Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fighting for Life 50 Floors Up - By Jim Dwyer

By Jim Dwyer
Staff Writer, The New York Times

Now memories orbit around small things. None of the other window washers liked his old green bucket, but Jan Demczur, who worked inside 1 World Trade Center, found its rectangular mouth perfect for dipping and wetting his squeegee in one motion. So on the morning of the 11th, as he waited at the 44th-floor Sky Lobby to connect with elevators for higher floors, bucket and squeegee dangled from the end of his arm.

The time was 8:47 a.m. With five other men -- Shivam Iyer, John Paczkowski, George Phoenix, Colin Richardson and another man whose identity could not be learned -- Mr. Demczur (pronounced DEM-sir) boarded Car 69-A, an express elevator that stopped on floors 67 through 74.

The car rose, but before it reached its first landing, "We felt a muted thud," Mr. Iyer said. "The building shook. The elevator swung from side to side, like a pendulum."

Then it plunged. In the car, someone punched an emergency stop button. At that moment -- 8:48 a.m. -- 1 World Trade Center had entered the final 100 minutes of its existence. No one knew the clock was running, least of all the men trapped inside Car 69-A; they were as cut off 500 feet in the sky as if they had been trapped 500 feet underwater.

They did not know their lives would depend on a simple tool.

After 10 minutes, a live voice delivered a blunt message over the intercom. There had been an explosion. Then the intercom went silent. Smoke seeped into the elevator cabin. One man cursed skyscrapers. Mr. Phoenix, the tallest, a Port Authority engineer, poked for a ceiling hatch. Others pried apart the car doors, propping them open with the long wooden handle of Mr. Demczur's squeegee.

There was no exit.

They faced a wall, stenciled with the number "50." That particular elevator bank did not serve the 50th floor, so there was no need for an opening. To escape, they would have to make one themselves.

Mr. Demczur felt the wall. Sheetrock. Having worked in construction in his early days as a Polish immigrant, he knew that it could be cut with a sharp knife.

No one had a knife.

From his bucket, Mr. Demczur drew his squeegee. He slid its metal edge against the wall, back and forth, over and over. He was spelled by the other men. Against the smoke, they breathed through handkerchiefs dampened in a container of milk Mr. Phoenix had just bought.

Sheetrock comes in panels about one inch thick, Mr. Demczur recalled. They cut an inch, then two inches. Mr. Demczur's hand ached. As he carved into the third panel, his hand shook, he fumbled the squeegee and it dropped down the shaft.

He had one tool left: a short metal squeegee handle. They carried on, with fists, feet and handle, cutting an irregular rectangle about 12 by 18 inches. Finally, they hit a layer of white tiles. A bathroom. They broke the tiles.

One by one, the men squirmed through the opening, headfirst, sideways, popping onto the floor near a sink. Mr. Demczur turned back. "I said, 'Pass my bucket out,' " he recalled.

By then, about 9:30, the 50th floor was already deserted, except for firefighters, astonished to see the six men emerge. "I think it was Engine Company 5," Mr. Iyer said. "They hustled us to the staircase."

On the excruciating single-file descent through the smoke, someone teased Mr. Demczur about bringing his bucket. "The company might not order me another one," he replied. At the 15th floor, Mr. Iyer said: "We heard a thunderous, metallic roar. I thought our lives had surely ended then." The south tower was collapsing. It was 9:59. Mr Demczur dropped his bucket. The firefighters shouted to hurry.

At 23 minutes past 10, they burst onto the street, ran for phones, sipped oxygen and, five minutes later, fled as the north tower collapsed. Their escape had taken 95 of the 100 minutes. "It took up to one and a half minutes to clear each floor, longer at the lower levels," said Mr. Iyer, an engineer with the Port Authority. "If the elevator had stopped at the 60th floor, instead of the 50th, we would have been five minutes too late.

"And that man with the squeegee. He was like our guardian angel."

Since that day, Mr. Demczur has stayed home with his wife and children. He has pieced together the faces of the missing with the men and women he knew in the stations of his old life: the security guard at the Japanese bank on the 93rd floor, who used to let him in at 6:30; the people at Carr Futures on 92; the head of the Port Authority. Their faces keep him awake at night, he says.

His hands, the one that held the squeegee and the other that carried the bucket, shake with absence.

No comments: