?’ The United States of America, not just New York City, was under attack. Now the fire service is under attack. Certain people think the fire service is causing the financial crisis in cities across the country — like all the books would be balanced if you cut a few fire companies. It’s almost as if we have to not only preach our fire protection message but our fire prevention message.
Do you ever get tired of preaching? After all you’ve experienced, have you ever considered leaving the fire service?
Never. I’m very happy I stayed. I have no plans to leave. This is something I’ve done my whole adult life, and I can’t think of a more rewarding profession. We make a difference in peoples’ lives on their most extreme days, and I couldn’t picture a more harrowing day than 9/11.
— Interview conducted by NFPA Journal staff writer Fred Durso, Jr.