Heard on campus -- tragedy and heroism on Sept. 11

September 15, 2008

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, began typically for New York City firefighter Jay Jonas.

Sipping a cup of coffee and finishing a bowl of Wheaties, he heard a loud jet overhead and then a very loud boom. The first plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center and Jonas' life was about to change indescribably.

On Sept. 9, 2008, Jonas told a story of sacrifice and heroism to a capacity crowd in the Morrison Gallery of the Penn State Harrisburg library as the campus and external community recalled that day in American history. He offered a unique perspective – one from inside the building – in what he described as "the singular event in our history that everyone experienced in real time as the day unfolded."

With a remarkably simple statement, "I will take you through the day," Jonas then guided those assembled through a two-hour narrative of tragedy, death, devastation, fear, heroism, and views beyond belief.

Jonas’ appearance on campus was arranged by the Office of Student Activities to enable the campus and external community to commemorate and remember the horrific attacks on Sept. 11.

Then the captain of Ladder Co. 6, about a mile away from the attack, Jonas and his crew headed for the World Trade Center not knowing they were to become a part of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Upon arriving at the scene, Jonas and his men followed protocol and reported to the command center set up in the North Tower lobby and gathered their gear to ascend the tower to what was then a task of battling the high-rise fire.

On the way to the scene, he recalls looking at the tower and thinking about "the thousands of people who need our help."

As he and his five fellow firefighters were preparing to begin their climb up stairway B, another plane hit the South Tower. "A man came running in from the outside and said a second plane just hit the other tower," Jonas recalled. It was then one of the men in line awaiting orders said, "we may not live through today."

As Jonas began his rigorous climb with 100 pounds of equipment, he was notified that "this is strictly a rescue mission; we can't put the fire out."

He saw the best in people that day. "As we were going up, survivors were coming down the stairway and realized there was a way out. They stopped and shouted encouragement to us. Altruism was the hallmark of the day," he said.

Keeping his crew together, they climbed the tower, stopping every 10 floors for a brief rest. At one point, they felt the building sway. "It was like an earthquake; the South Tower was collapsing," he said adding at that point he didn’t think they were going to make it. At the 27th floor, he made a decision which may have saved his life and the lives of his crew -- he decided to turn back.

"I did the math," he recalled. "The South Tower was hit after the North so I figured it was only a matter of time (before it fell). It was time to get out of there." He reluctantly turned back despite the lack of orders to retreat. "We had gone down to the 24th floor when we finally got the order," he added.

He had chosen stairway B because it was the only one of three in the tower which went to the ground floor. It was another decision which may have saved his life and others.

On the 20th floor, his crew came upon a crying woman. They quickly picked her up and carried her down the narrow flights of stairs. Struggling with the woman and the weight of their equipment, the firefighters reached the fourth floor when the building began to shake violently. The tower was collapsing above them. "We felt an incredible gust of wind and we kept waiting for that big beam or huge piece of concrete (to come down on us)," he said. "But that beam never came."

Dark and dusty, the stairway was their only way out, but they could not find an escape route. Joined by 14 other firefighters, Jones and his crew received a mayday alarm from the 14th floor. They headed up, but were forced to turn back. Back on the fourth floor, he realized he and the others were trapped. He then issued a "mayday" call via his radio and quickly the reply came -- "We're coming for you, brother."

Then, as the smoke and dust began to clear, he saw a sliver of blue sky through the twisted debris. "I realized that view was never possible before because there would have been 106 stories above our heads," he said. The crew made a hole in a wall, crawled out, and dropped to safety on ropes rigged up by rescuers.

Jonas and his six crewmen and the injured female survived. But he added that 343 other New York firefighters died in the collapses, all in a span of 39 minutes.

Jonas related several stories of those who perished – a captain and Vietnam veteran who refused to evacuate because he wouldn't leave injured; another who refused to leave his partner; and a lieutenant who was spending his last day on the job before retiring.

"It was a horrible day," he concluded.



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Last Updated November 18, 2010