On September 11, 2001, the Dragon Fighters of Ladder Six were one of the earliest first responders to reach the Twin Towers. Trapped by the collapse of the North Tower, now the rescuers needed rescuing. Answering their distress call, the Brotherhood of the FDNY launched the Hunt for Ladder Six.
Captain John Jonas
Having risen three hours ago to drive to work, Captain John Jonas finally arrived at his firehouse located in lower Manhattan. Always wanting the best for his family, Jonas was willing to sacrifice and endure the long commute from upstate New York. Years back with his wife, they decided the Catskills region was the ideal place to bring up their three children.
Now, in charge of Engine Nine and Ladder Six located in Chinatown, collectively known as the Dragon Fighters, the Captain was eager to start his 9AM shift. The smell of fresh brewed coffee permeated throughout the station as the morning roll call was about to commence.
If you're in NYC, come join the celebration honoring the heroes of September 11th.
Our walking tour follows the heroic actions of the NYC firefighters known as the Dragon Fighters of Ladder Six. Learn the locations of Stairwell B and the secret vault containing $200 million of gold and silver bullion. This tour visits the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza, where the two Reflecting Pools and the Survivor Tree are located. Accompany us to the Oculus, a $4 billion transit hub, and experience its majestic architectural.
This is an inspiring tour commemorating the first responders and survivors of September 11th. A portion of the proceeds from this tour will be donated to a Non-Profit FDNY Foundation.
On the morning of September 11th, the city looked serene and majestic. It was as if the storm that previous night had washed and tamed a boisterous metropolis. Approximately 600,000 people gracefully went about their morning commute, making the loud thunderous explosion so much more startling. Captain Jonas instinctively turned toward the sound. Going outside, he discerned a column of smoke coming from behind some buildings. From the location of the firehouse on Canal Street, Jonas couldn't see what was burning. A mile away, a plane had smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center creating a gigantic hole.
At 8:46AM skipping the row call, the Captain ordered the Dragon Fighters to turn out both of their fire engines. Speeding towards the burning tower with sirens blaring, as it came closer into view Jonas realized this had to be the largest fire he has ever encountered. He estimated the fire caused by the plane crash had spread across 10 floors. With each floor measuring about one acre, Jonas calculated the challenge was to put out ten acres of raging inferno 90 floors above.
A few blocks away, the Dragon Fighters started encountering waves of people evacuating from the World Trade Center. There were hundreds of pedestrians walking in the middle of the streets, going the wrong way up Broadway. Even though Broadway is a wide three-lane road, these people were starting to slow down vehicle traffic and clogging it up. The two fire engines had to slowly navigate their way through the crowd to reach the foot of the North Tower. Parked on West Street, Captain Jonas rushed inside the lobby to receive his assignment from Deputy Chief Peter Hayden and Deputy Chief Joseph Pfeifer. Both Deputy Chiefs had just arrived moments earlier and established a mobile command center by the North Tower's front desk.
Being responsible for providing water to combat the fires, Engine Nine unspool the rolled up hoses and began attaching them to fire hydrants. In the meantime, Ladder Six started to unload oxygen tanks and the rescue equipment needed for the task ahead. Looking up at the tower, these battle-tested veterans understood the perils of engaging a firestorm started by a jet-plane 90 stories above. Even as shards of glass and debris periodically rained down on them, they remained undaunted. Engine Nine would remain by their fire truck during the entire event until the collapse of the North Tower, while Ladder Six rushed into the lobby to join up with their commander.
The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) members are nicknamed the "Bravest" ever since an 1862 newspaper article noted their courageousness. Who but the bravest of the brave are bounded to the oath of "Service before self and to freely give my life to rescue those in distress."
A Clear and Present Danger
The impact of the Boeing 767 disabled the North Tower's emergency communication system. The ensuing explosion blew down the elevator shafts rendered most of the 106 elevators inoperable. There were a lack of reliable communication between First Responders and stranded civilians on the upper floors. A couple of elevators withstood the blast and were still functioning.
