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Out of the Ashes: Amidst the horror and devastation of Black Tuesday, the miraculous story of New York City's Ladder Company 6 emerges as a ray of hope. (Citizen Heroes).

NBC's Dateline for September 28th detailed a remarkable instance of heroism and survival that emerged from the September 11th tragedy. Its central figures were six firefighters from New York City's Ladder Company 6 and an exhausted elderly woman whom they credit with saving their lives.

Ladder Company 6 arrived at ground zero minutes after the first hijacked jet slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Entering the building, the firefighters were on the verge of ascending the stairs when the second jet hit the south tower. As they began their ascent, each burdened with around 110 pounds of equipment, Matt Komorowski noticed that "the most amazing thing about the people coming down ... is that they were breaking into vending machines and handing us water. They were thinking about us... [T]hese civilians were trying to escape a disaster and they're thinking about us going up." Those fleeing the burning building were also shouting words of encouragement to the firefighters, such as "God bless you," "go get 'em' and "you deserve a raise."

After climbing a few floors the firefighters would stop for a few seconds to catch their breath before continuing. Tommy Falco recalled that during one of the brief rest stops "there was one gentleman...[who] took my helmet off, and he was pouring water over my head, down my neck. You know, he just told me, 'Good luck.' "As they paused to rest on the 27th floor, the south tower collapsed. Team Captain John Jonas evaluated their precarious situation and reluctantly concluded, "OK. It's time to pull the plug. Time to go. If that one can go, this one can go."

As they prepared to retrace their steps, Mrs. Josephine Harris, a senior citizen who worked as a bookkeeper for the Port Authority on the 73rd floor, reached the 27th floor. "She was so tired she could barely take another step," Captain Jonas recalled. When firefighter Bill Butler asked, "What's your name?" she replied, "My name is Josephine." He told her, "Josephine, we're going to get you out of here today."

The men were determined to stay together, but could only move as fast as Mrs. Harris. They eventually made it to the fourth floor, where Mrs. Harris paused and said, "That's it. I can't go anymore." Captain Jonas, frustrated by the delay, thought, "I got all my guys in front of me. We gotta get outta here." At that moment they heard a loud rumble from above as the north tower began collapsing. Sal D'Agostino tried to make it to a doorway, hoping that the metal frame would provide some protection, but "I didn't even make it to the door-knob," he told Dateline's Stone Phillips. Asked if he expected to die, D'Agostino replied: "Yes, I kept waiting to get hit. Kept waiting to get hit with something really big."

Tommy Falco, who was on the stairs with Mrs. Harris, remembered laying down and thinking, "'OK, this is it.' You know. 'What's it going to feel like?'" A battalion chief, Richie Picciotto, was not in command of Ladder Company 6, but had been working his way up the stairs in an attempt to clear everyone from the building. He had joined up with Ladder 6 at the 12th floor, so was trapped with them at the fourth. "My wife and children flashed in front of me," he told Phillips, and then "I prayed. I said, 'Please God, make it quick.' Because I just knew ... that we weren't gonna survive. And I wanted to ... die quick."

For Captain Jonas, the movement of the floor "felt like I was in a fun house almost." And Mike Meidrum remembers covering up and saying "this is it" as the building rumbled and the surrounding air turned pitch black.

When the dust began to clear somewhat, it took a few moments for the realization that they were still alive to sink in. And Captain Jonas recalled that "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."

Bill Butler, after removing a lot of drywall that had fallen on him, found Josephine Harris at his feet. She was moaning, but alive, covered with sheetrock and debris. A Port Authority police officer was also trapped in the tiny space. Had Mrs. Harris' exhaustion not caused them to pause, and had they been a few steps further down the stairs, all would undoubtedly have perished. Instead, they were marooned in what Captain Jonas described as "basically a life raft for us."

They began calling for help. Within the hour they heard responses. The Port Authority police officer who was trapped had two cell phones. Service was crippled in New York City, so firefighter Butler phoned home and asked his wife to "call the firehouse and tell the guys where we're at." Shortly thereafter, the dust further dissipated and they could see some light.

Battalion Chief Picciotto at first thought it was an optical illusion, then realized "there's light, we're safe. There's life. There's light." He followed the light to an opening not noticed earlier, climbed out, then secured a rope to show the others the way. He was soon discovered by firefighters from another ladder company.

Josephine Harris, however, would need greater assistance to get out. Bill Butler recalls, "I knew that we couldn't get Josephine out by ourselves." They placed her in a full-body harness and stayed with her until she was safely in the hands of rescuers.

Captain Jonas recalled that when they emerged from the rubble a fellow firefighter "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.'"

The Ladder Company 6 team considers Josephine Harris to be, in the words of Mike Meldrum, "like our guardian angel. She must have been sent to us for a reason." They all agree that she is the reason they survived the ordeal. A few days following her rescue, Mrs. Harris celebrated her 60th birthday. Referring to the firefighters, she told Dateline that she believed them to be the strongest, bravest, most caring, and kindest people she had 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." Asked if she could even begin to thank them enough, she replied: "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."

In the aftermath of September 11th, the firefighters attempted to locate Mrs. Harris. Dateline tracked her down and and arranged a reunion at the Ladder 6 firehouse in New York's Chinatown. The men thanked her for saving their lives and gave her a jacket. She thanked them, and reiterated, "You're my guardian angels and my heroes. You are the greatest bunch of guys I've ever met. Thank you so much."
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Article Details
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Author:Lee, Robert W.
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 17, 2001
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