United in the lobby with their Captain, Ladder Six stood by as Jonas was next in line to receive their assignment. At 9:03AM, a loud explosion rang thru the lobby. Captain Jonas thought maybe the fuel on the plane caused blowup. The firefighters were looking at each other, wondering what that was. As Captain Jonas gathered himself, through the lobby's large glass panels he could see flaming debris raining down onto West Street. A policeman dashing in from outside clarified the situation by shouting "A second plane hit the other tower!" Faces turned somber with the realization they were obviously under attack. But by who? A firefighter muttered, “We’re going to be lucky if we survive this.” Regardless, they all had a job to do and the oath they took will not be forsaken.
It was now Ladder Six's turn to get their assignment. Deputy Chief Hayden greeted Captain Jonas and instructed him not to go pass the 80th floor. Jonas replied, “You know there was a second plane?” Hayden answered, “Yeah, I know. Just go upstairs and do the best you can.”
“All right Chief, you got it.” Jonas headed back to his men and told them, “OK. We’re going upstairs on a rescue mission to help out whoever needs it. The bad part is we can’t take the elevators. We're going to walk up 80 flights. That's the deal. And it’s a raw deal. They're trying to kill us. Who's with me?”
Without hesitation, all his men said, “OK, Cap, let’s go. We’re with you.”
The fire chiefs recognized the possibility of a collapse, but thought it was going to be a gradual collapse, which meant they had time to complete an orderly evacuation and get everybody out. They made a decision early on that they weren’t going to try and put the fire out, for two reasons. One, the volume of fire was too much. And second, the building's water system was probably not functioning on the upper floors. They had to forgo the idea of trying to execute any fire suppression efforts. This became strictly a search and rescue operation.
Having to go up 80 floors was an extreme vertical climb for the Dragon Fighters. Each firefighter was wearing 100lbs of gear. Jonas' strategy was to take 10 floors at a time, then take a short break and continue to next 10 floors. He reckoned this would leave them with enough strength to go into action once they reached 80th floor. The team approached the only stairwell accessible from the lobby to start their ascend. The other stairwell entrances were located on the mezzanine floor.
On each floor of "Stairwell B," was a vending machine located by the exit door. Loaded with bottles of water, altruistic evacuees were breaking into these machines and handing them to the sweat drenched firefighters. Ladder Six all had little bottles of water protruding from their pockets as they pushed upward towards their summit. Reaching the 27th floor, the Dragon Fighters came across another fire company. Engine 21 was doing search and rescue operations on that floor. Their Captain, Billy Burke, was an old colleague of Jonas. Years ago, they had worked together at Ladder Eleven. As the teams converged by the stairwell, an earth-shattering rumble shook the building violently. To prevent from falling, everyone grabbed for the handrails or brace themselves against the walls. When the quake subsided, Jonas with Captain Burke went to separate windows to find out what had happened. Burke ran down the hall to the south facing windows. Jonas was sure the tower he was in had suffered a partial collapse. All he could see from his window was a gray fog of soot. When Captain Burke returned, he shouted, “The south tower just collapsed! It's totally gone, a 110 floor building.” Alarmed, Captain Jonas sternly said, “OK, it’s time for us to leave. If that tower can go, so can this one. Remember, this one was attacked first.”
The Angel of Stairwell B
They started their descent back down "Stairwell B." Having ordered his own men to evacuate the tower 5 minutes earlier, Captain Billy Burke still felt a sense of duty to help more stranded civilians. He remained on the 27th floor. Sadly, Captain Burke would not make it out. Around the 20th floor, the team ran into a woman named Josephine Harris. A 59-year-old Port Authority bookkeeper, who had slowly walked down from her office on the 73rd floor. Completely weakened by fatigue, she was leaning against the doorway and sobbing. Tommy, a Dragon Fighter, asked, “Hey Cap, what do you want to do with her?” Jonas responded, “We can’t leave her here. Bring her with us.”
For Captain Jonas and the Dragon Fighters, what was once sprint down the stairs to escape has grind to a slow one step at a time evacuation. Josephine has slowed them down drastically as the impending collapse was approaching.
Jonas had developed a state of mind whenever a situation got dire, he would speak slow and deliberate. Because if a situation was critical, screaming would only create more anxiety. He would dissipate the tension by speaking calmly. Right now Jonas was at his calmest. The Captain politely asked Tommy, "can you move a little faster?" Inside Jonas was screaming "We got to get out of this building. We need to move faster or we not going to make it."
Descending only to the 5th floor, Captain Jonas realized they needed to speed up their evacuation by finding Josephine some sort of transporter. He ordered Tommy to commandeer a chair from any office on that floor. It took Tommy not only a few second to find a chair, but he also came back with a Port Authority Police Officer. A Lieutenant in the K9 Unit, David Lim was in the South Tower when the first plane hit the other skyscraper. Securing his patrol dog in its kennel, Office Lim rushed to the North Tower to offer aid. After 1:42 minutes, having already help dozens of people escape the building, he bumped into Tommy and decided it was his time to leave. The team lifted Josephine into the chair as Tommy and Officer Lim each held onto one side. Together they were set to carry Josephine down the stairwell, through the lobby, and out the building.
The rumbling of a thousand freight trains roared from above rattling the stairwell. Undulating waves of air pressure knocked people off their feet. With each succeeding ripple, caused by the pancaking floors, it pushed down more dust and debris. Eventually the shaking stopped along with the ringing in everyone's ears. In absolute darkness, sounds of people clearing their airways as they grasped for air could be heard. The North Tower had collapsed. Quickly regaining his faculties, Captain Jonas began a head count of his team. Leading off with Billy, then Sal, Matt, Mike, and Tommy. Each member groaned an affirmative, "Here." Continuing, Jonas asked Tommy, "Do you still have the lady?" At first Tommy couldn't feel anyone around him. It took Tommy a few seconds to adjust his eyes after turning on his helmet light. A few feet on his right was Officer Lim brushing off the thick grayish debris that was camouflaging him. Josephine and the chair she was sitting on had vanished. Both Officer Lim and Tommy stood knee deep in pieces of drywall of all different sizes. Tommy shoved aside a large board in front of him. Buried underneath the pile of wreckage was Josephine, seemly unharmed. Tommy proudly reported "Yea, I got her. She good."
After being rescued Ladder six would later learn, the 110 floors had entirely disintegrated leaving only a small portion of "Stairwell B." Shaped like a chimney, it was about 6 stories tall. The Twin Towers had ten million square feet of office space with miles of furniture, filing cabinets, and computers. It took only 27 seconds for the collapse to pulverize everything into powdery dust. Nothing was left but a few sheets of paper blowing in the wind.
Besides the six Dragon Fighters, Officer Lim, and Josephine, trapped in the void with them were six other firefighters from different companies. It was through luck that all of them happened to be at the right place, at the right time. The Dragon Fighters of Ladder Six believed it was Josephine who slowed them down just enough to place them in the perfect spot. That's why they called her their "Angel of Stairwell B."
Fumbling for his radio, Captain Jonas tried contacting the command post. Through multiple transmissions kneeling in darkness, he sent out mayday calls, but couldn't reach anyone. Only static screeches echoed back from the receiver.
Operating with flashlights, Jonas and his crew began to assess the situation to formulate a survival strategy. They needed to decide, should they try to dig their way out or stay put and wait to be rescued? Some stairwell landings were too mangled to safety support more weight. They had to climb over twisted steel with missing chunks of concrete to move pass these impediments. Meanwhile, they could hear fires breaking out around them. Hearing explosions, Josephine started crying and stated she was scared. Jonas gently said, “That’s all right, darling, we’re all a little scared. Just hang in there.” And from that point on, she barely uttered a word. Josephine knew that they were going to take care of her. Everyone took turns comforting her. Tommy later told Jonas, he told Josephine, “If anything happens, we’ll protect you. We’ll use our bodies to shield you.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but buildings five, six, and seven World Trade Center were adjacent to "Stairwell B," and they were all on fire. Building six housed the weapons for the Secret Service. Fire was reaching that arsenal causing it to explode.
Covenant of the Brotherhood
John Brown of the FDNY, "When they need help, they call us. But when we need help, all we have is each other. It's a brotherhood. It's our covenant."
The temperature inside "Stairwell B" was slowly heating up from the surrounding fires. Visibility in the stairwell started to clear since no new dust was coming in. But they still couldn’t see outside.
Captain Jonas' mayday transmissions were finally received. Jonas started making consistent contact with people that were looking for them. He could hear a radio transmission “Where are you? We’re coming for you brother.” This made Jonas choked up a bit. He was always the one rescuing others. Now he was the one needing to be rescued.
He transmitted their location, “We’re in "Stairwell B" of the north tower. We're trapped on the fourth floor.” Then he would hear again, "where are you?” Jonas would tell them again where they were. Frustrated, the rescuers asked him, “How did you get inside the building? Where's your fire truck?”
Captain Jonas replied, “We parked the fire truck on West Street and entered thru the main doors." He lost count on how many times they kept asking him the same questions. Jonas thought to himself, it wasn't that hard, gentlemen. In the background, Jonas heard someone on the radio let the cat out of the bag, “Where’s the north tower?”
Incredulous Jonas thought, "where’s the north tower? It’s one of those big buildings on the corner. C’mon." He knew most of the people he was talking to on the radio. They were seasoned veterans of the fire department, high ranked officers and experienced rescuers. They weren't dumb people. Then the magnitude of their situation dawned on Jonas, "Oh, we’re in trouble if they can't even see where the north tower is. It might take them a while to dig us out."
The rescuers were trying to pinpoint the location of "Stairwell B." Captain Jonas now had established steady radio contact with the searchers. Finally someone on the radio confessed, “It’s really bad out here. It’s going to take a long time for us to get to you." They had an entire platoon, about 50 firefighters hunting for Ladder 6. Jonas tried to calm everyone down, saying, “They’re coming; just be patient."
While in the stairwell they were tending to Josephine. All of a sudden after three hours, a small beam of light hit the top of the stairwell. Captain Jonas climbed up to the small hole and took a peek out. He said, “Guys, there used to be a hundred floors above us and I’m only seeing sunlight. There’s nothing above us. That big building doesn’t exist anymore!” Off in the distance, Jonas could see a fireman looking through the rubble. “OK, that’s it. That’s our way out.” He got on his radio to confirm their location. After 10 minutes they start hearing digging. They were found. One by one they were rescued by rope from an opening on top of the stairwell. Only Josephine was left. She needed a basket stretcher. Captain Jonas introduced Josephine to the rescuers and told her, "They have to get a special piece of equipment to get you out, but you’re going to be out of here very shortly.” Jonas was the last to climb out.
When Jonas emerged from the hole, he couldn’t believe the devastation. The first thing he saw was that small piece of the corner facade that was still standing. It looked like New York got bombed. Buildings 5, 6, and 7 World Trade Center were still on fire. They have to deal with the explosions and smoke from those fires as they climbed over the 14th floors of rubble to escape. Jonas didn’t realize it at the time, but that was his last run, his last call as the captain of Ladder 6, where he was the captain of the Dragon Fighters for seven years.
Tomorrow is Never Promised
The Dragon Fighters all survived the attacks of September 11th. Billy and Matt were promoted to lieutenants. Tommy and Mike decided to retire, while Sal is still fighting fires. Jonas is a now Battalion Chief assigned to the 2nd Battalion. He earned degrees in Fire Protection and Administration. Reflecting upon the events of that day, he is thankful for all his blessings. Jonas and his wife have a loving and enduring marriage. His kids have grown and finished college. Battalion Chief John Jonas always try to live life to the fullest, because he realizes tomorrow is never promised.
There were sixteen people in "Stairwell B" that survived the collapse of the North Tower.
The Dragon Fighters of Ladder Six: Captain John Jay Jonas, Driver Michael Meldrum, Tillerman Matt Kamorowski, Roofman Sal D'Agostino, Ironsman Bill Butler, and Canman Tommy Falco.
In addition, PAPD Lieutenant David Lim, Chief Richard Prunty 2nd Battalion, Chief Richard Picciotto 11th Battalion, Lieutenant Mickey Kross Engine 16, Lieutenant Jim McGlynn Engine 39, Firefighter James Efthimidades Engine 39, Firefighter Jeff Coniglio Engine 39, Port Authority of New York Bookkeeper Josephine Harris (the Angel of "Stairwell B"), Port Authority of New York Structural Engineer Pasquale Buzzelli (famously known as the 911 Surfer), and Port Authority of New York Secretary Genelle Guzman (the last survivor to be rescued).